Between the World and Me
|Subject||Autobiography, American history, race relations|
|Publisher||Spiegel & Grau|
Between the World and Me is a 2015 book written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and published by Spiegel & Grau. It is written as a letter to the author's teenage son about the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being Black in the United States. Coates recapitulates American history and explains to his son the "racist violence that has been woven into American culture." Coates draws from an abridged, autobiographical account of his youth in Baltimore, detailing the ways in which institutions like the school, the police, and even "the streets" discipline, endanger, and threaten to disembody Black men and women. The work takes inspiration from James Baldwin's 1963 The Fire Next Time. Unlike Baldwin, Coates sees white supremacy as an indestructible force, one that Black Americans will never evade or erase, but will always struggle against.
Novelist Toni Morrison wrote that Coates filled an intellectual gap in succession to James Baldwin. Editors of The New York Times and The New Yorker described the book as exceptional. The book won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
Coates was inspired to write Between the World and Me following a 2013 meeting with sitting United States President Barack Obama. Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, had been reading James Baldwin's 1963 The Fire Next Time and was determined to make his second meeting with the president less deferential. As he left for Washington, D.C., his wife encouraged him to think like Baldwin, and Coates recalled an unofficial, fiery meeting between Baldwin, Black activists, and Robert Kennedy in 1963. When it was his turn, Coates debated with Obama whether his policy sufficiently addressed racial disparities in the universal health care rollout. After the event, Obama and Coates spoke privately about a blog post Coates had written criticizing the president's call for more personal responsibility among African Americans. Obama disagreed with the criticism and told Coates not to despair.
As Coates walked to the train station, he thought about how Baldwin would not have shared Obama's optimism, the same optimism that supported many Civil Rights Movement activists' belief that justice was inevitable. Instead, Coates saw Baldwin as "cold" and without "sentiment and melodrama" in his acknowledgment that the movement could fail and that requital was not guaranteed. Coates found this idea "freeing" and called his book editor, Christopher Jackson, to ask "why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore." Jackson proposed that Coates try.
Between the World and Me is Coates's second book, following his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Since then, and especially in the 18 months including the Ferguson unrest preceding his new book's release, Coates somberly believed less in the soul and its aspirational sense of eventual justice. Coates felt that he had become more radicalized. The book's title comes from Richard Wright's poem "Between the World and Me", originally published in the July/August 1935 issue of Partisan Review. Wright's poem is about a Black man discovering the site of a lynching and becoming incapacitated with fear, creating a barrier between himself and the world. Despite many changes in Between the World and Me, Coates always planned to end the book with the story of Mabel Jones. The only endorsement Coates sought was that of novelist Toni Morrison, which he received. Between the World and Me was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015.
Between the World and Me takes the form of a book-length letter from the author to his son, adopting the structure of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time; the latter is directed, in part, towards Baldwin's nephew, while the former addresses Coates's 15-year-old son. Coates's letter is divided into three parts, recounting Coates's experiences as a young man, after the birth of his son, and during a visit with Mable Jones. Coates contemplates the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being Black in the United States. He recapitulates the American history of violence against Black people and the incommensurate policing of Black youth. The book's tone is poetic and bleak, guided by his experiences growing up poor and always at risk of bodily harm. He prioritizes the physical security of African-American bodies over the tradition in Black Christianity of optimism, "uplift," and faith in eventual justice (i.e., being on God's side). His background, which he describes as "physicality and chaos," leads him to emphasize the daily corporeal concerns he experiences as an African-American in U.S. culture. Coates's position is that absent the religious rhetoric of "hope and dreams and faith and progress," only systems of White supremacy remain along with no real evidence that those systems are bound to change. In this way, he disagrees with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s optimism about integration and Malcolm X's optimism about nationalism.
Coates gives an abridged, autobiographical account of his youth "always on guard" in Baltimore and his fear of the physical harm threatened by both the police and the streets. He also feared the rules of code-switching to meet the clashing social norms of the streets, the authorities, and the professional world. He contrasts these experiences with neat suburban life, which he calls "the Dream" because it is an exclusionary fantasy for White people who are enabled by, yet largely ignorant of, their history of privilege and suppression. To become conscious of their gains from slavery, segregation, and voter suppression would shatter that Dream. The book ends with a story about Mabel Jones, the daughter of a sharecropper, who worked and rose in social class to give her children comfortable lives, including private schools and European trips. Her son, Coates' college friend Prince Carmen Jones Jr., was mistakenly tracked and killed by a policeman. Coates uses his friend's story to argue that racism and related tragedy affects Black people of means as well.
