Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history by “the most important essayist in a generation and a writer who changed the national political conversation about race” (Rolling Stone)
NAMED ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL BOOKS OF THE DECADE BY CNN • NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • O: The Oprah Magazine • The Washington Post • People • Entertainment Weekly • Vogue • Los Angeles Times • San Francisco Chronicle • Chicago Tribune • New York • Newsday • Library Journal • Publishers Weekly
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
. . . we sprawl in gray chains in a place full of winters when what we want is the sun
Amira Baraka, “Ka Ba”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.
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.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of this new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.
The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. 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.
I write you in your fifteenth year. 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.
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. 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.
That Sunday, with that host, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.
That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.
This must seem strange to you. We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live free in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. I have asked the question through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother, your aunt Janai, your uncle Ben. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.
And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such.
It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T‑shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired.
I saw it in their customs of war. I was no older than five, sitting out on the front steps of my home on Woodbrook Avenue, watching two shirtless boys circle each other close and buck shoulders. From then on, I knew that there was a ritual to a street fight, bylaws and codes that, in their very need, attested to all the vulnerability of the black teenage bodies.
I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies. I saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over. And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how they would cut you with their eyes and destroy you with their words for the sin of playing too much. “Keep my name out your mouth,” they would say. I would watch them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vaselined up, earrings off, Reeboks on, and leaped at each other.
What People are Saying About This
America's essential author
Many of us have known for years that Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America's most compelling and thoughtful voices. His timely, provocative and well-researched writings about race and this nation's shameful history of inequality have been essential reading. The Atlantic published his widely distributed “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, and new audiences began to take notice. When his best-selling second book was released last summer, it seemed everyone came to understand that he is the real deal. Between the World and Me is brilliantly structured, insightful and forcefully argued. He navigates the complexities and burdens of race in America compassed by a father's love for his son. But it's the soulful writing that makes the work a classic, prompting Toni Morrison to herald Coates as America's new James Baldwin and the MacArthur Foundation to announce his genius. He claimed the National Book Award for best nonfiction this year, but don't think that this is the culmination of his work. He has much more to say, and we will all be the wiser for reading it. --Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative)
Reading Group Guide
1. Between the World and Me has been called a book about race, but the author argues that race itself is a flawed, if not useless, concept—it is, if anything, nothing more than a pretext for racism. Early in the book he writes, “Race, is the child of racism, not the father.” The idea of race has been so important in the history of America and in the self-identification of its people—and racial designations have literally marked the difference between life and death in some instances. How does discrediting the idea of race as an immutable, unchangeable fact change the way we look at our history? Ourselves?
2. Fear is palpably described in the book’s opening section and shapes much of Coates’s sense of himself and the world. “When I was your age,” Coates writes to his son, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” How did this far inform and distort Coates’s life and way of looking at the world? Is this kind of fear inevitable? Can you relate to his experience? Why or why not?
3. The book—in the tradition of classic texts like Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time—is written in the form of a letter. Why do you think Coates chose this literary device? Did the intimacy of an address from a father to his son make you feel closer to the material or kept at a distance?
4. One can read Between the World and Me in many different ways. It may be seen as an exploration of the African American experience, the black American male experience, the experience of growing up in urban America; it can be read as a book about raising a child or being one. Which way of reading resonates most with you?
5. Coates repeatedly invokes the sanctity of the black “body” and describes the effects of racism in vivid, physical terms. He writes: “And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape…There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructive—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.” Coates’s atheistic assertion that the soul and mind are not separate from the physical body is in conflict with the religious faith that has been so crucial to many African Americans. How does this belief affect his outlook on racial progress?
6. Coates is adamant that he is a writer, not an activist, but critics have argued that, given his expansive following and prominent position, he should be offering more solutions and trying harder to affect real change in American race relations. Do you think he holds any sort of responsibility to do so? Why or why not?
