What We Thought: Like the main character in my novel, Ghost Town, I like to imagine that I am ‘racially aware.’ And like her, I am constantly discovering how much more I still have to learn. Reading Between the World an Me provided one of those shock awakenings.
The title comes from a poem by Richard Wright, in which the poet stumbles upon the site of a lynching. The horror of what he sees rises up like smoke, separating him from the world, until his body becomes the victim’s.
“Race,” Coates reminds us, “is the child of racism, not the father.”
Between the World and Me, like Luis J Rodriguez’s Always Running, is written for the author’s teenage son. Coates grew up in the Projects in Baltimore – the kind of environment most people reading this will know only from watching The Wire. His son grew up very differently – in a comfortable home without the daily struggles with violence and poverty. Yet Coates knows the bitter truth is that his son will have to learn – is learning – many of the same hard lessons he learnt. In particular, that his body is at risk, merely from the fact of being black.
For Coates’ son, the first time he confronts that truth is on the night that a Grand Jury chose not to indict the white policeman who shot the Fergusson teenager, Michael Brown. For Coates, his understanding came to a head years earlier, when a fellow student at Howard University – the respectable son of a senior hospital doctor - was shot by a plain clothes policeman who claimed to have mistaken him for a drug dealer.
Like Morpheus in The Matrix, Coates flips the American Dream on its head and reveals it as a fantasy that exists to comfort the Dreamers. “The Dream,” he says, “rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
But this is not dystopian fiction. This is daily reality for Black families like Coates’.
Between the World and Me is a deeply personal piece of writing. For the facts and figures behind the feelings he expresses, you need to turn to other writings by Coates, such as, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ published in the Atlantic. There he charts the long history– from ‘redlining’ neighbourhoods to withholding mortgages from Black families in 1950s, to the deliberate targeting of Black families in the sub-prime mortgage market – that have, step by step, led to the creation of ghetto neighbourhoods like the one Coates grew up in and mean that “Black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.”
In the book, he describes a trip to Paris with his son where “our colour was not our distinguishing feature, so much as our Americanness ... We were not enslaved in France. We are not their particular problem, nor their national guilt.” But he cautions his son to remember seeing Roma begging in the street. The French, like all nations, have their own version of Dream.
I would love to see something like this written by a British writer, because, as Sunny Singh put it in a recent interview, “Focusing on American writers allows white British people to wash their hands of their own history ... wiping out a legacy of slavery and imperialism and the Windrush generation.”
But as Coates says, it is not up to those outside the Dream to wake the Dreamers. “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves.”
As Toni Morrison puts it in her cover quote: “This is required reading.”
You will enjoy this if you loved: Luis J Rodriguez, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, Marlon James
Avoid if you dislike: Confronting your own privilege
Perfect Accompaniment: A slice of humble pie
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literary Essay
Available from Amazon