by Amanda Weiss
I recently picked up a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, an homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Structured as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori, the book documents Coates's struggle with the question of race in America and the impact this has had on his experience of the world.
Coates evocatively describes an America divided, and divided in such a way that it has created very different worlds for its citizens defined as white and its citizens defined as black. (One of the central themes of the book is how these black/white distinctions were originally constructed to favor those who are “white”). As he explains to his son, he was not born into the gilded America of dreams and democracy; he was born into a country of pain scarred by the legacies and realities of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and institutionalized incarceration.
For Coates, growing up was not about the American Dream; it was about fear, a fear centered on the safety of his body. As he tells Samori:
“You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels” (p. 107)
As an adult, Coates visits Manhattan, where he observes a huge divide between the American Dream experienced by white families and his own experiences as an African American son and father:
“...I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs" (p. 89)
Coates's book also interrogates how we frame historical memory. In a particularly compelling passage, he provides an alternative perspective on how African American history is taught in schools:
“Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets…" (p. 32)
He asks, "Why were only our heroes nonviolent?" and wonders why we don't teach that America’s liberation was made possible through the funding acquired through the forced labor of slaves. As he has said before in his famous Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” we cannot worship one narrative while excising the other:
“To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism a la carte”
In addition to providing important insights on race relations and the insidious power of historical narratives, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book might also be seen as a framework for understanding all of the different worlds we construct as societies. There are so many: worlds for women, worlds for men, worlds for transgender people; worlds for the rich, worlds for the poor; worlds for those in power, worlds for those who are powerless. Between shows how difference—real, imagined, embraced, imposed—shapes all of our lives; and how in the worst cases, it provides a legacy of privilege to some and of pain to others.