What Between the World and Me does better than any other recent book I can think of is relentlessly drive home the point that 'racism is a visceral experience' ... in this book he is firing on all cylinders, and it is something to behold: a mature writer entirely consumed by a momentous subject and working at the extreme of his considerable powers at the very moment national events most conform to his vision.
Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream ... the problem, to the extent there is one, is that Coates’s book is unfinished. He raises numerous critically important questions that are left unanswered ... Perhaps Coates hasn’t yet discovered for himself the answers to the questions he poses in Between the World and Me. But I suspect that he is holding out on us. Everything he has ever written leads me to believe he has more to say. He may imagine that we are better off figuring out for ourselves the true nature of the Dream and what it means to be engaged in meaningful Struggle. But I believe we could only benefit from hearing what answers Coates may have fashioned for himself.
The book is polemical at times, but it’s also driven by probing reporting and a loving intimacy. For example, Coates writes with tremendous power, but also intense grief, about a dashing African-American college friend who was shot by a police officer under highly suspicious circumstances outside Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago ... demonstrates this author’s admirable ability to interrogate himself and challenge his own attitudes and ideas, while picking apart those generally held by the society he lives in. Coates’ book possesses a brooding eloquence that only carefully channeled anger and sadness can produce ... stands to become a classic on the subject of race in America.
There is a Manichaean tone to some of the passages in this book, and at times, a hazardous tendency to generalize ... Sometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that 'you and I' belong to that 'below' in the racial hierarchy of American society: 'That was true in 1776. It is true today.' ... Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.
Coates’s success, in this book and elsewhere, is due to his lucidity and innate dignity, his respect for himself and for others. He refuses to preach or talk down to white readers or to plead for acceptance: He never wonders why we just can’t all get along. He knows government policies make getting along near impossible ... Coates dismisses out of hand the idea of a spirit separate from the body. But it is his son’s youthful spirit that this book will embolden, and his own magnificent spirit that informs it.
...at once a magnification and a distillation of our existence as black people in a country we were not meant to survive. It is a straight tribute to our strength, endurance and grace ... Between the World and Me is the story of two black men bound together by blood – in this case, Coates and his son. Which, on its own, is fine. What is less fine is the near-complete absence of black women throughout the book.
He does not offer comfort, which would feel, to him, dishonest, and instead sets out to explore the question of how to 'live free in this black body.' To Coates, a defining feature of black life is that your body can be taken from you easily, and with little consequence ... Coates writes extensively about the vulnerability of the black body, but he only briefly alludes to the additional ways black women’s bodies are vulnerable to sexual and physical violence. To his credit, he does not presume to be an expert on black women’s experiences, but his reluctance to interrogate them further feels odd for a narrator who is otherwise insatiably curious ... Looking forward, Between the World and Me feels like a crucial book during this moment of generational awakening. In Coates’s work, racism not only disembodies but it is disembodied itself. Nowadays we love a loud racist but Coates turns away from such sensational stories and focusses instead on the slow violence of institutional racism.
A self-conscious step back from a present whose crimes and bloodiness it sees as consistent with American history, the volume is a rather strange blend of epistolary non-fiction, autobiography and political theory that has at its heart a simple message: 'In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage' ... Coates doesn’t write like a father so much as an apprentice theologian or a sophomoric logician. Sentences begin with 'Thus', 'I propose', 'This leads us to another equally important ideal.' The tone is consistently one of aspirational gravitas, of bewhiskered patriarchs and dollar-bill overlords ... In 2015, Coates is a more exalted writer, but his prose seems increasingly ventriloquised and his insistence on Afro-American exceptionalism a kind of parochialism.
Rife with love, sadness, anger and struggle, Between the World and Me charts a path through the American gauntlet for both the black child who will inevitably walk the world alone and for the black parent who must let that child walk away.
The book is a fine, even remarkable, personal history, but its import lies in how Coates uses his experiences to discuss systemic racism and social injustice in America. Using lyrical prose (he calls good intentions 'a hall pass through history'), Coates adapts his reporting prowess to explore the fear that drives African-American communities, while contextualizing modern events with history. A work that’s both titanic and timely, Between the World and Me is the latest essential reading in America’s social canon.
