Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates' old blog on The Atlantic website was one of the best on the internet. I didn't subscribe to The Atlantic just because of his work, but I considered his work a bonus and supporting his work and blog through a subscription fee was a joy for me. He interacted with readers in the Comments and it became a community. Now that he has a NY Times #1 bestseller, having him comment on one of my comments was like an "almost famous" moment. Coates' writing on the Civil War and how deeply he moved he was by reading U.S. Grant's deathbed memoirs is an enduring memory. Whenever someone breaks out the herring "the Civil War wasn't primarily about slavery," his writing inevitably comes up in a subsequent Google search.
This (very short) book reads like a lot of his writing, honest and stream-of-thought but also insightful and full of questions. It's also full of his ability to portray emotional moments in print very vividly, in this case dealing with injustice, mourning, and fear. "They will take your body..." The book is written as a letter to his son and it's mostly an explanation of where his father is coming from (Baltimore with all that comes with it). We're close enough in age that we have some similar memories of the 1980s, and I wonder if some of his comments are universal to that period rather than purely the perspective of a black man. I recommend listening to him read it, I was glad my library got a digital audio copy quickly.
Early in life, Coates' forebears taught him to question as a ritual rather than as a quest for certainty, that was a big takeaway for me. His delving into black history, including African history, reminds us that history isn't clear, it's messy. But he asks the questions in his childhood that someone raised in a privileged white neighborhood would not have asked, like "Why are the heroes of black history month alone non-violent?" The subtle message is that whites have communicated their dominant position in such subtle ways, where they do not do it overtly through politics, the police, or other means.
One irony of Coates' memoir is that even though he disparages the "American Dream" as a myth, he is living it. His son's standard of living will be higher than his, which was higher than his father's and his father's father's and so on. He doesn't mention that he never graduated from Howard, even though he learned as much (or more) than many who did. His parents were intellectuals who were able to introduce him to a wide range of counter-cultural ideas, including the atheism he still embraces. He was able to both luck and work to the top and is now being awarded monetarily and socially for writing this book-- hard to do anywhere outside America. He learns French and visits France and naively does not understand that a black person there, or a brown-skinned person, etc. will be stuck in a class system that is more restrictive than anything in America-- just ask the teenage Muslims who riot from time to time. (As I write this there is an article out in a business journal about how the youngest French company listed on their exchange was formed prior than the 1970s; entrenched elitist system dominated by whites.) Indeed, Coates and his family eventually ponder that at least some of French wealth was built on enslaved workers in colonies. That is why people from the rest of the world still clamor to get in here, mythical or not Coates is a shining example of why.
"They made us into a race but we made us into a people." In the end, Coates' quest is to find his own tribe that is characterized more by common ideas than race. That certainly seems more American than anything else I've read lately. I am somewhat disturbed that from this he will go on to write Black Panther comic books for Marvel, and that it's being hailed as a good thing. Coates' love of comics is mostly absent from these pages, but I guess elevating comics as a source of truth is just another legacy of the Children of the 80's.
In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It touched me emotionally as a father and helped me be more aware of the unspoken tension in my own neighborhood, as well as the obligations I have as someone who claims to believe in justice.