Illustration by Ethan Rilly from Slate
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me is a bleak and earnest rewriting of the black literary narrative. It is somewhere between a novella and a novel that takes form in a three part letter to his fifteen year old son. In this letter, Coates reflects on his experiences as an African American man in the United States of America. In this relatively short journey, Coates explores what being black means to him, what it has meant to elder generations, and what it might mean for his son. Monumental events in black history, including slavery, Gettysburg, the projects, black universities, twenty-first century representation of black beauty and police brutality are told from the perspective of a worried father. According to Michelle Alexander in “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me”, Coates was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, thus Between The World and Me is a modern rewriting of Baldwin’s work. In bold red letters, Toni Morrison’s words are printed on the cover of the book; “This is required reading.” I second Morrison, and in this essay I will argue why it should be required literature, especially in academic curricula.
Political bodies of works are often criticized for bias or brainwashing. Politically speaking (or, well, writing), Between The World and Me is supercharged. Yet, there is something about Coates’s voice as a father that is so heartbreakingly enlightening, readers will universally connect to the heart of the story - if not the black experience. For example, Coates breaks the Angry Black Man/Woman trope by speaking from a position of honesty and humane fear. This is evident in parts of the book such as in page 137, when Coates admits that “[he has] never asked how [his] son became personally aware of the distance [between black people and white people in America …]. [He] doesn’t think [he wants] to know.”
According to Brent Staples in “The Racist Trope That Won’t Die”, black people were associated with apes to justify slavery. However, the racist trope lives on through black characters, especially men, who are often depicted as a “savage”, “brute” or “beast” (Staples) to justify current racial issues in the USA such as mass incarceration. There is, of course, importance in telling all stories, including the abusive but traumatized Macon Deads of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. On the other hand, Coates’s gentleness as a black father is still rarely represented in the media. Coates writes that “[he has] no desire to make [his son] “tough” or “street”, perhaps because any “toughness” [he] garnered came reluctantly.” (Coates 24). Through reading a character with such motivations, readers are be invited to reflect on their own generational trauma and question their methods of raising the next generation. Therefore, Coates’s reflectivity encourages his readers to prevent the cycle from continuing.
Furthermore, instead of pointing fingers, Coates uses the telling of specific personal experiences as a jumping-off point. Coates does not attack the reader, no matter their sociopolitical standpoint. Instead, Coates allows the reader to measure their own experiences against his with no judgement. If anything, Between The World and Me is an indoctrinating guide for those trying to understand the black experience. “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything.” (50) Coates writes after listing his favorite black artists. Coates uses this device numerous times throughout the book as a way of curating his own black canon. Moreover, he numerously repeats the names of the victims of police brutality, including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sean Bell. The reclamation of black names and thinkers are an effort to reclaim the erasure of black lives and art.
In conclusion, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me is less propaganda and more a handbook to African American suffering. Coates retells black history, spoken and unspoken, with a passion. With anger and hatred? Yes, only to a well-deserved capacity instead of the radical Angry Black trope. Coates writes with a compassion, a sense of hope and openness that is seldom associated with black stories. Coates’s novel is not a call to war, it is merely a father’s heartbreaking love letter to his son. This is why Between The World and Me should be required reading, as Morrison stated; Coates comes from a point of gentle fear and a feeling of urgency to teach his son about the dangerous horrors that await him as a black man. Coates taps into black power with a sense of understanding that invites everyone to empathize with how it feels to live with the constant threat that your body is not yours, and that your country has failed you as a citizen with basic rights. Perhaps this is the new-age indoctrination of systematic racism; sharing the humanity of pain rather than the accusatory micro-aggressions.
Alexander, Michelle. “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me”. The New York Times.
17 August 2015.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between The World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015, New York.
Staples, Brent. “The Racist Trope That Won’t Die.” The New York Times. 17 June 2018.