Reading “Between the World and Me” in Context

By Matthew ShenodaSeptember 13, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

WHEN I FIRST AGREED to review Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me I did so with the enthusiasm that comes from knowing a capable writer was going to engage issues of race in America and knowing that the world sorely needs more intelligent work in this vein. I planned a standard review: to study the text and give my thoughts and analysis, assuming I would naturally engage a few larger connections and ideas along the way. But in the meantime the vast amount of discussion in print, online, and on social media that has followed the publication of the book has caused me to approach it a bit differently, responding to both the text and the reception. 

I will say first what should be obvious: Ta-Nehisi Coates is not James Baldwin (and I don’t think he ever said he was). When Toni Morrison wrote, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” she made the comparison (whether one deems it accurate or not) — framing the book by understanding its intellectual antecedents. But one can never read Baldwin without being keenly aware of the urgency in his prose; an urgency that is clearly contextualized by the moment in which he lived and wrote. That urgency does not exist in the same manner in Between the World and Me, partly due to its form (epistolary memoir) and partly due to its form of address: he writes the book to his son. To be clear, it is not that these are not urgent times, but Coates’s work focuses on the personal in a manner that shifts the perspective of the reader.

Although many, including Coates, have stated that he is not addressing white America, I struggle with that claim. Even if Coates is rhetorically “ignoring” a white audience, that itself can be seen as a way of writing to them. What Coates is actually saying is that the white audience is not his direct subject, he is saying: “look, black folks have to find ways to talk to each other about these things, and right now, you may be overhearing this and that is fine, but I am not going to make a significant effort to fit into your notion of what a black man talking to white people looks and sounds like.” And thus the rhetorical structure of the book: he represents himself writing this book to a black boy — his son — and that is compelling, but different from saying he is not writing for anyone else, including a white readership. Baldwin on the other hand, was most certainly speaking directly to white America and he was doing so, not to seek approval, but to put them on notice, to let the public know once and for all that the “race problem” is in fact a “white problem.” This is most evident in Baldwin’s essays, as in his 1963 A Talk to Teachers:

In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere. I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one. But if I was a “nigger” in your eyes, there was something about you — there was something you needed. I had to realize when I was very young that I was none of those things I was told I was. I was not, for example, happy. I never touched a watermelon for all kinds of reasons that had been invented by white people, and I knew enough about life by this time to understand that whatever you invent, whatever you project, is you! So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t, and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.

In this passage and in so many others Baldwin is direct in his indictment of whiteness, addressed to whites. This is a fundamental difference and I will say again, Ta-Nehisi Coates is not James Baldwin: he’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, and while he most certainly takes cues from Baldwin — as must anyone serious about writing on race — the intellectual lineage he is working in is clearly rooted not only in Baldwin and the writers of his generation, but elsewhere. Coates himself is clearly well versed in, and aware that he is writing within, a tradition. His references are both instructive and smart, from Chancellor Williams to Walter Rodney and C.L.R. James. His work can also be seen squarely as an extension of a wide array of works from writers and scholars whose careers began after Baldwin’s, many of whom are still producing stellar work today — scholars and thinkers like Angela Y. Davis, Derrick Bell, bell hooks, Nell Painter, June Jordan, Robin D.G. Kelley, Tricia Rose, Patricia Williams, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson and Thavolia Glymph whom he specifically credits, and who have laid out in clear and deeply nuanced ways many of the issues Coates addresses.

But Between the World and Me is not a scholarly text and should not be evaluated as one. This epistolary form roots the text in the personal, and gives him the space to engage in sentimentality, conjecture, feeling, confusion, and contradiction even as he moves us towards his thesis. While not exactly rare, this is tricky, both freeing and messy, and more like Baldwin’s novels than his essays. It is the story of Coates as a son, husband, and most of all as a father. It is the story of Coates as a friend to Prince Jones, who was brutally murdered at the hands of the police like too many black men. It is ultimately an intimate and at times embodied narrative. In all these ways Between the World and Me can be seen as both interesting and limiting, and much of what I have read about the book struggles with this. To try to dig deep into systemic racism without getting “scholarly” is not an easy, or perhaps even a wise task. The story of Prince Jones stands out as an example: the narrative certainly illustrates the reality of police brutality, but not necessarily its structural reality, its relation to the prison industrial complex and the extension of the slave state — these can be illustrated but not explained by simply telling the story of the murder of Prince Jones. Here the memoir form shows its limitations. While Coates alludes to and references some of the structural and historical issues that create these flashpoint moments in American racism, I think he could have done more to help readers — and his son — make sense of these events, to make sense of the depths of the internal colonization that can lead a black cop to just as easily wipe out an innocent black man as a white cop. 

At times Coates falters slightly with clunky metaphors: “[My mother] knew the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled on the curb like bum wine.” But at other times, Coates finds his stride as a writer in moments of deep engagement; for example, he says to his son, Samori: 

And that is the deeper meaning of your name — that the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning. That wisdom is not unique to our people, but I think it has special meaning to those born out of mass rape, whose ancestors were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks. I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

And this then brings me back to the question of audience. Who is Coates addressing here? Was it really only his son? Obviously not, and the book has moments of great success in addressing black youth in general, giving them a way to think about what they are experiencing in their everyday lives. Much of the commentary about this book wants it to serve not only as a primer, but as a roadmap to the solutions of America’s greatest blight, America’s truest core. No single book can do this, of course, and to hope for such a book is a deeply ingrained American mythology, a twin of manifest destiny — the notion that we can find a quick and easy solution to the “race problem” and we can once and for all move on. Although Between the World and Me is, in fact, quite skillful in its refusal to provide such proclamations, many white critics reviewing the book seem to have missed this. They miss the fact that what this book does best is state plainly that we have a serious, lingering, and deeply complex division in this society between those who consider themselves white, and those who are decidedly not; that no solution will come easily or quickly, nor without significant upheaval in the lives of all Americans. This should be a basic understanding at this point. Even then, Coates might argue, much may not change.

