The terrible killing of George Floyd in America has reminded me of Ta-Neshisi Coates’ stirring Between the World and Me which I reviewed a few years ago. A must read.
Once in a blue moon you come across a book that changes your perspective. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his 15-year-old son about race relations in America, is such a book. An eye-opening account of what it’s really like to grow up as an African American in America’s poorest neighbourhoods and a book that – at the risk of sounding patronising – everyone ‘should’ read.
Coates is a prominent black American writer, he also happens to have grown up in one of America’s roughest neighbourhoods: West Baltimore (notorious as the location for the TV-series The Wire…amongst other things). In the National Book Award winning Between the World and Me, he tackles, head on, race relations, one of the most contentious issues in contemporary America in a calm but brutally honest way.
The author describes how black communities’ trust in the police has vanished after numerous cases of police brutality and killings of innocent blacks. He lets us feel what it’s like to be trapped in ghettos, unable to envision a different future, born into a race that is considered ‘the essential below of your country ‘and what an all-prevailing feeling of fear does to your mind.
To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us.
This fear permeates every aspect of life to heart-breaking effect.
My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.
Coates describes his own ‘escape’ from the life he was destined for with great conviction, his family of hard working, intellectual people keeping their head down amid all the violence, and the, for most black people, utterly unattainable ‘Dream’ portrayed by ‘little white boys with complete collections of football cards’, ice cream sundaes and toy trucks in immaculate suburbs.
Coates have been blamed for being excessively pessimistic and for offering few solutions and perhaps that’s true. Regardless, Between the World and Me is a book that leaves an indelible impression, and a definite feeling of having seen a different, deeply worrying, perspective of life.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is published by Text Publishing Melbourne Australia, 152 pages.
For more books on blacks in America, try Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.