Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” should be required reading for all people

Photo by McKenzie Heileman
Graphic by Sarah Schmid | The Arbiter

Published in 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” is a letter from Coates to his teenage son detailing what it is like to be Black in America. 

A select group of American people have always decided where Black people belong within this country. And Black individuals are not part of the group that decides where Black people belong.

Coates’s 15-year-old son realized this because of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 at the hands of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of all charges in the murder. In his epistolary novel, Coates addresses the problem of Black people belonging overall. 

Michelle Alexander, renowned scholar and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” wrote about Coates’s book in 2015 for the New York Times.

“‘Between the World and Me’ carries a very different message, though it is also written in the form of a letter to a black teenage boy. The boy is Coates’s 15-year-old son, who is trying to make sense of blatant racial injustice and come to grips with his place in a world that refuses to guarantee for him the freedoms that so many others take for granted,” Alexander wrote. 

These freedoms — ranging from something as simple as walking down the street with a pack of Skittles to driving without fear of a traffic stop — are taken for granted by white people in America. 

According to Alexander, Coates raises “big questions” that he leaves unanswered, but in a meaningful and purposeful way. 

[Photo of “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates]
Photo by McKenzie Heileman | The Arbiter

“The second time around I could see that maybe, just maybe, this is what is most needed right now — a book that offers no answers but instead challenges us to wrestle with the questions on our own. Maybe this is the time for questioning, searching and struggling without really believing the struggle can be won,” Alexander wrote. 

The wrestling with these big questions that Coates intentionally leaves unanswered is exactly what is needed for all people. In my opinion, Coates’s novel is a required reading for all, especially those in America . 

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world,” Coates wrote. Though addressed to his son, this statement is crucial in understanding what Coates demands of people. 

We can be blind to what is occurring in our world today, especially if we are privileged enough to be able to remove ourselves from current events. As a white person, this book changed my perspective by allowing me to see how the “American dream” cannot be realized by Black individuals because of the violence against the Black community. Coates is asking that we remain present and involved in order to truly see what is happening in these changing times. 

“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this,” Coates wrote. 

As a white person fighting for justice for the Black community, I realize we are not done. White people learn that the arc of history bends toward justice, but this is not the case. Just because past events have occurred that have propelled us forward, there are just as many present events pushing us backward. 

This is why it is crucial and important to remain present in realizing what is happening in the world today, just as Coates asks us to do. 

“The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream,” Coates wrote.

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