7. Some critics have argued that Between the World and Me lacks adequate representation of black women’s experiences. In her otherwise positive Los Angeles Times review, Rebecca Carroll writes: “What is less fine is the near-complete absence of black women throughout the book.” Do you think that the experience of women is erased in this book? Do you think Coates had an obligation to include more stories of black women in the text?
8. While much of the book concerns fear and the haunting effects of violence, it also has moments where Coates explores moments of joy and his blossoming understanding of the meaning of love. What notions of hard-won joy and love does the book explore? How do these episodes function in counterpoint to the book’s darker passages?
9. Do you think Between the World and Me leaves us with hope for race relations in America? Why or why not? Do you think “hope” was what Coates was trying to convey to readers? If not, what are you left with at the end of the book? If so, hope in what?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been heralded by some as the heir to James Baldwin. Like Baldwin, he writes about race with a fierce passion, and the urgency that can only be captured by living within a black body in a place and time where the black body is endangered. Yet it may be fairer to say Ta-Nehisi Coates is unique. While he may be an heir to predecessors like Baldwin, he is also carving his own path and establishing his own voice.
Coates is the author of two memoirs The Beautiful Struggle and the recently released Between the World and Me. He also serves as a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about race and culture while curating one of the most interesting, and dare I say, thoughtful comment sections online. His award-winning 2014 essay, "The Case for Reparations," is a searing argument for reparations as a means of addressing the moral debts of slavery, segregation, and discriminatory housing practices.
Like all black intellectuals like all intellectuals from underrepresented groups, really Coates is forced into a difficult position in which he is expected to be many things to many people. He carries the expectations of a great many people who are not accustomed to having their experiences or something akin to their appearances voiced.
In Between the World and Me, Coates writes a letter to his son on living with a black body that faces too many dangers. He writes about the fear black parents have, and the ways in which that fear shapes how they raise and discipline their children. From his childhood in Baltimore, to "The Mecca" of Howard University, to the early years of parenting his son, Coates examines the black man's place in America, and how he grew into a father raising his son to be whole and confident when "The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are."
Coates and I had a great conversation via email, where we discussed Between the World and Me, the rhetoric of the black body, and what it takes to discuss race in a culture that makes such discussions so contentious and, at times, seemingly impassable. Roxane Gay
The Barnes & Noble Review: How are you handling the book's amazing reception so far?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It's a bit overwhelming. I mean, you know about this. When you write, you're inside the project. You can't really think about the reception. It has to be worth it even if no one reads it. So I'm shocked. I was not prepared.
BNR:Has your son read this book yet? What does he think?
TC: Yup. In draft. And then in galley. He was very proud.
BNR: How do you handle such lofty comparisons like those, for example, to James Baldwin?
TC: I think that bothers other people a lot more than it bothers me. It's fairly clear there will be another Baldwin. I take a great deal of inspiration from his work. I think Toni Morrison's opinion is an opinion for one book. It is not a guarantee on the next book.
BNR: In Between the World and Me, you center much of the discussion on the black body. What compelled you to make this rhetorical choice?
TC: There is tendency in academia and in (some) social justice circles to make that which is oppressive distant and abstract. We use a language, which at times obscures what's going on racial discrimination, racial segregation, racial justice, etc. This sort of language eliminates the actual actions of actual people. It was deeply important to me to situate racism as a done thing: as a thing you actually feel. I should add that in my stripe of atheism, it's very hard to see beyond the body. There is a tendency to adopt euphemism when confronted with the very real violence that comes with having a foot on your neck.
BNR: One of the strongest critiques I've seen of Between the World and Me is that black women don't figure as significantly as black men. At the same time, this is one of those critiques we often see toward writing about difference that a given text needs to be everything to everyone. Is it your responsibility to center black women in a work that is memoir and a letter to your son?
