Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down to write an open letter to his 14-year-old son, part explanation, part warning, about the unique dangers he would face for one reason alone – his black skin. The force with which what became Coates’s book Between the World and Me resonated across the community shows how acutely the issue of race is troubling our society.
Despite the passing of more than 40 years since the publication of The Fire Next Door by Coates’s acknowledged hero James Baldwin which treads this same ground. Yet Between the World and Me is as searingly applicable today as Baldwin’s writing was then. Possibly more so. The past few years have seen an increase in the number of predominantly, but by no means always, young black men, particularly at the hands of the police.
Coates himself, like many of his black friends, is thoughtful, educated, law-abiding, aspirational. Indicators that are grasped by those wanting to cite progress. But when any of them steps outside their homes all this is irrelevant. They bear the one social identifier that matters. Just being black is a danger. There is no safety. He warns his son that: “He need to be always on guard.”
Coates is a senior editor and blogger for The Atlantic magazine. He pulls no punches in his writings but neither does he put forward pat solutions. He is forcing all Americans to look at the very basics of who they are:
“When Abraham Lincoln declared in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure, ‘by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’, he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to mean.”
Whilst the trembling anger in his writing is a devastatingly powerful weapon. It is the sadness permeating the pages of Between the World and Me that I found most compelling. A sadness not just at the wide rippling pain of loss but that as a father he knows he cannot protect his son from an omnipresent danger.
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Postwar by Tony Judt
- The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow
- Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
- The Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood
- Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick
- Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa
- The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
- The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forché