Between the World and Me is a 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction-winning work by prominent author and Atlantic contributor Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, BTWAM winds through Coates’s life first in Baltimore, then to his college days at Howard University (or “the Mecca”), and eventually to his transition into adulthood and parenthood, all the while describing the struggle of being labeled as black in America. It’s difficult to describe the force this book contains within its ostensibly short 152 pages. While Coates’s poetic narration melts words off the page at 100 miles per hour, it can also jar the mind to a grinding halt just as easily. It demands digestion and contemplation, and trying to consume it in one session will leave you with an upset stomach. Behind every page is a resigned voice telling readers that the moral arc of the universe does not necessarily bend toward justice, but toward those who already hold power.
It is painfully obvious that Coates gave up on people like me—white moderates—quite some time ago. BTWAM was not written to persuade; it serves to show black bodies how to literally survive and understand the world around them rather than to teach supposedly enlightened, self-styled “woke” millennials about the black condition in the same manner a college freshman enjoys a particular class one semester and subsequently forgets everything about it the next. We (white people) have the luxury of choosing when we want to walk away from the harsh reality Coates details; those who are labeled black do not have that choice. As such, Coates advises his son:
“You cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious.”
Even Coates himself shies away from the more activist approach seen by protest movements like Black Lives Matter. When asked in a recent interview about the future of the BLM movement, and how one should try to change the public discourse surrounding the fragility of the black body, he responded that those actions weren’t his to undertake. He claimed that despite the celebrity status he has gained in academic circles in recent years, he’s merely a journalist, a historian, and a writer, and that by consciously and actively entering the world of persuasion he would lose something in himself that lets him sleep at night as an author. Unlike Bryan Stevenson’s defiant optimism, Coates holds a deep-set belief that history is apathetic to the claims of the oppressed. To the unseasoned reader this attitude seems astonishing. What are we supposed to think when Coates, the most prominent author on race today, the man Toni Morrison has called the new James Baldwin, subscribes to a pessimistic philosophy?
“Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
Following up on this philosophy, Coates is quick to criticize the “just-world” myth pervasive in American culture that can be summarized as follows: Good things happen to good people because they do good deeds, bad things happen to bad people because they do bad deeds, and the universe actively works to ensure this balance. He also unapologetically notes that the black community is one of the strongest believers in this myth, which is part of what makes it such a powerful one. But this belief—that one can achieve in life independent of limiting factors—is both tempting and poisoning when trying to develop a sense of empathy with those who have to deal with the uglier factors of life more closely than others. It is a great privilege to believe that every man is an island, and that our accomplishments are entirely the products of our own determination. This is not to say that individual effort and responsibility aren’t values that should be esteemed and venerated, but rather to say that a significant number of people in this country are punished seemingly for being born on the wrong side of a tilted playing field. These circumstances particularly bother Coates not because they entail suffering, but because America accepts this reality as an unfortunate consequence of its existence while simultaneously claiming itself to be exceptional. As Coates says, “One cannot at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.”
Nothing in this review will shatter expectations. BTWAM is a year old already and everything there is to say about it has been written in a million think-pieces by a million aspiring authors. But despite the fact that most of us will never write anything truly groundbreaking, there is some beauty in struggling through one’s thoughts no matter how contrite or commonplace. I’ll finish with one last quotation from Coates:
“I think God is fatalistic. In the end, we all die. As do most societies. As do most states. As do most planets. If America is fatally flawed, if white supremacy does truly dog us until we are no more, all that means is that we were unexceptional, that we were not favored by God, that we were flawed—as are all things conceived by mortal man. I find great peace in that. And I find great meaning in this struggle that was gifted to me by my people, that was gifted to me by culture.”
This article was written by Daniel Muehring. Click here to see more of Daniel’s work.