Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 essay Between the World and Me is a great contemporary read to follow James Baldwin's essays. Coates picks up Baldwin’s intergenerational discourse on racism in America in this 150-page letter to his teenage son.
The topics discussed in Coates’ letter range from big, fundamental questions about America’s history and values to everyday experiences and intimate details of the father-son relationship. While many writers focus on the impact of slavery and racism on the mind and spirituality of black Americans, Coates addresses what racial injustices do to the black body and its (physical) reality. He states that Americans – or those who call themselves white , the Dreamers – have built their nation on an idea of race that is simply that: an idea. This idea, however imagined it might be, has real and extremely damaging effects on the black person’s body: it renders it fragile, confronts it with a constant threat of death. According to Coates’ analysis, the Dreamers will to anything and use any extent of violence in order to protect their privileged position and their power over everyone else.
Between the World and Me is beautifully crafted from a mix of personal experiences, moments of history and honest reporting of social realities. Coates makes it clear that he has no faith in the legendary American Dream, he does not believe America to be a country for everyone. He does not think the world to be on a trajectory of progress, towards inevitable justice and equality. This letter is heartfelt and heart-breaking; it is raw, yet poetic; and it is undeniably honest. Most of all, it was not written for a white audience, not watered down to mediate. And this, I believe, is exactly why every white person should read it. Coates has understood, and makes his reader understand, that the racial injustice and violence we see to this day are not an accident of history. They are part of the system, rather than failures of it. Intentional mechanisms to uphold hierarchies constructed centuries ago.
“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
This book does not gift you with hope. Why should it be his responsibility, Coates seem to wonder, to bestow us with hope for the future if we don’t work for it? Hope should be a result of people seeking to achieve a better world and, in 2015, he did not see a reason for it. Still, I would not call Between the World and Me hopeless, either. Sure, it is much more overtly angry than Baldwin’s letter, which constantly encourages the nephew to struggle for a better world and face others with love, but to me there are hopeful moments in these pages (like the times he asks his son to never lose sight of the beauty in this world) and the fact of writing itself appears hopeful. Why should Coates bother to analyse and critique society if not with an intention for someone to learn from his writing and struggle for change?
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a powerful letter to his son which will hopefully be passed on to many more sons and daughters until, finally, helping to achieve a world in which it becomes a depiction of history, and seizes to be a description of the present.