Not long ago, I wrote about James Baldwin’s seminal book about race in America, The Fire Next Time. In every era there are books that are popular and others that are important and some that are both. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is garnering the kind of praise, enthusiasm, and reverence that not many books receive from the get-go. Toni Morrison is quoted on the front and back of this slim book, calling it “redemptive” and “revelatory,” and, finally, anointing it as “required reading.”
Structuring his book as a long letter to his teenage son, Coates writes in a raw, searching way about what it means to be an African American and the vulnerability that a person with black skin faces in this country. He writes about the fear he saw written in the eyes and actions of every other black boy or man he has encountered in life, that the fear is always there even beneath the swagger and often fuels it. Coates’ narrative, like recent events, flies in the face of the “post-racial America” that the media has been touting for decades. He continues to revisit the life of the beautiful young man he knew from his circle of acquaintances at Howard University, Prince Jones, who was shot to death by a police officer after college. His reckoning with Prince’s senseless death as a man and a father is nothing short of heartbreaking:
Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of World Book and Childcraft. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone.
Coates names the loss that the news media rarely takes the time to recount. You can see it in the faces of the grief-stricken families, but Coates makes you see and recite the details of the loss, because Between the World and Me reminds the white reader that this is what people of color think of first when another of their number is gunned down. What Coates points out, gently at times and at others vehemently, is that those that believe they are white live in the Dream, a haze of inclusion and privilege that blinds many to the pain and oppression of others while reinforcing a sense of entitlement. Here is one passage on the Dream:
No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much. It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder. It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.
Between the World and Me is an important book now because Coates shares the kinds of perspectives on race and social justice that can open eyes, hearts and minds, to those who are willing to see that we each walk through this country differently depending on the color of our skin. If your book group is ready for the intense and thoughtful discussions it will surely provoke, then it is, indeed, required reading.