by Ta-Nehisi Coates
When I originally heard about David Chariandy’s I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, it immediately brought Between the World and Me to mind. Of course, I hadn’t actually read Coates’ book yet at the time, but I nonetheless wondered whether Chariandy’s essays directed at his young daughter about the history of racism underlying modern Canadian society could possibly be trying to capitalize on the popularity of what I heard were Coates’ essays directed at his young son about the history of racism underlying modern American society. And, while there may be at least a shred of truth to this, the superficial similarities between the two largely fall away once you delve a bit deeper, both with regard to general focus and the overall language and tone of each. Within his essays, Coates presents the case that the expectation that dominant groups have the right to exploit minorities is built into the fabric of modern society, that the continued violence against and segregation of blacks is an active and intentional component of the American empire, rather than failure of the system as so many believe.
Between the World and Me moves between a personal history, a confession and dissection of the author’s perceived fears and inadequacies that came with growing up as a black man and raising a black son in the US, and warnings to that son about the dangerous and unjust world they live in. Coates takes us through his youth in Baltimore, to his enlightening years at Howard University, to his time trying to make a living as a journalist and starting a young family in New York. Through this journey, he describes slowly catching glimpses of the drivers behind gang violence, of the stark difference in parenting and school culture bringing up confident white kids and meek black children, of the reasons why it’s treated as unavoidable, as almost a force of nature, when black men are gunned down in their front yards by plainclothes cops. And he argues that the most destructive lie that allows us to look past happily is of an equitable society built on individual merit rather than one that came and comes from the plunder of the lives of so many.
But Coates makes us look, he digs deep into the mud to give us a most enlightening view, and he does this with a brutal honesty, with a fiery eloquence that resonates deeply, viscerally. In this way, Between the World and Me doesn’t always feel comfortable, but it sure feels meaningful.