TC: I'd say that Between the World and Me is a personal essay in three parts. It can't really be a history of pain and struggle. I don't want to get into a citation war here, but there is the threat of rape and how my grandmother communicates that danger to my mother. There is the enslavement, personalized, and rendered through a black woman's eyes. There is the incredible work of historian Thavolia Glymph on the specific violence done to black women, undergirding (and cited) my understanding of enslavement.
But even with that I'd accept that this a story told through a black man's eyes, through his lens. That has some effects. I've been saying that what we need is more books by black women, but I don't know that that quite gets it. The two endorsements I'm most proud of come from Isabel Wilkerson and Toni Morrison. The latter is the greatest American fiction writer of our time, and the former is on her way to being the greatest American nonfiction writer of our time. There is the work of Thavolia Glymph. There is the work of Kidada Williams. There is the work of Paula Giddings. There is the work of Natasha Tretheway. And of course there is you.
All of these writers are different and not simply in genre but in their actual interest and approach. Their work represents something larger, even as it is must be the reflection of individuals.
I say that to say, there can't really be a black women's version of Between the World and Me because there really isn't a black man's version of it. There's Ta-Nehisi's version of it. And that is necessarily, individual, and limited.
Ultimately, I suspect that maybe this isn't about the book, but how certain people most of them white have received the book. I don't know what to say or do about that. I write my truth. How white people react is not in my control, and thus can never be in my consideration.
BNR: What do you see as your responsibilities as a writer?
TC: I guess I feel charged to be "fair" to people. I feel some need to represent where I'm from. But ultimately I think my only real responsibility is to as much as possible interrogate my own truths. This is to say not merely writing what I think is true, but using the writing to turn that alleged truth over and over, to stress-test it, in the aim of producing something readable.
BNR: Discussions about race, particularly in mixed company, are often combative and contentious. How the hell do we talk about race?
TC: No idea. I just try to communicate with as much honesty and respect as possible. I think we should not forget that a not so insufficient portion of this country sees it as in their interest to disrupt and marginalize such discussions. Everyone isn't convince-able.
BNR: Do you have an intended or imagined audience when you write about race?
TC: I think a lot about the private emotions of black people what we feel and yet is rarely publicly expressed. I guess in that sense, the audience is black people.
BNR: How can allies best serve as allies? What is an ally? Are they needed?
TC: I don't know. I think it's probably terribly important to listen. It's terribly important to try to become more knowledgeable. It's important to not expect that acquiring of that knowledge in this case of the force of racism in American history to be a pleasant experience or to proceed along just lines. They certainly don't proceed that way for black people. It's going to be painful. Finally I think one has to even abandon the phrase "ally" and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.
BNR: What books have made you into the man you are?
TC: Oh God, Roxane, where to begin: Jonah's Gourd Vine. Battlecry of Freedom. American Freedom, American Slavery. Mothers of Invention. The Forever War. The Great Gatsby. Postwar. The Country Between Us. Quilting. The Book of Light. Where the Sidewalk Ends. Slaughterhouse-Five.
So it goes. LOL.
BNR: How did you develop your voice and confidence in your voice?
TC: I don't really know. I just write a lot. I don't think there's much point in writing if you're doing it in someone else's voice. It just kills the fun.
BNR: It seems like every week, if not every day, we have a new tragedy to mourn. Do you ever feel like it is all too much? What do you do in those moments?
TC: No. Never. This has always been life. And I suspect it will always be my life. I know we're in this new moment where it seems like the police have suddenly gone crazy. But police violence is not new, and it is only the most spectacular end of a range of violence black people live under.
BNR: What are you asked too often? What do you wish more interviewers asked you, and how would you answer that question?
TC: Why don't I have "hope." I don't know. I don't have a preference re: questions. I just want people to really read the work before talking about it.
BNR: What's next for you? How is that novel coming along?
TC: It's coming.
BNR: What do you like most about your writing?
TC: The actual doing it. It is a beautiful thing to have a feeling, a notion and then transform it into something tangible. It's like being in the X-Men.
August 10, 2015