between the world and me ta-nehisi coates

(Audio)Book Thoughts: BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates, read by the author

Between the World and Me
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Audiobook read by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group on July 14th 2015
ISBN: 9780812993547
Genres: Nonfiction, Social Science, Essays
Pages: 176
Format: audiobook
Source: public library via Overdrive

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“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
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.

Those of you who’ve been around here for a while may be aware that I’ve had an ongoing struggle with myself over the whole concept of “reading diversely:”

“My early adult years coincided pretty closely with the onset of ‘political correctness’ and increased awareness of cultural diversity [for those of you who didn’t realize ‘PC’ has been around so long and/or that I was so old, we’re talking about the late 1980s/early 90s here]. I think those developments have been much more good than bad, overall. But at the same time, there’s been increased fragmentation in society–it’s become a ‘niche’ world. For my part, increased awareness of and sensitivity to cultural niches outside my own has come with an uncomfortable feeling that I’m trespassing if I explore them those niches too deeply–because they’re not my own. I wonder if the growth in art and literature produced by people of other cultures is primarily meant for the previously neglected audiences within those cultures, and whether outsiders are really even welcome to partake of it.

“And so it becomes a circular thing: I find myself reading more within my own cultural niche. That becomes my comfort zone. And because it’s comfortable, I feel even less comfortable when I try to step out of it.”

But over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to make myself face up to something: when it comes to these stories, my comfort does not matter. These stories do not have to invite me in or welcome me. It is absolutely appropriate that I come to the stories of people who have lived outside the majority culture–maybe by choice, but usually by choices made for them–as an outsider myself.

In a white person’s reaction to Beyoncé‘s Super Bowl performance of her new song “Formation,” Kate Forristall gets at this:

“(I)f you check the  ‘Caucasian’ box on a job application, your place is in the bleachers for this dance.

“It’s time for us to stop singing along to any song that has the N-word or celebrates blackness in a way we will never understand…How many centuries were our black brothers and sisters relegated to the position of audience — the thrills of competitive sports, television and movie screens, even the petty dramas of middle class servitude demanding their attention. We gave them the role of witness to our stories without so much as a thought that they might have their own. Today those stories are rising to be told and though we may be the villain or not so much as a paragraph, if we listen, it will be our great joy to learn all that we have missed.”

This is all my roundabout way of saying that I’m still trying to articulate my response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. This extended essay, structured as a long letter to Coates’ fifteen-year-old son, is powerfully and passionately written, and especially affecting in the audiobook version read by the author. It offers a perspective on the “American Dream” that I had not considered before, but that I can’t forget now. In its reflections on the differences between the everyday realities of black and white American lives, it gave me greater insight into why and how #BlackLivesMatter matters.

As someone Coates would identify as one of “the people who think they are white,” Between the World and Me often made me uncomfortable. There were passages that made me feel a way I can only describe as “indicted.” And with that feeling, like it or not, my consciousness was raised.

I don’t know whether Coates intended Between the World and Me to make someone like me feel that way. I’m inclined to believe this book wasn’t intended for someone like me at all, and that’s exactly why someone like me should read it. I’m going to quote Jill’s evaluation from her review at Rhapsody in Books, because she’s already said it better than I could:

“This powerful, riveting testimonial is also a confirmation that the personal is indeed political, especially in a country which is institutionally designed to favor whites over people of color, males over females, straights over gays, and paradoxically, myths over honesty. I consider it essential reading for Americans.”


Opening lines:

“Son,

“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.”

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