Book Review: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I was brought up in the ‘color blind’ era of racial politics, and by color blind, it means race was not discussed, not so much because it doesn’t exist but because it’s unpleasant and uncomfortable. Being ‘white’ presenting and sheltered by white privilege, we just went along with whatever the ‘status quo’ was out there with regards to racial politics. I also naively thought that racism in any form was not my personal fight, since I am not black and have no idea what black people go through everyday, as long as I don’t contribute to racism in any significant manner, I am ‘good’, in the clear. But I realized institutionalized racism is so entrenched in our everyday lives that any person who is not black, who exists in this society, while accessing the goods and services that benefit almost everyone except black (and Latinos), one was indirectly contributing to institutionalized racism. It’s a sobering realization of which there are no quick solutions or answers. Since the racism is ‘institutionalized’, by definition it means that it affects every single aspect of our lives, all the institutions that exist for the benefit Americans are biased towards minorities, especially blacks.

It is with this mindset I decided to read ‘Between the World and Me’. I rarely cave into publishing houses publicity of ‘must read’ list. Even Toni Morrison’s endorsement didn’t sway me much, I read books at my own time. It has been my experience whenever I read the next ‘must read’ book when it’s hot off the presses, I find myself bitterly disappointed, disappointed at myself for buying into the hype (and paying full price for the book). However, I knew Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t that type of author and this was a book he wrote with purpose and meaning.

The book is one long epistle to his son, how is future as a black man in this country will play out and how the Dreamers are out to plunder his body and to always be vigilant, to fight the good fight, for himself, for his ancestors  and his race. It gave a correct diagnosis of the problem of institutionalized racism in America but like so many before him, gives no answers or any attempt at a solution, political or otherwise. One irony I will point out is Coates has often criticized anyone who ask black people to be personally accountable (even President Obama), especially black men, citing centuries of oppression has eroded that sense of basic morality, especially when it comes to responsible parenting, but Coates himself has become the embodiment of American upward mobility. Due to his gift for writing, his hard work and honing his craft and personal responsibility, especially his commitment to his son, he’s now a fully paid up member of the American upper middle class.

Coates doesn’t tell his son that everything is going to be alright, it will all work out and things will be different for him. He offers no words of comfort for his son, it is his belief that America, will forever remain a white supremacist system. It’s a very dystopian view of American society and how little hope he has towards our future as one cohesive nation. I find this concerning because our country has progressed, even if at glacial pace, and it’s a disservice to all the civil rights activists who endured real torture to gain rights for all minorities (not just blacks).

Next to impart the message of hopelessness for his future as an equal member of American society is a bit heavy for a teenage boy to digest. Young people, as a function of being young are hopeful and optimistic, even young people who live in dire circumstances can see rays of hope in their awful situation and his attempt to put that light out, especially at a time of where new civil rights movements, such as Black Lives Matter are coming up is dispiriting to say the least.

It’s one thing to make aware to your child the dangers of society, the personal dangers he faces due to racism and discrimination, but another to eradicate the hope that is present in young people. I had a very hard time reconciling that. I do see it from his point of view and from his upbringing, but to put that same emotional baggage on his child, when his son, due to he and his wife’s hard work, did not have to endure a childhood in the ghettos, I cannot see the reasoning for this very pessimistic message.

I liked the book but I really wanted to love it. I can’t say I loved it. The comparison to James Baldwin is premature. His writing style, in a lyrical storytelling manner is similar to James Baldwin, but Baldwin, having suffered through so much more, has more depth and takes a more complicated view of the world, even in the messy race relations of America.

It is grossly oversimplifying the deep complexities of our multi-racial, multi-ethnic diverse society by breaking everything down to only black and white, Dreamers and non-Dreamers, bad police with no trace of humanity toward their victims. Police brutality is a huge problem, as is with institutionalized racism, white supremacy and white privilege but to zero in only on the problem and offer no solutions besides keep fighting the good fight is a counterproductive message.

Lastly, about the matter of personal responsibility or accountability, this is where I was told that my belief is racist, though I am not, by someone on Facebook, for suggesting that even victims of historical crimes of monstrosity such as slavery. Every single person can have some control over one’s lives, no matter how small. With personal responsibility comes pride, comes achievement, comes exceeding one’s expectations. It’s not a “scold” as Coates calls it, it’s what people need to do to get ahead, like what Coates has done for himself and his family. Why would he think it’s not appropriate to give that same advice to people his son’s age?

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