10 Aug / Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Listen to Toni Morrison: “This is required reading,” she extols on the cover of this slim, tense volume of just 152 pages. Many have taken the venerable Nobel Laureate’s words to heart: so popular is this scorching treatise that author Ta-Nehisi Coates seems to require only initials in certain circles, while the title has its own well-used hashtag inspiring reams of discussion. If you choose to go audible, TCN himself fires his own words.
The Atlantic – where TCN is a national correspondent – has hosted an extensive forum for #BTWAM responses, including a three-week book club, an outlet to share experiences of racism, and an ongoing discussion which shows no signs of dissipating.
Is this single title worth such targeted attention? A resounding, instantaneous ‘yes’: BTWAM is the most important book I’ve read in years. That said, if you are a person of color living in these United States – where an older white man sitting next to me on a recent flight thinks he’s being friendly as he leans over to ask, “Are you reading that book in English?” – you won’t find anything particularly new here. What you will recognize is a succinct, sharp crystallization of all the physical, verbal, emotional, intellectual abuse you’ve endured for no other reason than the assumptions and judgments others felt entitled to make based on your outside appearance.
If you’re not a person of color, perhaps the “required” becomes that much more urgent.
Regardless of your background, certain passages will resonate long after the final page.
” …rebelling against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’ – first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor – always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.”
” … a knowledge of cosmic injustices, the same knowledge I’d glimpsed all those years ago watching my father reach for his belt, watching the suburban dispatches in my living room, watching the golden-haired boys with their toy trucks and football cards, and dimly perceiving the great barriers between the world and me.”
“Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing chains. You must struggle to remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity.”
“I kept thinking about how southern Manhattan had always been Ground Zero for us. They auctioned our bodies down there, in that same devastated, and rightly named, financial district. … Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city.”
“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say, ‘accept half as much.'”
“I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free.”
Presented as a letter to his only child, his son Samori, TCN writes “at the precipice of [his] fortieth year” to impart his collective history, his family experiences, his personal stories: raised in Baltimore, schooled at Howard University – his “Mecca,” falling in love with the woman who would become his son’s mother, a New York writing career. He is angry but controlled, impatient but resigned, scathing but realistic. He insists about three-quarters through, “If my life ended today, I would tell you it was a happy life,” as he encourages his adolescent progeny about his “great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you.”
TCN is clearly not just talking to his son: BTWAM’s major bestseller status reveals a massive audience. You won’t agree with everything he writes. You might wonder how different this “letter” might have been if he were writing to a daughter (he doesn’t have one). Reading, engaging is a necessary start. Reactions, responses will certainly vary, but BTWAM will prove to be an illuminating, edifying, educational, inspiring experience.