Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


I appreciated hearing the author read this audiobook, a personal message to his 15-year-old son.  It was beautiful, moving, and brilliant by turns, so I honor it best by quoting some passages. He writes about the false concept of “race” and refers often to those who “believe they are white.”

Someone he knew from his time at Howard University was killed by police. It was only after having a son that he understood the

grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake couldn’t be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.

He wrote a long section about going to Paris by himself as an adult and the revelations that brought him. Below are some bits from that:

My ticket took me to Geneva first. Everything happened very fast. I had to change money. I needed to find a train from the airport into the city and after that find another train to Paris. Some months earlier, I had begun a halting study of the French language. Now I was in a storm of French, drenched really, and only equipped to catch drops of the language–“who,” “euros,” “you,” “to the right.” I was still very afraid.

I surveyed the railway schedule and became aware that I was one wrong ticket from Vienna, Milan, or some Alpine village that no one I knew had every heard of. It happened right then. The realization of being far gone, the fear, the unknowable possibilities, all of it–the horror, the wonder, the joy–fused into an erotic thrill….And at that moment I realized that those changes, with all their agony, awkwardness, and confusion, were the defining fact of my life, and for the first time I knew not only that I really was alive, that I really was studying and observing, but that I had long been alive–even back in Baltimore. I had always been alive. I was always translating.

That brings to mind my own elation at seeing one of those gigantic train schedule boards with such exotic places suddenly within reach.  Then after he checked into his hotel in Paris, he goes on

It was Friday, and what mattered were the streets thronged with people in amazing configurations. Teenagers together in cafés. Schoolchildren kicking a soccer ball on the street, backpacks to the side. Older couples in long coats, billowing scarves, and blazers. Twentysomethings, leaning out of any number of establishments looking beautiful and cool. It recalled New York, but without the low-grade, ever-present fear. The people wore no armor, or none that I recognized. Side street and alleys were bursting with bars, restaurants, and cafés. Everyone was walking. Those who were not walking were embracing….I walked outside and melted into the city, like butter in the stew.

A day or so later while sitting in a park, he says

It occurred to me that I really was in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation–even if it wasn’t a part I relished….But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, I was a sailor–landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before–that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone else’s dream.

And finally, this:

The moment the officers began their pursuit of Prince Jones, his life was in danger. The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the downpayment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guest room, their finished basement. And today with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when 8 percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, 2015, 152 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library and from Amazon.




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