Book Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forgive me, but I’ve become apathetic these days. I used to watch foreign movies with subtitles, and now most often watch Hollywood blockbusters. I watch less hard-hitting documentaries and rather too much reality TV. So, while I meant to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-lauded ‘Between the World and Me’, it took me a while to get to it. A trip to New York City was the perfect reason.

And yes, it is heavy. But god, this is a beautiful book. It shouldn’t work as well as it should. The conceit of a letter to one’s child has the danger of both sentimentality and sameness of tone.

But the advantage is honesty and emotion and a sense of urgency and mission. The writing sings out of the page. He is really a beautiful writer. It is horrifying, of course, and hard to understand for anyone really, if you haven’t experienced it, how having a black body marks you out for discrimination, violence and the possibility of incarceration and premature death, at the hands of the instruments of the state, of a system that has done this historically and is doing it deliberately. It is hard to read about it; bearing witness to it, or fearing its consequence permanently is… terrible.

And yet, the violence is so horrible, the urgency so great, that while it struck me as an alien world, I could also relate to it (and if you’ve read my book reviews before, this is one of my themes: great books teach me about something I’ve never thought of, but also touch me in a way that is personal and allows me to imagine it). I thought of the terrible violence done to gay men, and that continues to be done, and the immense loss of lives to AIDS and the inaction and prejudice that exacerbated the loss.

It was interesting that Coates writes of Paris, and of France, as a way to look at his own experience from outside of himself. It’s a tool, but not unrealistic. He acknowledges racism in France and in fact how the country was built on colonialism but as a tourist how he is at one remove. For contrast, I also read, while in NYC, Edmund White’s latest novel about France, and while as one of the world’s pre-eminent gay writers, he could be writing about difference and power relations, the novel is mostly gossip. This made me appreciate Coates’s book even more: it is vital and important and I want other people to read it. Yet it is so beautifully written and expressed I don’t feel I am imposing a moral chore or obligation on them. So, read it. That’s my recommendation.

I’m conscious that some African-American reviewers of the book on Goodreads feel that Coates is getting too much attention or being seen as THE voice of black America; I need to be empathetic to that, in the same way that I was fed up by seeing only gay white authors represent what ‘gay’ meant i literature. But I don’t detect he’s laying claim as a spokesperson, though that is the role that is perhaps being laid upon him. At least, to me, he seems intelligent, eloquent and kind. That’s the kind of spokesperson that I’d want.

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