Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, book review: A letter to white America

A compelling, but flawed, memoir that reveals the everyday nature of racism

Ayesha Siddiqi
Thursday 17 September 2015 14:07 BST

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This memoir, written as a letter to the author's teenage son, is a compelling account of Ta-Nehisi Coates's growing consciousness of race and identity as he moves from being a thoughtful young boy in Baltimore to a student at Howard University and then a father and husband in New York. In it, Coates deftly reveals the insidious, everyday nature of white supremacy, and uncovers how believers of the Great American Dream are entirely complicit with the oppression of the black man. Yet in the end, Coates's lyrical sentimentality and circular arguments leave the book with little lasting potency.

The narrative begins with Coates's childhood on the streets of Baltimore. Each scene is imbued with so much retrospective analysis and rendered in such florid prose that the overall effect is something quite removed from the actuality. Here is Coates describing how he felt at the age of five after seeing two shirtless boys circling each other threateningly, theatrically: "From then on, I knew that there was a ritual to street fights, bylaws and codes that, in their very need, attested to all the vulnerability of the black teenage bodies". The same tone marks subsequent sections: the girls wear "gilded bamboo earrings that announce their names thrice over" and the bodies of Coates and his peers are "enslaved by a tenacious gravity".

These descriptions give the effect of an anthropological outlining of Coates's childhood, leaving this reader feeling as if the author is addressing not his young son, but white America. Perhaps this is only because, as Coates points out numerous times, his son's life of privilege can hardly be compared with his own childhood. Still, the overall effect is that the voice appears to speak less within than without, and this may explain its mainstream popularity and critical acclaim in America, where its publication date was moved from September to June in light, presumably, of the shocking spate of white-on-black violence, namely the Charleston church massacre and the murder of Walter Scott, a black man shot in the back by a white police officer, also in South Carolina.

Coates critiques black parents who advise their children to be "twice as good", in order to succeed. Nobody tells privileged white children, he points out, to be twice as good. Instead, "I imagine their parents telling them to take twice as much". The message is a sound and sensitive one, yet the story that backs it up is wanting. The book pivots around the death of Prince Jones (Coates's acquaintance at Howard) by police hands – a black man who was "twice as good".

Coates goes to great lengths to outline Prince's "respectability", describing his mother's career as a radiologist and Prince's academic prowess; he was intelligent, motivated, God-fearing, hailing from a privileged household. The point is hammered in: even this man was killed. Again, it is a message that appears to be addressed to white America, to those that need it justified that black lives matter, or do not seem to realise that they are in jeopardy.

Between the World and Me is, for better or worse, more palatable than the book on which it appears to be modelled, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. There, Baldwin speaks intimately to his nephew – who is in Harlem – of Harlem. Then, with a different kind of candour and no longer speaking to his nephew, he addresses the effects of cruelty on his body unflinchingly, and responds to the black nationalists.

Coates's book, on the other hand, offers a superficial medley of history-lesson-cum-memoir-cum-parental-guidance. One is left wondering what work of beauty and introspection a writer as thoughtful as Coates could have produced if he had chosen as his intended audience one of the young black men or women with similar journeys to his own that he befriended at Howard.

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