Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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For Ta-Nehisi Coates, history has always been personal. At every stage of his life, he’s sought in his explorations of history answers to the mysteries that surrounded him — most urgently, why he, and other black people he knew, seemed to live in fear. What were they afraid of? Coates takes readers along on his journey through America’s history of race and its contemporary resonances through a series of awakenings — moments when he discovered some new truth about our long, tangled history of race, whether through his myth-busting professors at Howard University, a trip to a Civil War battlefield with a rogue historian, a journey to Chicago’s South Side to visit aging survivors of 20th century America’s ‘long war on black people,’ or a visit with the mother of a beloved friend who was shot down by the police. In his trademark style — a mix of lyrical personal narrative, reimagined history, essayistic argument, and reportage — Coates provides readers a thrillingly illuminating new framework for understanding race: its history, our contemporary dilemma, and where we go from here.

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I’ve known about the author for quite a while now and have listened to his interviews and speeches, always leaving very impressed by what he had to say. When his first fiction novel The Water Dancer released recently, I decided I wanted to read his award winning prolific nonfiction works first, to truly experience his voice. And what a revelation this book is.

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Falling just around 150 pages, this book in the form of letters to his son may feel small but the words it contains are profound, unapologetic, visceral, and give us a window into a world that we’ll never truly understand because we have not been born Black and grown up in a country where our existence revolves around fear and survival right from our birth. As a reader with an outside perspective, this book is at times uncomfortable to read, but if one is open to listening to experiences that one has never had, then anyone reading this book will realize the inherent brutal truth behind the author’s words. It is the truth of America’s violent history and it’s present, the truth that is the daily life of a whole community terrorized by the system that is supposed to protect its citizens, even when those of us with privilege can never fathom the toll of living like that.

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You may think that the main audience for this book is the Black community, but I feel it’s far more important for everyone else to read it. We may never understand the fears of every Black parent who have to teach their sons how to survive from an unimaginably young age, but we all have the responsibility to learn about it and acknowledge our privilege and be an ally in whatever way possible. I say this as a brown woman who grew up with privilege in my own country, and while I do get terrified at a traffic stop in the US these days, I also understand that the so-called “model minority” myth might accord me some safety. This is a powerful book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read more about the inescapable systems of oppression in the country.

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