Between the World and Me is a powerful series of letters written by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son. Ta-Nehisi writes about his experience as a black man in America, while exploring the nuances of race as it relates to the American Dream. The writing is beautiful, poetic and deeply personal. Despite being a short book, it takes time to read and digest. Toni Morrison has proclaimed that Between the World and Me is required reading. I would have to agree.

The Good

I had not expected to wrestle so much with the ideas in this book. I assumed I would finish it in one sitting, only to walk away further convinced that black is beautiful. While I am still convinced that black is beautiful, the book pulled me in to a very blunt and forthright assessment of America. It was not overly flowery and did not read as a giant pep-talk. Instead, Between the World and Me is a modern-day black man’s Ecclesiastes.

Ta-Nehisi does not waste time patting America on the back for the progress that has been made. He argues that progress has is somewhat of an illusion, a safety blanket for those too afraid to face the realities of racism and oppression. And yet, the book isn’t distant or dry. The writing is deeply personal and poetic. I felt as though I had been invited to sit in on a profound father-son bonding moment (minus the cheesiness). I read slowly, allowing myself to stop and think about what I was reading. As I always say, a book that makes you think is worth reading!

I was particularly fascinated by  Ta-Nehisi’s discussion of the American Dream. Ta-Nehisi argues that ‘The Dream’ is directly linked to the oppression of and violence towards black bodies. White people are the dreamers and black bodies are tools used to bring the dream in to reality. I don’t know if I completely agree this argument. The lives of many black immigrants will tell a different story. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this concept while reading the book.

The Bad

I said I liked the bluntness of this book, but I didn’t appreciate the utter lack of hope and overwhelming dread it left me with. Ta-Nehisi provides no vision, no faith or belief in a brighter future for America. He presents racism in America as something that black people will simply have to accept and live with. Now I’m not unrealistic. The fact that Donald Trump is a presidential candidate is evidence enough that racism and bigotry are alive and well. But to simply accept racism, to refuse to claim more than the right to live, is absurd to me.

My parents have instilled in me the belief that education is a venue for me to accomplish my goals and make my dreams come true. I have always seen the classroom as a place to thrive, despite the racism that exists in academic spaces. So I was disappointed that Ta-Nehisi did not share this idea. Granted, Ta-Nehisi’s academic experiences are completely different from my suburban Canadian experience, but I still think education can be a source of hope instead of a tool of oppression.

I was also disturbed by Ta-Nehisi’s treatment of religion in the black community. The notion that belief in God is merely a thing black people hold to make themselves feel better is insulting. It does a disservice to those whose faith consists of more than gospel songs and Joyce Myers devotions. I do not criticize Coates for his lack of faith in God, but his discussion of religion is incredibly oversimplified. Coates argues that he is tired of the spiritualization of black suffering, tired of looking for meaning in our oppression. That is why he focuses on the real, tangible black body. I get it, but I am not content with the conclusion that there is no meaning in suffering. If a spiritual perspective is completely removed from discussions of the black experience, then such discussions and one-dimensional and Ta-Nehisi’s book becomes an unnecessary regurgitation of obvious facts. Whoa…sorry (not sorry) for the rant!

I am still conflicted about how to rate this book. I feel like I should love it because it has been heralded as a revolutionary work. But the more I think about it, the less impressed I become. Books like this are definitely necessary because they force their audience to let go of the illusion that the modern world has progressed to its peak of sophistication and intelligence. Black men still die for being black and that is obviously evidence that something is deeply wrong with our world. But the reductionist nature of Ta-Nehisi’s arguments are frustrating. The complete lack of hope in this book was also immensely depressing. For these reasons, I give this book a 3/5….I think. I might change my mind…

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Published by Born-Again Hooligan