After the relentless epic that was Dark Money we decided we'd like to read something shorter and lighter for the next book club; however, because we are bad at not being morbid, we instead decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which is shorter but really not any lighter, since it is about police brutality and America's multi-century history of vicious, violent racism.
Although this book was short—about 150 pages—it took me three days to read because I tried to read it slowly and carefully. It's not something to just zip through.
Between the World and Me reminded me of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and a quick look through the press the book has gotten makes it clear that this was likely intentional; the parallels are pretty clear. Coates' book takes the form of a series of letters to his teenage son, Samori, just as Baldwin's book was in the form of a letter to his nephew. Both are works of memoir, discussing their visceral, lived experiences of American racism and tying their life stories in closely with the philosophical, historical, and political dimensions of American racism. The parallels are even stronger in part because there are some broad-brush similarities in their life trajectories. Both grew up in poor, often violent urban areas--Baldwin in Depression-era Harlem; Coates in Baltimore in the '80s (i.e., during the crack epidemic)--and spent a lot of time in libraries; both are atheists; obviously, they both became highly influential writers--more specifically, they both became authoritative voices on racism in America and developed platforms within what is still a very white liberal literary establishment. But beyond that, the similarities between the two books come mostly from the depressing fact that racism in America hasn't actually changed nearly as much between 1962 and 2015 as we'd like to believe it has.
One of the motifs Coates uses a lot is the invocation of the body, often using terms like "my body" where most people would probably just say "me" or "black bodies" where most writers would use "black people," etc. Coates is pretty clear that he's an atheist and believes that our bodies are all we're made of and that consciousness is an emergent property of the body and all that materialist stuff, so his focus on the body is the opposite of how a lot of other writers, especially religiously inclined ones, use it, where the body is just a shell and what happens to it is not of ultimate importance; instead, Coates uses the unambiguous physical existence of bodies to break past the abstract tendencies of so much of Western discourse, to bring the realities of racism home from the vague philosophical plane that people take refuge in when talking about terrible things. (I'm perhaps being condescending here but it never ceases to amaze me what a widespread habit of thought this is and how hard it can be to break through it, on any subject, from parents telling kids to "just ignore" bullying because they assume all bullying is verbal and it doesn't occur to them that it's hard to ignore being shoved into a locker, to all the various people I've witnessed who know that Nazis are bad but who still had to be walked through the idea that Nazis do bad things--and were surprised.) Coates' continual invocation of the body makes it clear that "rights" are not abstract and "racism" being systemic is not the same thing as it being philosophical; that what's at stake here is not just intangible ideals about dignity or belonging, but actual fear of physical violence. He talks about the psychic toll of constant hyperawareness; the fear behind the harsh discipline that parents inflicted on their children in the neighborhood he grew up in; the threats from other boys in the neighborhood compensating for their lack of bodily security by engaging in their own violence and territorialism.
The other big motif in the book is the Dream, which is only superficially a lovely dream, but Coates uses it to mean comforting myths or self-delusions that people use to avoid learning about or facing up to the violence in American life and American history. the Dream, which is a false, stands in contrast to the body, which is real, and again is a noticeable departure from how these concepts are traditionally invoked in high-minded Western writing. You can see parallels between the Dream as it is dreamed by "people who believe they are white" and Baldwin's argument about "the innocence which constitutes the crime." Coates is pretty blunt about the level of longstanding delusion it requires to maintain the Dream, the "practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands."
One of the early arguments Coates makes in the book is that racism isn't the result of race; race was basically invented to provide a justification for racism. Racism, of course, was invented for reasons of wealth and power; while I don't think Coates is an anti-capitalist writer, he's very well informed about the ways American wealth was built on the stolen labor, stolen wealth, and stolen bodies of black people--including that enslaved people were considered not a consumer good but a commodity, meaning that not only could they be bought, sold, and traded, but they could be underwritten, securitized, insured, and turned into all sorts of fancy Wall Street financial products. He discusses how difficult it is for black families to build wealth; in his famous The Case for Reparations piece in The Atlantic, he goes into more detail about redlining and other racist housing policies. But he also talks about the ways in which ascending into the middle class can afford some kinds of privilege and escape compared to how he grew up, but also the ways in which, in essence, middle-class blacks still can't buy their way out of being black, with all the danger that comes along with it in America. The last part of Between the World and Me relates the story of Coates' former classmate at Howard, Prince Jones, who was shot by the Prince George's County police in front of his fiancee's house. Jones was raised in a securely well-off household and was about as respectable as it's possible to get, and it didn't save him, which seems to have made a pretty big impression on Coates. At the end of the book he recounts a lengthy, powerful interview with Jones' mother.
Between the World and Me, while obviously heavy, is not completely bleak all the way through. Coates talks a lot about his time at Howard University, and its impact on his thinking about black history and identity. (This section left me with a long list of things to read, starting with The Autobiography of Malcolm X.) The love with which he writes about his school, which he refers to as The Mecca, and all the people he met there and all the things he learned from them, as well as his adventures in learning how learning about history works (i.e., it's messy and contradictory), is heartwarming.
One thing this book isn't, obviously, is an objective in-depth study of any of the topics it touches on. But that's OK, because it isn't intended to be, and there are many other good, heavily researched books you can read about police brutality, or black poverty, or the history of racial constructions in America, or race and capitalism, that you can pick up at the library if you want to learn more about these subjects, which we all should. But the book has a lot of moral and philosophical force, and it challenges those of us who are not Coates' kid to whom the book is explicitly addressed, but who are reading it anyway because it was published for mass access, to both think and feel deeply about the material and physical consequences of what it means to be black or to believe you are white in America.