Cover image of "Between the World and Me," a book about racism today

Racism, America’s original sin, is grounded in the lie that some of us are “white” and others “black.” Even the most casual glance around a crowded sidewalk in any major city will show how much diversity there is within the human race—the only race to which we all belong. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” as the gifted essayist and 2015 MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me. After all, we are all sons and daughters of mitochondrial Eve, who trod the savanna of East Africa more than 100,000 years ago. His memoir is a brilliant analysis of racism today.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow once asked “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Coates quotes Ralph Wiley in response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Racism today: America’s original sin

No thinking person with even a trace of empathy for our fellow human beings can read Between the World and Me without a growing sense of anger at the cruel injustice that lies at the root of the American Dream. The legacy of slavery lies heavy on us all, visible all too vividly on the streets, in our law enforcement and criminal justice system — and, in far too many of us (nearly all, really, both “white” and “black”), the depths of our hearts.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) 155 pages ★★★★★

“If you’re black, you were born in jail”

In Between the World and Me, Coates addresses his fifteen-year-old son. Coates is a survivor of the shocking reality of life in the crumbling, segregated neighborhoods of Baltimore, familiar to us all through the artistry of the long-running drama, The Wire. The son of two hard-working, loving parents who valued education — with a grandfather who was a research librarian at the African Research Center at Howard University — Coates made his way from the ghetto to Howard, his personal Mecca, and later to hard-earned success as a writer.

Coates contrasts this personal experience with that of his son, growing up in New York in a middle-class home, living in a diverse neighborhood, and facing a starkly different day-to-day reality. Coates takes his son along on a guided tour of his intellectual journey: “the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” To sum up this experience, Coates quotes Malcolm X: “If you’re black, you were born in jail.”

An unsparing view

Coates’ analysis of the plight he survived—the reality experienced by so many millions yet today—is harsh. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before the elements of the world, before the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear . . . [A] society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.” Coates is unsparing in his view of racism today. He does not appear to hold much optimism for tomorrow.

Between the World and Me is an eloquent lament crammed with insight and marvelously pithy observations, worthy of citation in any debate about the state of our society.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an award-winning essayist and memoirist who works as national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has won two coveted awards, both the National Magazine Award and the George Polk Award.

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