The BUZZ: Coates is an award-winning journalist and national correspondent for The Atlantic. This extended essay/memoir is his second book.
The GIST: Written as a letter to his son, Coates explores what it means to be a black man in America today. He sees current racial violence as part of a history of assault that has been perpetrated against African Americans since this nation began. This history is a painful burden for Coates, and he talks about it in physical terms: violence has been inflicted on the black body, for centuries. He wants his son to know the dangers and also to know that Coates’ perspective is not the only one, that he has been hindered by his own life story in ways that his son – growing up in a very different environment – has not. As Coates recounts his first trip out of this country, to Paris, he examines his own psychic culpability and vulnerability; he must reconsider what he’ll teach his son upon observing that being black does not mean the same thing in every society. He wants us to know the truth but also to know that we can choose a different truth, that “race” is a falsehood America invented for its own ends.
The WRITING: Searing and bold. I have read each of Coates’ Atlantic articles with an appreciation for the writing and the message. His voice is unique – intellectual and visceral – with the power to startle me out of my complacency. Between the World and Me is similarly relentless in asking the questions that need to be asked. His arguments are logical and his writing is emotive – a potent combination and a spur for critical thinking about the society we have built.
BUY or BORROW?: Buy. This is an important work, a wide open window into far more than another perspective. Coates reveals a world many of us have no experience with – a childhood in the projects of West Baltimore, an education at Howard University, a career and fatherhood in New York City. I highly recommend it for those who want to understand America in its entirety, and how its past has created its present pain. A good companion to it would be The Warmth of Other Suns, reviewed here.
I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me… And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after.