Reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me
Yes, it’s an actual book. All the better to be actually snuggled up with.

I am an escapist media aficionado. When I get into a good book or television show, I get dangerously into it; I may not emerge for days. So when I am trying to focus on writing, as I am now, I can’t give up reading entirely but I avoid my usual suspects of easy-to-lose-oneself-in novels. Right now I am reading a few non-fiction books as the spirit moves me. The one that has most of my mind-share and my full, boundless admiration is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

All quotes in this post are directly from that book.

The first thing I read of Coates was his groundbreaking essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (2014). It blew my mind. I had never fully considered (let alone been taught) the actual legislative bones supporting the horrible carcass of systemic racism in this country. I’m white, so I have had a life where I can control when and for how long I stare at the body, and this was the first time I couldn’t look away. If you haven’t read this piece, just go do it now, okay? Because the thing is: it’s gorgeous. Coates is not a man who writes simply to get his point across. His point is the writing. His control of style is pure, his reasoning crystal-clear. Truly, I can only compare his rhetoric to Dr. King’s. It was easily the best essay by a modern author I had read in perhaps a decade.

“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”

Okay, I haven’t actually talked about Between the World and Me yet, I know. I just needed to set the stage for my expectations going into this book. (If you couldn’t tell: they were high.) This was Coates’ first book and I didn’t read it when it came out. I don’t generally crave non-fiction, and I was thinking about it like I think about heavy documentaries: that is, bound to be overwhelming, depressing, and generally the worst possible thing to read before bed after a long day.

Then, Coates’ second book came out and I was itching to read more of his writing and I thought: Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll grit my teeth and be depressed because that’s how much I love this man’s art. I felt like I owed it to him, vaguely, notionally, to read his first book before the second. I knew it was supposed to be an intimate, personal sort of read, given that its structure is that of a direct address to his son.

And then I actually read Between the World and Me and felt like an idiot. Of course Ta-Nehisi Coates would not write a burdensome book. He might actually be incapable of it. The topic is serious. The insights and the honesty are often as heart-breaking as they are heart-opening. But there’s not a piece of it that feels “heavy.”

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

I have not quite finished it yet. I’ve been reading it for about a month and when I pick it up, two or three times a week, I only read a few pages. I remember reading Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again and describing it (probably to Ashley!) as very rich cake: I loved it, I wanted all of it, but I could only have a tiny bite at a time to really appreciate it. I feel that way about this book and I don’t want it to end.

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

Who but an American black man can understand what it is like to be a black man in America? But I am an American, and I acutely feel Coates’ criticism of our country’s history and of our present society. At the same time, his compassion for all the messy components of his own experience; his love for his son, and his worry; and above all his expert, lyrical writing create moments of pure human connection that are the hallmarks of every great artist.

Have you read it? What do you think? And if you haven’t read it: get to it.

“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

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