August 20, 2015

Book Review: "Between the World and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I think it's safe to say this is the most talked-about book of 2015 so far. It's got thousands of Goodreads ratings (and it's just been out a month!), bestseller status, and an endorsement from Toni Morrison, and I don't know what other book released this year can claim that sort of attention. It's the Toni Morrison salute I'd like to dwell on for a moment, not just because I'm a big Toni Morrison fan. I myself was introduced to this book by a coworker, who told me Morrison had compared it to James Baldwin's the Fire Next Time. Which is, of course, quite a lot of pressure for this book. It's not just hot air around this one, though; Coates rises to the occasion and in many ways outstrips it. This is easily the best new book I've read all year.

It might be a little reductive to call Between the World and Me a book about race, although race is important to this book. Coates is definitely in the camp that would hold it as a social construct, but he talks about how powerful the construct's effect on the African-American community has been. However, this a biography as much as it is a book about race in America, so let's start there. Like the Fire Next Time, Coates' book takes the form of a letter, this time to his teenage son. The biography begins with Coates' time in the less fortunate neighborhoods of Baltimore, where he had to adapt his behavior to steer clear of gangs and do well in school; his time at Howard University, where he developed a complex relationship with his identity as African-American; and the death of his friend Prince Jones, a successful African-American from an upper-middle class background, at the hands of the police.

Now, it goes without saying that this is all super-pertinent, and that Coates weaves these personal stories in with some heavy analysis about race in America, because this is some heavy stuff. His analysis of how race functions as a construct is shattering and, to my way of seeing things, pretty accurate; to him, whiteness and blackness have become constructs to keep white people safe in their cloistered suburban existence. As a white person myself, one who has lived a fairly cloistered existence and one who's onboard with the social justice movement, I especially appreciated this book. I've been raised by and large to aspire toward that cloistered suburban existence, but reading books like this makes me wonder if the whole thing wasn't all a sham. Which means, besides the powerful rhetoric and the bracing intellectualism, besides the great emotional father-son moments, Between the World and Me is a reminder of why I read in the first place. Hard to ask for much more than that.

Out of 10: 10.0

Read even more about Between the World and Me: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 12:07 AM, August 20, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |