Between the World and Me is one of the most powerful and poignant pieces of literature that I have read this year.
I say read — in actual fact, I downloaded and listened to it on audiotape before subsequently buying a hard copy. Given that it is an extended letter from the author to his teenage son, listening to him narrate his own words added to its impact.
The book’s cover includes an acknowledgement from Toni Morrison, arguably America’s greatest contemporary black novelist, which declares, “This is required reading.” High praise indeed and, although Coates’s offering is a work of non-fiction, it calls to mind Morrison’s own brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning 1987 novel Beloved.
In that book Morrison explored the circumstances and consequences of a mother’s decision to kill her own precious child rather than allow her to be captured and returned to the violent and murderous depravity of slavery in the Southern States.
150 years after the events depicted in Beloved, Coates expresses his fear that he cannot protect his own son from the brutality that persists in modern America.
This is of course a society in which activists have felt compelled to establish a campaign under the banner Black Lives Matter.
Coates was once a student at Howard University in Washington D.C.
Some years later he heard a radio report that a graduate of this prestigious black institution had been shot dead by the police.
Having initially paid little attention to the story, he was subsequently horrified to discover that the victim was Prince Jones, a bright, dignified, god-fearing, young father who he had known and admired in his varsity days.
It was a shocking reminder of the cheapness of black lives, how they can be disposed of with such casual contempt.
When he later visited Prince’s mother, Coates discovered that she had bought him the Jeep that the police fired those 16 fatal shots into from an unmarked car.
Coates eloquently examines the reasons why many black parents, brutalised by the system, beat their own children.
It is, he argues, out of fear for their safety: a sense that it is better that they learn harsh lessons at the hands of those who love them rather than those who are sanctioned by the state to kill them.
Violence begets violence and hence, he asserts, many of those same black youth turn on each other in acts of gratuitous ghetto violence.
Between the World and Me is a book about many things. Racism is its most immediate subject, of course, but it is also an honest, sometimes harsh assessment of masculinity and a tender examination of what it means to truly cherish somebody.
What it does not do is offer answers. Coates’s own solution, to relocate his family at least temporarily to Paris, is not one that is open to the majority of people.
To be fair to him, he doesn’t claim to have the answer.
However, his characterisation of the French capital as a place of refuge is somewhat idealistic.
As he hits middle age, Coates is desperate to see his son grow up in a better world.
He’s right about that, but surely the best way to achieve it is to fight, and involve our children in that struggle.
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