My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There was a season when I did review work for an Austin-based company that helped to market books for self-published authors and small presses. Though, on occasion, I received texts that became mildly well-known, usually I was sent manuscripts by fledgling authors that almost no one has heard of or read. Several of the volumes I reviewed were from Vietnam vets who had been drafted. They were informative for their rattling and raw firsthand accounts. But typically they were filled with various levels of rage that had been simmering and seething for thirty or more years. Angered that they had been drafted and forced into combat; enraged by their country’s misuse of them; incensed that they had been so wronged and would never get their lives back; infuriated that they were looked down on by many of their peers. And their stories recounted how the rest of their lives were lived from inside an imprisoning fury. So initially I thought I sensed the same kind of vibes from the 176 page hardback, “Between the World and Me” penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates, correspondent for The Atlantic, Journalist in Residence at the School of Journalism at CUNY and winner of a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship.
“Between the World and Me” is an autobiographical dossier compiling three long letters from Coates to his son. His son, Samori, had been recently scandalized by the decision to acquit the police officer who shot Michael Brown, and the father sought to hand off to his son an heirloom to hold onto as he traveled through life. The story arises from the fear Coates felt growing up on Woodbrook Avenue in west Baltimore; how he cut his teeth on his father’s Black Panther readings “and his stash of old Party Papers” (30); progressed in his education at Howard University, and on into his present life. In many ways it’s a touching narrative of one man’s development and maturation in a world he sees as in the wrong; a world where “the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be” (71).
But “Between the Word and Me” is more than an autobiography. In some ways it is an indictment against America told from one who feels wronged; the tale of a man prosecuting his case against racism and racist America, since “race is the child of racism, not the father” (7). It pours and pulses with passion, anger, fear and anguish. It is told from within an a priori assessment that sees life in the United States as textured by systemic bigotry, and most of the recounted events prove what the author expected.
In other ways, it is the chronicling of the growth of a man arising from a black idealism that imagined “history to be a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I always suspected” but he came to find that there was no “coherent tradition marching lockstep but instead factions, and factions within factions” (47). “Between the World and Me” is the self-reflective reporting of a person coming to see his own, and his world’s, injury that hemorrhages, hampers and hobbles. The book is the heartfelt writing of a father yearning for his son to make it safely through a world of dreamers where all human empires “are built on the destruction of the body” (143). Here is a black father showing his black son “that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself” (12).
What I finally came to realize was that Coates, though afraid and angered, was actually seeking to communicate to his son not to get swallowed up by the dreamers, white or black, but rather to recognize “the design flaws of humanity” (146), to live as part of a people and not a race (149), and that though history is not singularly in our hands, yet to struggle, “not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (97). Though the book troubled me at places, nevertheless I began to hear a father desperate for his son’s fragile wellbeing in a world inebriated with easy, thoughtless categories of race, triumph, nobility, and empire; a world where “surging rage…could, in an instant, erase my body” (19).
Though I originally read “Between the World and Me” as a raging rant, upon reflection it has become clear that there is something deeper going on. Perhaps, even, some of the original manuscript pages are stained with a tear or two. Though there is a point here and there that stuck in my craw, overall it was an insightful and telling memoir. Give it a go, and then before you write it off as tirade or bandy it about as fodder for “the cause,” ruminate on it and see if it doesn’t affect you differently and strike you as a book from a father’s heart.
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