Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates – “Between the World and Me”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book started off as though a Noam Chomsky-acolyte had written it, e.g.:

This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

I found it very powerful, that the author negates and questions the muddled concept of “race”; the fact that he has written the book as though it were a letter to his teenage son does not make it any less magnificent:

I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury. I think you know.

It’s as though this book is a breath of air that’s been breathed too many times, but this exhale of sorts, is poetic; the author really wants to reader to react to sheer reason, to his anger and analyses:

I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.

I really liked Coates’ way of self-criticising:

Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.

His way to look at youth culture, gangsta culture, rap á la Mobb Deep and OutKast, how the toughs are really scareds, is interesting:

I was attracted to their guns, because the guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language—violence. And I compared the Panthers to the heroes given to me by the schools, men and women who struck me as ridiculous and contrary to everything I knew.

Still, what strikes me as slightly flawed with this short book, is the lack of feminism; while Coates analyses the male perspective in detail, and goes far to acknowledge and attack centuries of white “plunder”. Women have little part of this book.

The controlled anger is most of what’s really exciting and beautiful about this book (to me):

Malcolm was the first political pragmatist I knew, the first honest man I’d ever heard. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief. If he was angry, he said so. If he hated, he hated because it was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, natural as Prometheus hating the birds. He would not turn the other cheek for you. He would not be a better man for you. He would not be your morality. Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that proscribed our imagination.


“If you’re black, you were born in jail,” Malcolm said.

A lot of this book related to my own experiences, mixing Chomsky with Chuck D, the brutalism of Conrad and CNN:

Almost every day I played Ice Cube’s album Death Certificate: “Let me live my life, if we can no longer live our life, then let us give our life for the liberation and salvation of the black nation.” I kept the Black Power episodes of Eyes on the Prize in my weekly rotation. I was haunted by the shadow of my father’s generation, by Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. I was haunted by the bodily sacrifice of Malcolm, by Attica and Stokely. I was haunted because I believed that we had left ourselves back there, undone by COINTELPRO and black flight and drugs, and now in the crack era all we had were our fears.


Your mother, who knew so much more of the world than me, fell in love with New York through culture, through Crossing Delancey, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Working Girl, Nas, and Wu-Tang.


It must have been around that time that I discovered an essay by Ralph Wiley in which he responded to Bellow’s quip. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” And there it was. I had accepted Bellow’s premise. In fact, Bellow was no closer to Tolstoy than I was to Nzinga. And if I were closer it would be because I chose to be, not because of destiny written in DNA. My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

Coates is a very good and poetic author. I’m keen to read his other work. One of the quotes in this book that I like the most is this:

“We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn. “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”

I’ll let James Baldwin conclude the review:

“And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.”

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