Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
A Book Review
Provocative and controversial, Between the World and Me by author, journalist, and Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates, is this year’s Carroll One Book. * Framed as a letter to his son, Coates tackles the endemic nature of race and racism in American culture and its impact on society today.
His letter is a semi-autobiographical and deeply personal account of the impact of American racism, what it means to be Black (and White) in this country, and the danger and discrimination his son may have to face, endure, challenge, and resist simply because of the body he inhabits.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was born and raised in the Mondawmin neighborhood in Baltimore. He was born to a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a publisher, librarian, community activist and a former member of the Black Panther Party, so he was raised with a love for books and knowledge of the stark reality of racism. Although he didn’t graduate, Coates attended Howard University before pursuing a career as a journalist.
He was particularly affected by the death of Prince Jones, a friend and fellow student at Howard University who died at the hands of the police. Coates’ pain and anger jump off the page, echoing his point that racism isn’t just a process or a system but a “visceral experience [that] dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” p.10.
This passage refers to racism’s physical toll on the body, but his book speaks even more poignantly to its emotional toll. The pain, anger, sadness, and disappointment that he describes is an equally visceral experience - his love for learning in a school system whose structure and curriculum were designed to contain him not to educate him, so he saw nothing of himself in it; the pain of finding out that his friend, who did everything right, was still shot and killed by police because of the body he was born into and no one was held accountable; the fear of not knowing if the same will happen to his son or other loved one simply because they exist as Black people.
Artfully, almost poetically written, Coates manages to make a dense and deep critique of race and racism in America an accessible and quick (if not emotionally easy) read. However, for those who have never been conscious of their race or racism and/or for those who have always believed that the U.S is truly a free and meritocratic society where there are no barriers to success if one simply works hard, this book may be a hard but necessary pill to swallow.
Between the World and Me challenges people to examine this country’s naturalized view of racial categorization and whiteness in particular. Coates details the ways in which violence and injustice against people of color stand between them and the world. He argues that the stark racialized brutality and inhumanity of this country’s past and present has been so normalized – it is inherent in this country’s formation, foundation, and organization - that people of color are blamed for their own victimization while White people go to great lengths to actively ignore the reality of the brutality and systemic inequality in order to maintain the illusion of the American Dream.
Even White readers who believe themselves to be fairly liberal in their understanding of racial inequality may find this a personally difficult but worthy read. It forces people to think about ways in which they are invested in being categorized as White, and may unintentionally accept, contribute to, and benefit from the U.S. racial hierarchy.
Some readers of color may find that Coates’ account validates and documents aspects of their own experiences in the U.S., while others may have a different perspective or feel that he focuses his critique too much on the Black/White dichotomy. Regardless of one’s perspective, it is hard to deny that Coates’ historical and sociological analysis of racial oppression and inequality in the U.S. is on point.
Between the World and Me is a bold and challenging choice for the Carroll One book, and one that everyone in Carroll County would benefit from reading. It is eye-opening for many, especially in a county where residents often have little exposure to people with different backgrounds and life experiences. Between the World and Me will challenge readers to step outside of their comfort zones and take a critical look at race and racism in the U.S and in their own lives.
*In 2008, Maryland Humanities with the help of the public library systems, launched a program called One Maryland One Book as a way to bring Marylanders together through a common reading experience. In 2017, the Carroll County Library decided to create a similar experience at the local level in the form of an annual Carroll One Book.
Submitted by Roxanna Harlow
Carroll One Book Event
Borrow the Between the World and Me from your local Carroll County Public Library branch or via our digital collection. Join the first discussion of the book at the North Carroll branch on October 29th at 6:30 PM. Carroll One Book is an initiative to encourage courageous conversations. Carroll One Book is sponsored by the Learning Advantage Partnership, Carroll County Chapter of the NAACP, and Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality. This program is made possible in part by a Choose Civility grant.
Visit https://library.carr.org for more information. We hope to see you at these events!
Submitted by Erin Snell, Carroll County Public Library – Outreach Services