Coates’s knives are deadly, and they strip away the fat from truths passingly familiar to many but lived by only a few. It is an indictment ... Between the World and Me is a letter, but it is a twinned chronicle: It is the story of how Coates woke up to America, and it is also the story of passing his hard-won consciousness, as another student of history, down to his legacy, his only child ... Its power is in the details, in the way it grants its reader the power to see black Americans as fully realized, as fully human. And in this, Coates finds his way into the universal.
[Coates] makes no apologies for his wrath, nor does he limit his critique to injustice against blacks; the capacity for plunder — of women, members of the LGBT community, children and other marginalized people — is universally shared. But Coates reserves his harshest admonishment for the Dreamers — those Americans who coast in a gauzy state of denial, historical amnesia and indifference — as if nature, and not man, account for the racial chasm; and as if America’s sins were negligible and unrelated to the present ... Poignant, revelatory and exceedingly wise, Between the World and Me is an essential clarion call to our collective conscience. We ignore it at our own peril.
The book lives in the tension between the broad sweep of that history and the specific havoc it wreaks. Samori’s physical safety, like that of every young black man in America, is still an endangered thing in 2015. Coates tackles that subject with both love and dread ... I am in near-total agreement with Coates’s view of this world we share. Yet I did wonder where the stories of black women feature in all this death and plunde ... In fact, Between the World and Me doesn’t aspire to anything so large – or vague – as 'overcoming' or 'transcending' race to defeat racism. It is simply about surviving, and remembering. Coates’s preoccupation is not with saving the soul of America. It’s urging it, to borrow a phrase you see around a lot lately, to 'stay woke.'
...a book like this will always be timely—not merely because its concerns are shamefully perennial, but because it is a work of rare beauty and revelatory honesty ... Between the World and Me is a love letter written in a moral emergency, one that Coates exposes with the precision of an autopsy and the force of an exorcism. Taken as a whole the book is Coates’ attempt to sever America’s ongoing romance with its own unexamined platitudes of innocence and equality, a romance that, in the writer’s telling, 'persists by warring with the known world.'”
Much of what Coates writes may be difficult for a majority of Americans to process, but that's the incisive wisdom of it. Read it, think about it, take a deep breath and read it again. The spirit of James Baldwin lives within its pages.
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 ... many white critics reviewing the book have missed 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 ... 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.
Mr. Coates’ collection of letters is more akin to the forlorn violence of the Richard Wright poem from which it takes its title. In the poem, a man is set upon by a lynch mob as though by a natural disaster and finds relief only when he is set aflame. The letters by Mr. Coates are a scream in the night meant to stir his son from the slumber of the American Dream altogether ... Altogether, [Coates] does nothing short of challenging Americans to give up the privileges of blind belief in thinking themselves the best and of blind faith that everyone reaps exactly what they sow.
Between the World and Me is a chronicle of a historical moment and a text that deserves the place it will hopefully find in the canon of writing about fatherhood, filial love, and race in the United States ... By no means is Between the World and Me a perfect book. Yet Ta-Nehisi Coates shares James Baldwin’s capacity to look into the maw of history and recognize the human, and that makes Between the World and Me worthy of Baldwin’s legacy.
In a missive alight with righteous rage and sacred love—specifically, for Coates's son, to whom the book is addressed—American racism is treated as a brute material force bent on the destruction of the black body. There is much pain, and no flinching. The perpetrators are told to face their crimes and save themselves. The sufferers are implored to bind their wounds, to struggle and to live on.
Does Coates have any hope for this country's future? It's a tricky question, one left unanswered by Between the World and Me ... his hope is muted, tempered by the weight of history. Despite his best efforts as a loving parent, Coates knows that he cannot save his son 'from the police, from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns.' It's an ugly truth, one that isn't easy to digest. But Coates has our attention, and we should listen to and try to understand his pain.
In Between the World and Me, his second, riveting book (written as a letter to his son), Coates delivers a fiery soliloquy dissecting the tradition of the erasure of African-Americans beginning with the deeply personal ... Coates' epiphanies are not rooted in religious belief or prayer, but in the relentless interrogation of the truth — a philosophy he inherited from his parents. His message is apocalyptic, and his language, urgent and poetic, recalls Claudia Rankine's Citizen.