In Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, a nameless African-American protagonist tells us that “there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” These words were called to mind as I devoured Ta-Nehisi Coates’ mesmerizing blend of memoir, history, and cultural criticism, Between the World and Me. Coates’ study of institutionalized racism and its impact on the psyches of black Americans riffs on Ellison’s sleep metaphor, extending it to locate the danger of the sleepers in the fact that they are dreaming the American Dream.
This dream is closed to blacks. In Coates’ words, it “has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” As a work of history, Between the World and Me explains the past and persisting conditions that motivate this claim. Coates writes of the Civil War, the Great Migration, the deliberate invention of the ghetto by a government intent on keeping its post-WWII homeownership funding out of black neighborhoods. He quotes the state of Mississippi on its reasons for declaring secession and John Wilkes Booth on his justification for killing President Lincoln.This pocket-sized book certainly works as a primer on race relations in America, a ringing wake-up call to the Dreamers, but it is more than that.
What makes it so unique and moving, what made me compulsively turn pages until I had finished it in one sitting, is the touch of the intimate that puts a human face on terrible social ills. Like James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates’ tour de force takes the form of letters written to a younger black male relative—in this case, the author’s son. The profound ideas contained in these six letters are illustrated and brought home through narrative, through the story of the author’s quest for answers to questions about what shaped his world. Coates writes of his childhood in the ghettos of West Baltimore; of the books, people, and experiences that developed his intellectual curiosity; of the unjust slaying of his college friend by a police officer; of his first trip to Paris and his attempts to give his son a wider view of the world. The personal breathes life into the historical as the writing moves seamlessly from the author’s experience in an Upper West Side theater to lynching to Levittown; all to illustrate the diffusion of responsibility and the “politics of personal exoneration” fueling racism in America. All to viscerally demonstrate the war waged on black bodies.
At its heart, Between the World and Me is an existential meditation. The universal human question, the question of how we should live in the world, has become “How should we live as black bodies in a hostile world?” As Coates conveys in spare, virtuosic prose, there are no definitive answers to such questions. The beauty lies in the asking.
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