By Chet Yarbrough
Between the World and Me
Written by: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Narration by: Ta-Nehisi Coates
A white man in America gets a limited sense of what it is like to be African-American in the United States in “Between the World and Me”. The author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, explains he will always be black in white America.
A white American named John Howard Griffin offers a glimpse of what it is to be black in America in his 1961 book, “Black like Me”. However, his experience is a far cry from Coates. Griffin clearly describes the horrendous burden carried by black American’s in the 60s. It is a distinct eye-opener but has little scope. Griffin was a white man in black-face who always knew he could return to being white.
In contrast, Coates’ book is personal in a world with no exit. Coates fears for the life of his dearly loved son in the 21st century. He notes that his son lives in an American culture that shows blackness means higher likelihood of being murdered, jailed, or stopped by police–just because of the existence of his body. Coates warns his son that he will have to learn how to cope with American institutionalized injustice.
Regardless of how smart, well-educated, or successful his son becomes, Coates implies the cards for success in America are stacked against him. Coates offers examples of young black men murdered by both black and white Americans with justification being suspicion, innate prejudice, and/or socially-accepted exercise of power. Young black men’s murders are too often because of genetic inheritance; not guilt of crime or antisocial behavior.
“Between the World and Me” is meant to warn a son, but its inference is to expose the injustice that pervades American institutions and the terror schools, government agencies, and business organizations create in the minds of black Americans. It is a fear nurtured by American culture.
Coates memoir goes beyond poverty or the split between rich and poor. It strikes at the heart of the American dream and American identity. It is impossible for a white person to understand what it is like to be black in America. What a white person learns from Coates’ memoir is to be ashamed. Beyond shame, Coates offers no advice on how America is to change.
Coates accuses white America of wishing that black would literally become whiter. Coates argues that cultural expectation should be for black to become equal to white; not subsumed by white’s whiteness. He references the history of great black Americans that are largely ignored by white America.
The success of Coates’ memoir is in shaming white America. Pessimistically, Coates’ shaming will accomplish very little. It may exacerbate his son’s fears rather than provide guidance. At best, “Between the World and Me” rings Liberty’s bell meant to awaken all Americans to shame.