Be­tween the World and Me talks of grip of fear around US black so­ci­ety

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By CLAIRE BOQUET For China Daily

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.

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