Between the World and Me
Spiegel & Grau, 2015
In 1963, on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the great essayist James Baldwin offered these thoughts on white America in a letter to his nephew:
[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. […] if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
It is always worth quoting Baldwin at length, his words always somehow so timely and timeless, immersing us in the trials of his age but resonating so poignantly with ours—even if this is in part symptomatic of America’s, and the world’s, ongoing racisms. Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees. In September 2013, in a piece for written for The Atlantic under the heading ‘Is James Baldwin America’s Greatest Essayist?’ , Coates answered his titular question with a resounding yes. As the article progresses, he slowly replaces his own words with quotations from Baldwin. He quotes one paragraph, pauses, then writes ‘More’; he quotes another, lengthier one, pauses again, and then, ‘More’. Repeating this several times, Coates draws our attention to the power and depth of Baldwin’s words, asking us to share his own obvious appreciation of them.
It is unsurprising, then, that it was back in 2013—one hundred and fifty years after Emancipation, fifty years after Baldwin’s letter and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech, and shortly before he first met Barack Obama face to face at the end of that year—that Coates was inspired to emulate Baldwin’s epistolary format. For this is what he has done: Between the World and Me rewrites Baldwin at a historical moment when a country that believed itself ‘post-racial’, because it had managed to elect a Black president, is realising, grimly, violently, that it absolutely is not.
Coates’ book therefore captures the sense of immediate relevance that emanates from Baldwin’s writing. In so doing, however, he draws the reader’s attention to the historical depth of the structural and actual violence that still shapes his country, to the continuing difficulties of being Black in both America and the world, and to the depressing lack of change that has taken place since King’s speech. Baldwin wrote that ‘the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon’, demonstrating that America’s Black population cannot be free until its white population “sees themselves as they are”. Between the World and Me, which has gained a wide and importantly white readership in the United States after winning the 2015 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, reiterates this message.
The book’s power comes from the fact that its white readers — those who must, according to Baldwin, free themselves in order to free their country — are privy to a conversation between a Black father and his Black son. As a white reader, this reviewer is discomforted by a feeling of eavesdropping, a tension that intensifies Coates’ words. Both socially and politically, this is a landmark document that must be read by white America. The moments in which Coates is most ‘controversial’, such as his confession that he could only see the celebrated policemen who risked their lives on 11 September 2001 as inhuman perpetrators of racial oppression, offer a perspective that must shock these readers into a consciousness of the realities of their country’s institutional violence.
The only critique that might be levied at Between the World and Me has, perhaps unsurprisingly, already been done so at length , and revolves around class. Though he grew up on the streets of Baltimore, Coates has since become a successful and wealthy writer and lives in Paris, where he has developed bourgeois tastes and enjoyed a privilege and lifestyle that are far beyond the reach of many white Americans. Paul Street, for example, argues in his response to the book that “Coates demonstrates no concern for an essential point: the white working class majority has paid a terrible price for American racism. The wages of whiteness have been very low indeed. And that makes his reflections on contemporary U.S. racial oppression racism and what might be done about it miserably partial and inadequate.”
This is unhelpful. It assumes that Coates is not aware of his privilege, whilst in fact he has shared his thoughts on this in a interview featured on This American Life ; it is also tackled in one of Between the World and Me’s most touching sentences, which Coates addresses directly to his son: “you have deduced that you are privileged and yet still different from other privileged children, because you are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country”. So though Street is correct to say that for poor whites in America, their own liberation pivots on the acknowledgement of their whiteness and in the revolutionary solidarities that reside in the intersections between race and class, he overlooks the fact that Coates’ book serves to accelerate the realisation of this predicament.
A final integral theme that runs through Between the World and Me is that of urbanity. In his letter to his nephew, Baldwin compared America’s Black neighbourhoods to the slums of Dickensian London, a concern developed and extended by Coates, who contrasts “the killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit”, where “murder was all around us”, with “those disconnected houses out in the country, in one of those small communities, one of those cul-de-sacs with its gently curving ways”. His point, however, is not to highlight the separateness of these unevenly developed urban spaces, but their connectedness. He eloquently demonstrates how, if Black oppression is predicated on white America’s refusal to realise its privilege, this is mirrored in the shape of America’s landscape. The “streets” that have provided the backdrop for decades of violence against their Black populations are a direct product of the segregated suburbs encased by walls—both ideological and physical—that blind their inhabitants to their complicity in these realities. Between the World and Me, by turning a deeply private conversation out into the public sphere, performs the essential work of cutting through these boundaries.
It is from, and on, the streets, then, that the solution must come. However, Coates concludes not with an inspirational call to arms, but rather an overwhelming sense of resignation—cynicism, even—that relinquishes a belief in the possibility of revolutionary change. This is not political conservatism, but rather a jolting reminder that, once again, this is a father talking to his son: “you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live”. This reviewer reads the resignation, and perhaps sadness, of Between the World and Me’s final paragraphs, as one of the book’s most powerful demonstrations of its argument. It offers a glimpse of a deeply human conversation that might allow its white readers to taste, if only momentarily, the structural and historical depth and the ongoing consequences of an endemic, and frighteningly violent, racism.
Dominic Davies  is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Oxford, where he also completed his DPhil in March 2015.