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Friday, September 18, 2015

Book Review: Between the World and Me

Ta-Hehisi Coates, a journalist who works for The Atlantic Magazine, is a writer who is constantly being mentioned in the realm of African American intelligentsia.  The great Toni Morrison has even gone so far as to consider him the next James Baldwin.  Coates' new book Between the World and Me proves this to be a grandiose but true statement in many ways.

The immediate comparison comes from the mirror between writing conventions.  Coates' work is written as a letter to his son explaining the experience of the damage done to black bodies in America.  This is very similar to Baldwin's "A Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation," a section of his book The Fire Next Time.  A section of "Letter" states:
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.
It is this concept of "the Dream" that Coates often refers to- the idea that the country as a whole is complicit in the crimes against African Americans and does not care to admit it- that shadows his words.

Coates follows the themes of exploitation, segregation and violence. What is it like to live in a black male body in the United States today?  What is it like to have a constant threat of violence enveloping your person?  What is it like to live in fear but with a hope that your child will be safe?  Coates explains "I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself."

He goes on to explain his childhood in Baltimore.  That black children were told to be "twice as good" and yet ended up with half as much. That there was a delicate dance if one wanted to survive the streets but that the schools were no protection nor were they a pass into the Dream.  He says that:
The streets were not my only problem.  If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left.  Fail to comprehend the streets and you give up your body now.  But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.
 Coates compares the personal discoveries of injustice between himself and his son.  He discusses at length the day when he discovered that one of his college friends had been murdered by an undercover police officer just steps away from his fiance's home.  The author then says this about his son's experience:
That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free.  The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished.  It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished.  But you were young and still believed.  You stayed up til 11 P.M. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, "I've got to go," and you went into your room, and I hear you crying.
Coates' views are only those of one black man living in America today.  He doesn't claim to speak for everyone and he doesn't want absolution.  He writes to wake up his white readers and remind his black readers that their bodies do  matter.  That silence and obedience will not save you from the wrath of the Dream. 

This book has made me want to ask many questions; chief among them being "I don't want to be an ignorant white person who is complicit in perpetuating this terrible system!  What do I *do* next?"  It is a fascinating and heart-breaking read.