Coates’s perspective is underpinned by a belief that race and racism is purely physical. So he approaches racism as an act of physicality enacted on the body. And one cannot fully disagree: the physical harm inflicted on black and brown bodies across the country and the globe is abhorrent, ingrained, and seemingly without end. It is difficult, especially in these summer months, not to see the things he writes of in a purely physical sense. I often think, perhaps the earth must remain frigid for it seems that every time the temperature swells black and brown bodies burn with the fire of lead. But it also feels like Coates’s atheism pushes him to insist that the physical is everything there is, that the body is the only reality and the only vantage point for us to understand the brutal legacies of genocide, slavery, and the like. But with a topic as complex as this one, that singularity becomes wholly unconvincing and narrow for me. While I see this as an honest struggle and one that fits well within the personal narrative of the text, I also see it as an idea that he himself contradicts in the very act of being so intellectually and dare I say, spiritually, engaged in coming to terms with the very physical realities of race and racism. It is an idea that needs deeper exploration. And on further reading, though I often disagree with his thesis, perhaps that debate is a centrally necessary element of this book. 

Coates’s engagement with France, which surfaces in multiple places in the text, comes from a specific and I believe honest space, was another place I questioned the memoir form. His approach is somewhat ethnocentrically American and dare I say naive, and I felt here that he needed to interrogate more thoroughly the experiences of the myriad peoples from Algeria, Haiti, Martinique, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and elsewhere who live all over France. I wanted Coates to recognize how these people who are also deeply subjugated by a racial hierarchy are in fact more similar to him than he might admit. 

While that analysis felt missing, he nonetheless has a few moments of clarity on the subject, again directly addressing his son: 

It is true that our color was not our distinguishing feature there, so much as our Americanness represented in our poor handle on French. And it is true that there is something particular about how the Americans who think they are white regard us — something sexual and obscene. We were not enslaved in France. We are not their particular “problem,” nor their national guild. We are not their niggers. If there is any comfort in this, it is not that kind that I would encourage you to indulge. 

But my reading of Coates has been conditioned by my resistance to many of the ways I have seen his book framed and discussed. It is a rare thing to see a book get so much attention, and there is a clear and apparent danger (no fault of Coates’s) in allowing the white liberal establishment to define the discourse on race, through this book or elsewhere. I’m amazed at how so many voices previously silent on issues of racism in America have come now to engage this book. And in the end, I see Between the World and Me not just as a deeply personal text in the way of traditional memoirs, but also as a public text written from the lens of a intimately engaged black man and father who has been brought to a place of crisis by the racial-historical trajectory that has come to define America. And by allowing America to overhear him talking to his son about that trajectory, he is speaking to America, after all. In this, Coates has done something significant, writing what every conscious person of color knows deeply, feels deeply, and navigates daily in their lives. 

And this is where the conceit that the book is a letter to his son pays off; because I see here a powerful book not just for his peers and elders so extravagantly praising his accomplishment, but for his son and his son’s generation. He has written a necessary primer not only for his child, but for my own children, and for so many others. Between the World and Me, no matter what else, is a decidedly human narrative, struggling to help articulate this present moment. Still, Coates’s is an important and necessary voice that can only be fully realized in the context of many other voices, like those I mentioned earlier. So the one thing I hope for is that Between the World and Me pushes the broader American public to read more widely and become more nuanced in their understanding of American history as it relates to racism, genocide, sexism, hyper-capitalism and the many other isms that have been destroying people’s lives and humanity for hundreds of years. Once that understanding is truly gained, then comes the real work of dismantling the systems that reinforce these faulty concepts and building the world anew. Between the World and Me is no doubt a primer in that direction, but ultimately, we have serious internal and external work to do and no single book will grant us the answers.


Matthew Shenoda is a writer and professor whose poems and essays have appeared in a variety of newspapers, journals, radio programs, and anthologies. His most recent book is Tahrir Suite.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Shenoda is a writer and professor whose poems and essays have appeared in a variety of newspapers, journals, radio programs and anthologies. His debut collection of poems, Somewhere Else (Coffee House Press), was named one of 2005's debut books of the year by Poets & Writers Magazine and was winner of a 2006 American Book Award. He is also the author of Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone (BOA Editions Ltd.), editor of Duppy Conqueror: New & Selected Poems by Kwame Dawes, and most recently author of Tahrir Suite: Poems (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press) winner of the 2015 Arab American Book AwardBearden’s Odyssey: An Anthology of Poets Responding to the Art of Romare Bearden, edited by Shenoda and Kwame Dawes will be released by Northwestern University Press in 2016. Shenoda is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago and is a founding editor of the African Poetry Book Series. He lives with his family in Evanston, Illinois.

Photo by Joe Mazza


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