Between the World & Me is the first 5 star read I’ve had in a long time, but it deserves every single star. I first learned about Coates after he spoke at the Ohio State University this past spring. Before then, I’d only seen his name on Twitter and in the New York Times Bestsellers list, but knew that he was an influential writer & thinker in the black community. I also knew that he had some unconventional ideas, although I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. But after listening to him speak, I was immediately intrigued.
Coates is openly an atheist, openly skeptical about non-violent protest, and has interesting ideas about education and writing as a craft. Issues of race, history, and the body weave all of these topics together into one interesting perspective on the American tradition as a whole. While the focus of this book is black body anatomy, the entirety of the work presents a lot of other interesting ideas. Coates is a thinker on more than race because he understands the importance of an interdisciplinary approach. The Dream, as he calls the American experience (specifically for people ‘who think they are white’), is something that is woven together from different parts.
Coates has also been in the news recently for his testimony on Reparations in the United States Congress, which comes from a now-famous essay on the same topic published in the Atlantic in 2014. This piece is long and took me a couple of days to work through on and off, but it’s definitely an essential read on black America. I learned quite a bit about black history that I’d never really even thought about, which spurred me to finally read one of his books. Simply, Coates is an amazing reporter and essayist and even if you don’t agree with his ideas, his masterly of the long-form essay is hard to deny. He changed my mind drastically on reparations and it has become something I now actually support. The essay itself is another essential read.
At 150 pages, BTWAM is written in a similar way, although the essay is deeply personal. Written as a long letter to his only son, BTWAM weaves a beautiful, emotional picture of his hopes, dreams, and fears while connecting to themes of the body, American cities, and the history of blackness in the US. Above all, this is a letter from a father to a son and carries all of the love and weight of parenthood with it, but also the unique weight of a black father to a black son — knowing that his child could be taken at any moment without repercussions.
Coates does not simply accept the status quo but instead analyzes the conventional American Dream and all the damage that it causes. This becomes incredibly potent when Coates talks about traveling outside of the country or his experience at Howard University — which he refers to as the Mecca. He dismantles a lot of assumed ideas about race and provides an interesting alternative — race doesn’t exist other than to constrain and oppress the body. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have ramifications or real-world consequences, but rather than it's not inherent to human existence or the American experience. It only is because we’ve made it so, and separating ourselves from that is a lot more complicated than we let ourselves think.
I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to read about the modern American experience, especially given the times we live in. Despite the book being written in 2015, it is incredibly relevant in the current moment. It’s also not a complicated read and the ideas are presented well and threaded together in a masterful way that makes his perspective easy to understand. Coates creates a striking empathy with the reader — you feel his pain and the weight of his fear. That’s perhaps the most potent part of the book. The reader comes away with the reality of the fear and maybe even the drive to do something about it.
Kathryn Poe is a student and writer in Columbus, OH