This non-fictional account of living as a black man in America provides a bleak view of those well-known states. The exquisite writing cannot soften this bleakness, but definitely serves to entice the reader to continue. Although it was the fluent way of writing that originally drew me in, I would prefer to mainly discuss the content, placing the disclaimer that the interpretation of this book will of course differ for every person, based on their background and political views.
Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses his son in three different letters which, being autobiographical, read as if they are short stories: they have the possibility to show the reader the world through a different set of eyes. It reminds me of the website Humans of New York, always managing to show the human story behind a picture. Between The World and Me does so too, bringing out the underlying personal experience that – for me – generally lacks in the reporting about police-violence related riots in the US. Ta-Nehisi however manages to show the anger, frustration, and most of all, fear, underlying these movements. Sadly, he also manages to convey that he does not see an immediate solution at hand.
Reading this book as a white person living in the Netherlands, which is in certain aspects fundamentally different from living as a black person in the US, I cannot account for how close his story stands to the average reality for such a person. However, that realization is something I have only now become painfully aware of, whereas I could easily ignore it before. As one popular website shows, white privilege tends to be hard to see for those who are experiencing it. Yet Ta-Nehisi never uses this terminology, preventing that the reader feels blamed. Rather, he discusses what the experience has been for himself. He does not blame a specific person, time, or institution for the state of the world, but shows how the (cultural) history of the US has led to a nation where the black body is implicitly valued as invaluable. Although there might be legal equality, the black body is far more likely to be violated in any sense, leading to a constant state of fear.
In my opinion, one of Coates’ strengths lies in making this experience relatable for a broader group of people by drawing the comparison to other groups. For instance, he describes the manner in which a woman must protect her body compared to the way in which a man must, and to the vulnerability of being of non-heterosexual. There is a point in the book where he admits that even he must at times not only have been oppressed but also have acted as an oppressor, for instance by using words as “fag” and “gay”. He manages to relate the issue of pure physical safety to the whole human spectrum, making it far more understandable for someone who has not lived through his experiences.
Not only does he provide a strong emotional account of his experiences with the violation of the black body, he also shows how this is a loss for society as a whole. After all, a whole community invests money, education, and so much love into an individual that can, due to an implicitly unbiased culture, be gone from the one day to the next.
As ignorant as this may sound, I think that exactly these points are why the book has found such popularity even among those who usually are only confronted with police violence on the news. The experience is made personal, described in a vulnerable way, and the consequences for even those who stand far from it are mad painfully clear. When having finished it, I felt angry, and I wanted to get up and change something somehow. Yet that is the only thing the book will not offer – there is no clear roadmap to a better world.