I cannot possibly write about this book.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, has been talked about literally everywhere since it was published in 2015. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015, and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It was even “Entertainment Weekly” magazine’s selection of “Book of the Year” for 2015 (a bold selection for a pop-culture magazine), which is how I came to read it, through my personal reading project. But I cannot possibly write about it.
Between is the author’s conversation with his son about what his experience as a black man in today’s America has been like: growing up in Baltimore, college years, fatherhood. It’s one man’s experience of being black. It’s heart-wrenching and saddening…and yet not accusatory. These are just…things he feels people should know about being black in America. It’s a slim volume, only about 150 pages. And I cannot possibly write about it.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a black journalist, a national correspondent for “The Atlantic” magazine among other things. He’s also written the “Black Panther” comic books for the last two years, and has recently announced that he’ll be taking over the writing of “Captain America” as well; his first issue is expected to drop on July 4th.
He’s also known for a nasty feud with black activist and Harvard professor Cornel West, the author of the seminal 1993 book Race Matters. West, a “gentleman of a certain age” and the pre-eminent black intellectual of his generation, has been publicly criticizing Coates for his “neoliberal” stance for years. (If you’re wondering [like I was], “neoliberal” is an epithet often thrown at Democrats by the more radical left, who protest the capitalist-friendly policies embraced by Barack Obama and his supporters.) West, once enough of an Obama fan to campaign heavily for his first presidential campaign, has evolved to a position of criticism of Obama’s policies, and has also criticized Coates (and others) for their support of Obama.
He also took Coates to task for using his writing to present white supremacy as an omnipotent force which blacks can have little hope of overcoming; West’s statements imply that Coates is an apolitical pessimist, a dilettante: “For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic–a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action.” (Coates, for his part, has said that he hesitates to comment on common radical-left issues like drone strikes and Wall Street simply because they are not his area of expertise; his focus is on issues of race.)
The long-simmering conflict between Coates and West blew up in December 2017, and grew so heated that Coates finally deactivated his Twitter account in December 2017. He has yet to re-open it.
More recently, Coates made the news again for his public praise of noted conservative columnist Kevin D. Williamson. Although he disagrees with Williamson’s positions on most things, Coates defends Williamson’s writing as one of the few examples of conservative journalism he enjoys, for the quality of Williamson’s writing. Shortly after these statements (made in a podcasted interview with Jamie Weinstein for National Review Online), Coates’ employer The Atlantic hired Williamson to be a regular contributor, setting off another flurry of controversy, and bringing the shrieking wrath of the online salons down on Coates’ head.
Whichever face of Coates you see, his can’t be an easy position to occupy. As the foremost black intellectual of his generation, he’s expected to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Maybe that’s why he decided to couch his observations in Between the World and Me in the form of “letters” to his son. Maybe it gets easier to bear the world’s expectations when you can feel like you’re just talking to your kid.
Between is a powerful work, and the only thing I can liken it to is this: In the wake of this winter’s #MeToo movement, I remember reading somewhere about a speech a woman gave. (Full disclosure: I don’t remember who the woman was, the occasion for the speech, or even where I read the article.) I do remember that the speaker asked the men in the crowd to raise their hands and describe the ways in which they avoid getting attacked when they’re out in public. Few of the men in the crowd could give examples of how they accomplished this.
Then the speaker asked the women in the audience to answer the same question. The answers were many and varied, and they included things like:
“I make sure I’m never alone when I’m out in public.”
“My drinks at a bar are never out of my sight.”
“I don’t make eye contact when I’m walking by myself.”
“I carry Mace ready at all times.”
“I hold my keys between my fingers and pointing out as I walk to my car, so I can use them in self-defense if I have to.”
Although none of this was surprising to me (nor, I imagine, to any adult woman), the men in the audience were stunned at the realization of how constantly the women around them have to be thinking of self-preservation at any given time; the sheer number of things that women believe they must do and think about regularly in order to feel safe, to maintain control of their own bodies.
And that is how I felt reading Between the World and Me. All the things to be thought about, to be managed, to be done, that I don’t have to think about, that I don’t have to manage, that I don’t have to do; frankly, that I don’t even have to understand, because I’m not a person of color in today’s America. It was edifying. And depressing. And eye-opening.
And that’s why I can’t possibly write about this book.
Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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