My reaction to this book is similar to my reaction to the other Coates book I have read: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I hesitate to review it because, first of all, I don’t want to pass judgment on it, and secondly, I prefer that you read the book and allow the author to speak for himself. Between the World and Me is a beautiful book, a unique book, an important book.
We Were Eight Years in Power, an obvious reference to the Obama presidency, is comprised of essays giving Coates’s take on relevant political, sociological, and historical issues. Between the World and Me is different; it’s mainly a memoir. In this book, Coates directly addresses his young son. He writes about his childhood and youth in Baltimore, the fear and danger on the streets, and his need to be always on his guard. He contrasts this with his time at Howard University, which he refers to as The Mecca because of the way it attracts intelligent and interesting black students in a fear-free atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie. Later he writes of a friend from Howard named Prince Jones who was gunned down by a policeman for no apparent reason.
Underlying Coates’s narrative is an awareness of “The Dream,” a vision of perfection for white people only, and which Coates says can only be achieved upon the broken bodies of black people. Coates describes the emotional pain of African Americans in excruciating detail: the paranoia, the constant vigilance, the realization that “The Dream” is ultimately unreachable for them.
As with We Were Eight Years in Power, the thing that struck me most as I read Between the World and Me is Coates’s honesty and command of language. It changed me; it made me want to be more honest as a writer. It caused me to rethink my recent output and ponder whether I am focused on producing my best work.
Of course I can’t write from Coates’s perspective. I am a white man from a middle class background. I have lived in neighborhoods that are primarily black in Brooklyn and other cities and I have acquaintances who are black, mostly other writers, but I can’t pretend to understand the American black experience. What sets me apart from my contemporaries, though, is the fact that I got fed up with where I was, went out exploring the rest of the world, and stayed gone for thirty-five years. While reading Coates’s narrative, I sometimes found myself recalling times when I traveled in India with Indian friends. Sometimes I wouldn’t see another white person for days, and wouldn’t speak to other white people for weeks. The situation is profoundly different, though, of course. The Indian people cast their white oppressors out of their own country, and they remained. It is theirs, and they own it. On the other hand, the blacks of America were forcibly brought to a new land so that they could provide the labor to create “The Dream” for their white overseers. Now that slavery is abolished, their overseers remain and continue their oppression under different circumstances.
I’m not sure I’m telling this the right way; it’s not coming out how I wanted it to. That’s why I hesitated before I began and almost didn’t make the effort. So I’m going to close with a recommendation that you read this book. As I said above, it’s an important book, a great book. It will change you; it will make you better.