Toni Morrison said that this book was required reading, so I obliged and I have to say that she’s not wrong. Between the World and Me is a small book, and not particularly long, but it definitely packs a punch. The book is an extended letter to Coates’ son, Samori, and so has a personal and intimate feel to it that is not present in most of the nonfiction that I read (with the exception of some of the essays in a similar style that I wrote about in last week’s review of The Fire This Time). All the same, while the book has the tone of a personal letter, that doesn’t stop it from addressing some of the biggest and broadest issues that are faced by black folk in our country, including the continuous and rippling effects of slavery and the insidious nature of the concept of race and how it shapes our everyday existence.
Throughout the Between the World and Me, Coates gets to the heart of what it means to inhabit a black body in this country, with a particular and at times visceral focus on what it means to be a part of a black family, both in the nuclear sense, and in the cultural sense of belonging to a community of black folk. Given that this text is a letter to his son, the focus on the family makes complete sense, but it also creates a more complete picture of black life, and in particular the loss of black life. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Coates reflects on how much time and money and effort goes into cultivating each unique and bright individual on this earth, and how when black folk are struck down all of that is taken away in an instant by the destruction of the vessel that is the black body. Perhaps what is most striking about Coates’ descriptions is that he himself is an atheist, and so when he speaks of the destruction of the body he also believes in the complete destruction of the soul, which, whatever the beliefs of the reader, leaves an extra layer of devastation on the author’s part that radiates from the text.
Nonetheless, I don’t want to give the impression that Between the World and Me is all doom and gloom. While it deals with incredibly heavy topics, the text is also uplifting, and I would classify it as a celebration of family and community, as well as a call for people to recognize the realities of the world we have in front of us. Throughout the text, Coates stresses the idea that Samori, and through this book all readers, must not forget our history and what so many modern luxuries and successes cost, built as they were on the backs of black folk who were born, bred, and died in chains. The “American Dream” as a concept is dismantled in this way, and also in Coates’ general dismantling of other “Dreams” and “Dreamers” such as the Dream of a “black race,” had by black folk, and at one point by Coates himself. He notes that he had, while in college, thought of the things that marked civilization and thought “They had their champions, and somewhere we must have ours.” (45) Through rigorous recounting and methodical thought, Coates is able to show how even this Dream that he once held is based on false preconceptions.
Reading Between the World and Me was a capital E Experience, and I know that this will be a text that I return to more than once. Yet another book that I highly recommend — it was a #1 New York Times Bestseller for a reason. Plus Toni Morrison said to read it and her taste in books is well-attested.
P.S. I was really curious as to what other people thought about Coates’ ideas regarding “The Dream” and I found this forum from 2016 that has a variety of opinions, some of them I find merit to, but others that I disagree with, so I’m making a blanket statement here that none of them directly reflect my own.