“Between the world and me” book review


This book is an intimate, personal letter from Coates, a black American father, to his fifteen-year old son Samori. It is a sobering look at whites and blacks as matters of perception, from early American history to now. Ta-nehisi offers no solutions; he simply writes to prepare his son for his future in a country that categorizes by color.

Listen: “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” (p. 7)

Coates’ language is hypnotic as he quickly defines his message regarding color, and what is the result? Our full attention, and if we categorize ourselves as white, we quickly realize that one of “these new people” is us. There’s no time to get defensive, because Coates keeps driving it home:

“As for now…the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (p. 8)

The “elevation of the belief in being white” isn’t only historical, it is current. How many times a day are we asked to reinforce this idea? Every time we fill out a form for the bank or a doctor’s appointment or for a school test, we are given a list of races and asked to check the box that applies. As Americans, we are herded into pens of color as soon as we are born. That’s not an excuse for what we who categorize as white do to other people of color. But it does explain why it’s difficult to reframe, if that’s all we’ve known.

Coates equates the American dream with whiteness. He writes, “…for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”(p. 11)

Not all of us live the American dream, even if we are white, nor do we want to. But it doesn’t matter. If we define ourselves as white, and he equates being white with a sense of superiority, then we are already convicted. But is not part of the American dream to make things better for our children? Aren’t Samori’s life circumstances better than his father’s? Isn’t this difference a rising of sorts?

That’s the crux for each of us, with varying degrees of difficulty. There are political and economic ways to make the playing field of America more even. But America is a capitalist country first, and its social programs come second. As long as money matters, inequity is guaranteed — and remember: we are a greedy country.

Coates shares his convictions forcefully. For the reader, the question becomes, “now what?” Remaking history is impossible. Apologizing and moving forward with a different perspective is. Since Coates refuses to allow discussion, we must hold the tension of being unforgiven with trying to change by shedding our whiteness. No matter how long or hard we try (if we were inclined to try as a population) we can never attain closure. Perhaps Coates sees this as fitting.

Here’s another quote: “The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world…To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.” (p. 143)

Coates lays out his message as if expecting a rebuttal; from me, there is none. But he does give me the opportunity as a reader to disengage myself from whiteness so that what he says is not applicable to me, so that I’m not one of “them.” Here is the time, then, for self-reflection. There is no option for Coates. You are either part of the Dream, or you are not. And Coates doesn’t spend much time explaining what it looks like to live in a world where color is redundant.

At one point in his letter, Coates writes of a movement to rouse the dreamers to face what they have done, but dispels the idea that to wake them is even possible. Instead, he writes, “But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.” (p. 151)

Coates’ letter is a bleak landscape for those travelers who identify as white; in fact, as I said before, this path holds little hope for redemption. But for those who identify with Coates, there is hope and even strength. He finishes strong: “We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They have made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” (p. 149)

“Between the world and me” is a book that demands discussion—at the dinner table, at the local bar, in the classroom. My hope is that one day Coates will visit our campus to challenge and engage our students as he challenges and engages his readers. Until then, let’s ask the tough questions: How do we define ourselves? And depending on our response, what are we going to do about it?