The book Between the World and Me written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015 is a journey of struggle by the author through his life, as told to his son in the form of a letter. Coates speaks regularly about embodiment and disembodiment as it relates to the African-American experience in the United States. His main theme in the book relates his theory of the fragility of the black body in American society, not only today, but throughout U.S. history. Not only is this a warning to his son, Samori, about the perils which have befallen Coates during his lifetime, but also a brutal history lesson to “white people” or as he often calls them “the Dreamers” (Coates 103). As one commentator noted on this point “the secondary audience is white people, consciously so or not. As a memoir of protest, it says, ‘Here’s something awful you don’t know’” (Williams 182).
Another objective seems to be one of education, primarily to his son, Samori, but also to the mass of society Coates refers to as “the Dreamers.” However, even in this goal, Coates seems to fall short, because he fails to give any insight into the lives of the victims of what he calls disembodiment or taking of their black body. Williams makes this point well, “a signal shortcoming critics consistently note of the book is its unwillingness to offer even the smallest meaningful insight into the interior lives of those Coates narrates as powerless and disembodied and who ultimately fall victim to the culture of poverty he constructs” (182). Another commentator questions Coates’ motives by saying, “I want to know if the embrace is due to a deep emotional connection the author is making with readers, or merely because it arrives at a moment dominated by the Black Lives Matter movement” (Lewis 192). What Lewis is supposedly asking here is, “Does this book hold any new insights that a not already found in many other scholarly writings or is it just emotional pandering to his target audience?”
Coates also devotes substantial space to educating “the Dreamers” that African-Americans have and continue to live in fear of one kind or another. One fear that seemingly dominates his narrative is the one that sometimes dominates reporting by news outlets, police brutality and the overwhelming persecution and killing of black people. Coates concentrates a lot of his angst about living as an African-American here. He notes that to be black in the U.S. today requires that blacks always be on guard when dealing with the police. Coates puts his feelings into words which cannot be mistaken when he tells his son early in his narrative, “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body” (9). One example of what Coates thinks of the police in the U.S. comes from a review of the book by Gary L. Grizzle:
The most telling and alarming legacy of this history of racial mistreatments, is the fact that police departments are increasingly free to destroy black bodies… he regretfully informs his son, [police are] free to do so regardless of the character of the black body in their sights (110).
Coates’ loathing for the police is well-documented; 34 instances of the word “police” are noted in the 154 pages of the book, not one of them has anything positive to say about this institution. Although this book presents a unique black perspective, it also panders to the current hatred of law enforcement in the African-American community and informs his son to be wary of any police interaction he happens to have.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau, 2015.
Grizzle, Gary L. “Between the World and Me.” Theory in Action, vol. 9, no. 2, 2016, pp. 109-116.
Lewis, Thabiti. “How Fresh and New Is the Case Coates Makes?” African American Review, vol. 49, no. 3, Fall 2016, pp. 192-196.
Williams, Dana A. “Everybody’s Protest Narrative: Between the World and Me and the Limits of Genre.” African American Review, vol. 49, no. 3, Fall 2016, pp. 179-183.