What is it like to grow up black and male in the United States? Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the highly acclaimed Atlantic article on reparations, tells us in Between the World and Me, a memoir cum extended letter to his fifteen-year-old son. It is a life in which you don’t have final control over the most basic aspect of human existence–your own body. Your body can be thrown in prison or shot or just pushed aside at most any time for most any reason with little recourse.
As a result,
writes Coates, parents often dole out harsh physical punishment to their children. Why? Because they are scared that if they don’t teach their children the limits of their lives, they will get something worse from police or the system.
Coates highlights two other key phases of his development. One is going to Howard University where he reveled in the diversity of lifestyles, thought and personalities in a setting that embraced and affirmed all that was black.
The other was going to live in France for a while. Though quite afraid of encountering this very alien culture, he found it a revelation to be in a society that was free of the same history and patterns as the United States. In France he had a body he could call his own.
France was not perfect, however. There he found other kinds of hatred and prejudice. After all, no matter where you go, people are always there.
missing, then, from Coates’s book, by his own admission, is hope. As an atheist, he has not embraced any spiritual life or the black church itself, the institution he says “that has, so often, been the only support for our people” (p. 139). Though he doesn’t see things getting better, he still can’t help trying to help his son navigate a world that is not friendly, trying to alert people through his journalism to the injustices that surround us, trying to inform a wide range of readers about black life as they read over the shoulder of his son.
While this brief book will not be an easy read for white people, it is an important one for understanding the height and depth of the wall between the world and people like Coates.
My white friends sometimes tell me it’s just not this way. My black friends tell me it is very much this way. I tend to believe the people who have been black more than those who haven’t.