Unpacking Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me

“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”


Between The World and Me, Ta-Nehisi CoatesI first came across Ta-Nehisi Coates via his blog at The Atlantic years ago, at the height of my political engagement and concurrent love affair with the work of his colleague, Andrew Sullivan. Coates was a smart writer, but more importantly, he was a contemporary, lacing his probing political and cultural observations with references to D&D, comic books, and poetry, and I wasn’t at all surprised when I realized we’d overlapped on the latter, having mutual connections in the poetry slam world. He was the new media journalist equivalent of Willie Perdomo, someone from a background I could relate to who was changing the game, and I quickly became a fan.

Coates’ first book, The Beautiful Struggle (BUY), a memoir, was the first of its genre to ever really engage me, partly because our lives followed similar paths, but mostly because he’s an excellent writer whose connection to poetry and hip-hop shined through brightly–poets make better writers, period, and hip-hop is an underrated influence on modern American culture.

His latest, Between The World and Me (BUY), is one of the most important books to be published this decade, surely, possibly even this young century. In context of the long list of tragic events of the past few years (from Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, to Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston), it is timely, but that’s the easy part. It’s the combination of Coates’ framing (a letter to his son) and his raw, unapologetic tone (Amanda Nelson nails it: “it totally lacks white gaze-y couching of language”) that makes it stand out as a singular work that has drawn deserved comparisons to James Baldwin.

For many, Coates’ work is revelatory and/or discomfiting, and that is as it should be. He doesn’t offer his son any condescending platitudes or even a hint of a happy ending, because doing so would be disingenuous.

“Your life is so very different from my own. The grandness of the world, the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you… I don’t know what it means to grow up with a black president, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural hair. What I know is that when they loosed the killer of Michael Brown, you said, ‘I’ve got to go.’”

The parallels and diverging paths between Coates’ life and my own that were apparent in The Beautiful Struggle converge in Between The World and Me, as he wrestles with how to be a good father in a world where black and brown lives can be ended in a split second with no accountability or remorse, where the only “protection” we can ultimately offer them is being brutally honest about reality while not completely giving in to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that hovers uniquely over our lives on a daily basis.

Honestly, I’m still digesting the book, and have given it to my wife to read, and then to our 14-year-old son afterwards, hoping to fully unpack it together. Or not. We’ll see.

While I love that it’s getting so much attention in the mainstream despite dropping at the same time as Harper Lee’s “new” book, I wish more of the discussion was introspective, less defensive, and made room for voices who don’t typically get heard. When in doubt, sometimes the best response is silence, a bit of advice someone should have given a certain NY Times op-ed columnist who apparently couldn’t help himself.

I’m not one to give white people advice, but I can understand some will want to discuss Between The World and Me with their black friends and colleagues, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But tread lightly, be really clear about WHY you want to have that discussion, and most importantly, be prepared to STFU and listen, and don’t expect to come out of the discussion feeling “better” about anything.

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