Written as a series of open letters to his young son, Samori Coates, The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is part critical race theory and part fireside chat, with Coates relating to his child – and future generations – about some of his life’s more joyful and traumatic experiences, framing his discussion within the greater environment surrounding him.
For many, Coates’s story represents a unique experience worth exploring, one that finds him managing constant threats and negotiations in his childhood, struggling with feelings of futility after great loss, and maintaining the hope and promise of education as a means to change the environment. He bears these feelings in ways fathers are not expected to, sharing lessons learned over the years while allowing readers to play as audience to a wider discussion.
Many of these stories center on his early years living in Baltimore and the similarities he noticed in the violence he witnessed in his upbringing with the violence that existed as entered adulthood. He contemplates how early he learned about his own fragility, and how that fragility is an extension of forces greater than him that came into existence long before he was born. In a way, Coates writes this both in helping his child understand current events and come to terms with the trauma that he felt after not only being so close to his own death, but also the death of a dear friend.
While not subscribing to his parents’ way of thinking or the expectations of his culture, he demonstrates a deeper understanding as well as a greater sense of empathy for how those generations before him, and generations to come, will find ways to cope with the world when the world acts against your teaching.
Coates’s story is especially poignant for me. As a black male growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, I remember many of the cases of police brutality that occurred almost weekly during the 1990s and early 2000s that he discusses here. Knowing that one of the victims of this violence was Coates’s friend brought me back to some dark times. Many young people were being targeted and killed regularly, dismissed as criminals and troublemakers without any critical analysis or genuine investigation.
The voracious way he researched the corruption was cathartic, helping him to understand what happened, even when later he’s struck with the realization there was little he could do. He couldn’t save his friend, so he wants to save his son before he, too, becomes a victim, not through what he describes as “ritual violence” but rather through his writing.
It’s likely that many readers will be turned off by the language of this book, and I suspect this might be due to their inability to connect Coates’ personal trauma to the greater connection of American history. They may not be familiar with how the redlining of major cities led to the manifestation of urban warfare through gang culture, or the different archetypes that one may find on the Howard University campus in Washington, DC.
He also talks about the sadness his son felt in the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the subsequent lack of indictment. Coates takes no specific position in his writing, describing only the sadness and anger of his son. However, he does take a position when analyzing police brutality across the country, and these statements may put some off from his grander points.
Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is an essential read on the interconnected nature of identity, politics, and history, particularly for those eager to hear one of the more elegant voices on the black American experience. Those who choose to read Coates’ new work should come with empathy and understanding, as it could serve as a gateway to help familiarize them with many of the underlying issues he discusses – and how these issues affect him, his peers, and subsequently his son and his son’s peers. Consider this your first step.