Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me explores the identity and suffering of the black body in a society plagued by racism. The book is a letter written to his fifteen-year-old son, but it’s partly an autobiography of his spiritual being (without any religious attachments). Raw and honest, Coates poetically guides us through his childhood and his intensely formative years at Howard University, one of 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. He deconstructs the world that he must survive in and relays his rich history to his son. It’s an intimate conversation, but in a way, we, the outsiders, are his audience. Those who do not live his reality, those who are not black men targeted by the police brutality, those who do not feel the raw pain of losing our bodies to injustice — we are his audience.
Though I am a person of color, an Asian-American woman who experiences my own shade of racism and degradation, I do not innately understand the emotions that Coates describes. But it’s in this discordance that I am urged to empathize and find experience of my own that define what lies between the world and me. I cannot truly understand the deep fear in his bones, but the unsettling knot in my stomach, the vehement disgust I feel from the countless acquittals of police who murdered innocent black individuals, the overwhelming swell of helplessness — this is my body telling me that I stand with black lives in solidarity.
As I read this book, I was constantly challenged to sit in uncomfortable self-reflection. One particular line about writing and poetry lingered in my mind: “Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions–beautiful writing rarely is… Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” Coates described these truths as the breaker of all dreams and myths that had veiled him from the deplorable state of mankind. What were my “cold steel truths of life” that would wake me from my white-washed and unattainable dreams?
The discomfort of these thoughts eventually become a source of validation. Like all children, I had been instructed to dream big and naively believe that I could achieve anything. But at an older age during high school, when I was asked what my dreams were, I responded with complete honesty that I had no dreams. This was a source of panic and confusion for my parents, two individuals who had worked tirelessly and still sacrifice endlessly to invest in my future. But in my moment of clarity, I had realized that my dreams never belonged to me. I had only adopted this notion of “dreams” because it masked the insecurities of my own being, insecurities that played on stereotypes, socioeconomic status, and the cold steel truths of being a daughter of immigrant parents.
For such a short book, there is much to unpack. Simple discussions in book club turn into layered conversations about identity, and even those complex analyses are not enough to truly capture the intricate truths that Coates conveys. These truths are far from self-evident, but the simultaneously sobering and poignant voice demands for us to be privy to the reality of inequality.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for the Atlantic. Check out his amazing writing!
Book Club is a program at the Howard Thurman Center held on Tuesdays at 6:00pm. Every semester, the HTC Book Club read two books that enlighten with new perspective and provoke discussion. To check out books from previous semesters, check out the website here. Sign-ups occur at the beginning of every semester.