Between the World and Me talks of grip of fear around US black society
Published in 2015 to both critical and commercial acclaim, Between the World and Me takes the form of a letter from a father to his teenage son, detailing the experience of author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who lived as a black man in the United States.
Coates has listed James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, written in 1963 on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation as an inspiration for his book. The similarities between the two go beyond their letter-writing narrative formats.
The comparison also serves as a reminder that though things have improved markedly since the days of slavery and segregation, many issues still plague African-Americans.
The book was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer for nonfiction, having earlier won a national award, and amid worsening race relations in the US.
Between the World and Me was published in the context of increased racial tensions, not long after the two weeks of protests in Coates’ native city of Baltimore that followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and just a day after the death of Sandra Bland in prison, which would spark more protests across the country.
The announcement that the police officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was 18 years old at the time of his death in Missouri in 2014, wouldn’t face charges — and the reaction it prompted from Coates’ son, were things that led him to write this letter.
Police brutality is only one of the subjects the book touches on, and it does so in an intensely personal way.
Coates is more concerned about detailing the personal impact of systemic racism rather than its societal effects, and mainly does so by taking examples from his own life, most notably with the case of Prince Jones, a fellow Howard University student who was killed by police outside his fiancee’s home in 2000.
The increased risk of violence faced by black people — only 13 percent of the total US population but more than 43 percent of its murder victims — does more than instill a sense of fear. It has a profound impact on behavior, too. Black parents learn to have a “talk” with their children, warning them of the possible dangers of police encounters.
Coates describes the impact that has had on his own family: “My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is actually what was happening around us.”
The author also had to ensure his own safety in the streets by adapting his behavior to suit the expectations of others, regardless of his own inclinations.
Between the World and Me is critical of the modern concept of race and the notion of the “American dream”, among other topics.
Mable Jones, Prince’s mother, may be an example of that dream’s realization — she worked her way out of poverty to give her children a life that included ski trips and visits to Europe— and yet her son died at the hands of law enforcement.
The book is meant as a personal guide more than a blueprint of solutions.
As Coates says: “My work is to give you what I know ofmy own particular path while allowing you to walk your own.”
The insider perspective the book brings out makes it an important read, not just for black people, but for all races.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book is an important read not just for black people, but for all races.