This is not an easy book to read. And I don’t say that as if it’s written by an obscure nineteenth-century scholar or as if it’s written entirely in Latin—I say that because it is hard to hear the truth, and that is what this book is. Between the World and Me is a poignant portrait of modern America for the Black man as a father tells his son the truths he has learned and the weight of the ongoing struggle for equality. That weight, this truth, is what makes the book heavy on the mind and soul, but it needs to be read and heard by that same world that alienates others.
Coates’ book is memoir, history, and journalism all in one. He touches on the development of ghettos, the creation and almost necessity of gangs in urban areas, and the ways in which the world he sees and perceives is different from the American Dream. Much of his book speaks to the ongoing police violence and systematic racism that both built and continues to drive American politics and policy. It delivers personal examples and testaments as well as larger known atrocities such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It shows the difference between growing up Black and growing up white.
As such, this is personal and it should be to every American citizen who cares for the future of this country. We should not stand idly by and continue to thrive off of the disproportionate misfortunes of the minorities—race, sexuality, gender, nationality, religion, and so on. Our country was built on the exploitation of these people, but it also seems that we tend to erase and forget this monstrosity in our past or use history to wipe away the sins of our forefathers and mothers. “It was a long time ago.”
No, it wasn’t. Coates brilliantly covers all of the sins throughout America’s history that the majority white has reaped or plundered from Black people. They built the White House and provided the labor for our chief exports, they were freed but not really, and have had to fight for every single right along the way that is just given naturally to white, affluent men. The intersectionality of the human population creates many barriers and many oppressed, but oppression cannot be compared on a mass level since there are so many levels to it. However, it is an undeniable fact that the white American males have long benefited from the ongoing subjugation of minorities and they have long tried to take control of those others’ bodies from them—essentially to own another person, in slavery once again.
Coates’ wishes and dreams for his son are what guide this narrative and give it an emotional depth that a straight history or journalistic article wouldn’t have. The current events are personal, and should be, and by allowing this vulnerability and fear into his book Coates works to drive away the stereotype of the aggressive, violent Black man that seems to thrive in today’s media as an excuse for why violence happens more to this population than to any other.
Since it is personal and rightly biased there is no leniency given to police or other members of the government that stand by and benefit from this injustice. And he has an excellent point that the police are pillars of the community, that they hold our society up and maintain the status quo, but that they also represent the American ideals that this country was built on and that they consciously or subconsciously mimic the attitudes of the majority toward minorities (especially Black people). Now, this attitude was created and manufactured in a variety of ways and has been through history, but one would think that in the 21st century we would have progressed beyond that, but no.
There seems to be an ongoing attitude that minorities should just be happy with what they have already been ‘gifted’ instead of speaking up about the inequalities that are so blatantly obvious. Minorities don’t want to be better or more powerful than the majority—they want to be equal. Women want to have the right to decide what to do with their bodies, Black people shouldn’t be threatened just by being themselves, the mentally ill shouldn’t be stigmatized as crazy, etc.
Coates’ book opens the reader’s eyes to the history of injustice that has pervaded American politics and society since its birth. Be warned, because you can’t unsee the inequality once it’s apparent. Education and university, the Internet and literature have opened my mind in a way that it wasn’t before and I see my privilege and I see my oppression and I acknowledge them equally. They are mine. In some ways I benefit from society and in some ways I don’t, but until you can understand your own privilege and oppression you cannot come to terms with someone else’s. You’ll never fully understand, of course, because one injustice is not equal to another in the same terms, but you’ll be able to appreciate another’s voice.
I recommend this book to anyone who is affected by the injustice committed by the American political system, for those who say that racism is dead, and for the blind that are not yet seeing. Our society—our world—is a beautiful and terrible place, but you can’t understand it until you see the highest and lowest points that it has and will touch.