After reading Between the World and Me, novelist Toni Morrison wrote that Coates fills "the intellectual void" left by James Baldwin's death 28 years prior. A. O. Scott of The New York Times said the book is "essential, like water or air." David Remnick of The New Yorker described it as "extraordinary."
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that Between the World and Me functioned as a sequel to Coates's 2008 memoir, which displayed Coates's talents as an emotional and lyrical writer. Coates's use of "the Dream" (in reference to paradisal suburban life) confused her, and she thought Coates stretched beyond what is safely generalizable. In particular, she felt that the phrasing of his comments on 9/11 could be easily misread. Kakutani thought that Coates did not consistently acknowledge racial progress achieved over the course of centuries and that some parts read like the author's internal debate. Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York said that a sense of fear for one's children propels the book, and Coates's atheism gives the book a sense of urgency.
On November 18, 2015, it was announced that Coates had won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. NPR's Colin Dwyer had considered it the favorite to win the prize, given the book's reception.
The book topped the New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction on August 2, 2015, and remained #1 for three weeks. It again topped the New York Times Best Seller list the week of January 24, 2016.
Editions and translations
- Hardcover, English. Spiegel & Grau; 1 edition (July 14, 2015) ISBN 978-0812993547
- E-book, English. Spiegel & Grau; 1 edition (July 14, 2015) ASIN: B00SEFAIRI
- Hardcover, French. "Une colère noire : Lettre à mon fils." AUTREMENT (January 27, 2016) ISBN 978-2746743410
- E-book, French. "Une colère noire : Lettre à mon fils." AUTREMENT (January 27, 2016) ASIN: B01A91OE0G
- Hardcover, German. Miriam Mandelkow (Translator) "Zwischen mir und der Welt." Hanser Berlin (February 1, 2016) ISBN 978-3446251076
- E-book, German. Miriam Mandelkow (Translator) "Zwischen mir und der Welt." Hanser Berlin (February 1, 2016) ASIN: B018VATBL4
- Paperback, Spanish. Javier Calvo Perales (Translator) "Entre el mundo y yo." (nd) ISBN 978-8432229657
- E-book, Spanish. Javier Calvo Perales (Translator) "Entre el mundo y yo." Seix Barral (October 18, 2016) ASIN: B01IPXTMS4
- Paperback, Catalan. Josefina Caball Guerrero (Translator). "Entre el món i jo." (nd) ISBN 978-8416367719
- E-book, Catalan. Josefina Caball Guerrero (Translator). "Entre el món i jo." (October 19, 2016) ASIN: B01JB6TWY8
- Hardcover, Norwegian. Bodil Engen (Translator). "Mellom verden og meg." Heinesen forl. (2016) ISBN 9788281770430
- "Between the World and Me". Bowker Books in Print. Retrieved July 13, 2015. (Subscription required.)
- Wallace-Wells, Benjamin (July 13, 2015). "The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates". New York. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
- Dwyer, Colin (October 14, 2015). "Finalists Unveiled For This Year's National Book Awards". NPR. Retrieved October 14, 2015.
- Alter, Alexandra (19 November 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 November 2015.
- "Finalist: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)". pulitzer.org. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
- Kakutani, Michiko (July 9, 2015). "Review: In 'Between the World and Me,' Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers a Searing Dispatch to His Son". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
- Butler, Robert, ed. The Richard Wright Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2008. p. 38.
- Hammett, Roberta F. "Between the World and Me". www.mun.ca. Retrieved 2017-02-15.
- Kakutani, Michiko (2015-07-09). "Review: In 'Between the World and Me,' Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers a Searing Dispatch to His Son". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-02-15.
- Remnick, David (June 19, 2015). "Charleston and the Age of Obama". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
- Norris, Michele (10 July 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates Looks At The Physical Toll Of Being Black In America". Morning Edition. NPR. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
- Gross, Terry (13 July 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates On Police Brutality, The Confederate Flag And Forgiveness". Fresh Air. NPR. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
- Alter, Alexandra (November 18, 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award". The New York Times.
- Adams, Tim (September 20, 2015). "How Ta-Nehisi Coates's letter to his son about being Black in America became a bestseller". The Guardian.
- First Year Reading Program selects ‘Between the World and Me’ May 9, 2015