Book Review: Between the World & Me: A Realist’s Perspective on Black Hope
I find it hard to disagree with Toni Morrison about almost anything. For now, she remains one of my only unproblematic favorites. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I wholeheartedly agree with her claim that Ta-Nehisis Coates’ Between the World and Me “is required reading.” Yet, the longer I teach and discuss this text, I find myself having to explain that this book isn’t just required reading for so-called white America. While a lot has been said about Coates’ intended audience, including criticism by Cornel West, I am going to refrain from entering that debate. Instead, I want to dissect what Coates offers a number of audiences, including black readers like myself.
Written as a letter from the narrator to his son, Between the World and Me poetically expresses the experience of being black in America. Without giving too much away, the book responds to Trayvon Martin’s killer being found not guilty, or more precisely to the sorrow the narrator’s son feels after this event. This recent injustice serves as a point of departure for the narrator as he endeavours to paint a poignant picture of American anti-blackness. Throughout the text, Coates’ poetic prose and keen ability to philosophize make the book a pleasure to read.
On the surface, Between the World and Me is a book about race and blackness in America. Coates addresses everything from the falsity of American Dream to systematic racism. The subject matter, along with Coates’ writing style, is largely the reason for comparisons to James Baldwin’s work. However, beyond these large scale observations, one of the most compelling aspects of Between the World and Me is that it moves beyond a singular vision of blackness.
From the streets of West Baltimore, to the Mecca (in this case Howard University), to France, Coates puts the heterogeneity of blackness on full display. At times, this portrait of blackness works to challenge one dimensional stereotypes. At others, it operates as an internal critique of black elitism and respectability politics. While much of the book may be read as an indictment of American white supremacy, the text also presses the black community for its complicity. In doing so, Coates ensures that no reader escapes unscathed.
Above all, the most interesting part of Between the World and Me is the way it frames black hope. As an atheist and a realist, Coates negates more abstract conceptions of hope. Neither the afterlife nor the revolution are enough for Coates. The narrator unequivocally states “I had no sense that any just God was on my side...My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.” Coates’ skepticism of large scale revolution is far less absolute. It’s not that Coates believes such liberation is impossible, but rather that its dependence on people outside of the black community makes it far less probable. Coates’ emphasis on the present and the physical body allow him to see anti-blackness in a specific, alarming way. However, rather than allow this understanding of the universe to drive him to despair, he focuses on finding the best way to live in this world in a black body. He exclaims, “the greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from the ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.”
Coates’ perception of the world diverges from the two principal driving forces behind black liberation struggles (i.e. faith based activism and socialism). This does not mean that Coates desires liberation any less. Rather, it allows Coates to offer readers, especially black ones, a way to hope in the present rather than the future. Towards the end of Between the World and Me, the narrator tells his son, “history is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” He goes on to tell his son that “the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” Throughout the book, Coates points to community and struggle as the source of black hope. The hope that he offers readers is based in the present tense one. By not waiting for liberation, Coates makes black life about more than striving and suffering. He makes it about living.
About the author: Dr. Yelena Bailey is a writer, researcher and educator working in the field of cultural studies. When she is not writing about popular culture, she enjoys spending time with her miniature schnauzer.