Jerome Reviews Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

(This is Jerome Kuseh’s seventh review for Kinna Reads; his previous reviews can be found here. Jerome Kuseh blogs about business and finance at ceditalk.com; about politics at jeromekuseh.com;  and about ethnicity and identity at ukweliwa.org).

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Between the world and meTa-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Awards prize for non-fiction in November 2015 for his second book, Between the World and Me. This award added to the raving reviews for the book, including a big endorsement by Toni Morrison, who said Ta-Nehisi had filled the intellectual void left by James Baldwin.

The book is written as an address to Samori, Ta-Nehisi’s 15-year old son. Coates tells him about the Dream, which can be described as the high standards of living in the USA that was built on the backs of black bodies and depends on the continuous exploitation of black people to exist.

He does not comfort Samori when he cries over the decision of a grand jury not to indict the officer who murdered Michael Brown. He is trying to let him come to terms with the reality of owning a black body in America. He does not see the officer as a single actor but an enforcer of the Dream with the power to destroy black bodies. Thus he does not equivocate in talking about the black officer who shot and killed his college friend, Prince Jones. The officer was merely performing his duty of destroying the black body. He does not see “black-on-black violence” as a stumbling block. The violence is merely a creation of the policy of the Dreamers who denied the loans and designed the projects.

Ta-Nehisi’s atheism presents a raw version of the black experience in America. There is no hope of an afterlife for the slaves, no inspiration to be drawn from their suffering and no guaranteed period of justice promised at the end. 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. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. 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 destructible – that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.”

For anyone familiar with Ta-Nehisi’s writing, Between the World and Me would seem like a concluding act. It tells us that’s just the way things are. And there is no reason to hope because people cannot give up the Dream.

But this book is not all gloomy. There is the celebration of the black culture that has thrived under the dream. The connection that can only have arisen from a common oppression and which outsiders struggle to understand. This is mostly expressed through his description of the richness and diversity of life as a student in the Mecca i.e. the historically black Howard University. He sums it up nicely:

“They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”

I read and reviewed Ta-Nehisi’s first book, The Beautiful Struggle,  and I’m going to avoid saying which one I think is better. They are both important works about the African American experience and you should read them both.

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One comment

  1. Reading BTWAM was my first real exposure to any detailed work by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book as you pointed out was a swing between the uselessness and vulnerability of the black body and the previous contributions made by possessors of these ‘black body’. It’s was an eye opener

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