Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi CoatesPublished 2015 151 pages
Between the World and Me's basic premise is: America has made a tradition out of owning and destroying the bodies of black people, and it will not stop until the social structures that enable it collapse under their own weight. In the meantime, it's important for black people to struggle against these frameworks, even to futile ends.
Before I go any further, it's probably worth issuing the disclaimer that I'm not very well-versed in race theory to begin with—so don't take this as a commentary on anything more than Coates's book.
It's a bleak book: Coates doesn't have a particularly optimistic perspective of race in America. He urges black people to continue to struggle for self-determination but doesn't expect that it'll come to much. He predicts massive ongoing catastrophe for black people. In contrast to his explicit inspiration here—James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time—there are no exhortations to power, only reflections on futile struggle.
In a lot of ways, I think that Between the World and Me not only offers a perspective on what it's like growing up, and contending with, racialised America, but covers a lot of the same ground as the much-maligned critical race theory. I'm not going to try to define it here, but Coates's depiction of the Dream—the world as understood by white people—lines up really well with how CRT defines racism: not explicit or purposeful at the personal level, but structural and pervasive, something that the entire country subscribes to by default. Coates barely ever levels serious criticism at individual white people; while the perpetrators of racism throughout the ages are easily abstracted and subsumed by the Dream, the victims of racism are personal: not slaves but an individual slave, a fully realised person under the thumb of the Dream.
Maybe where it falls a little short on this front is that it doesn't really address any of the like intersectional experiences of oppression in America; but this isn't a book about CRT, and it's not a book about being oppressed: it's about being Ta-Nehisi Coates.
It's also difficult for me to put Coates's experience of America into context in other countries—the United Kingdom has its share of racist policies but it feels like the primary structural inequality in this country is classist, rather than racist. Maybe that's just my experience of living in the dominantly white North East of England; maybe those with a bit more power always need to draw lines to keep the Dream alive.