The author was inspired to write Between the World and Me by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic book The Fire Next Time, which Baldwin wrote in the form of letters to his nephew. Here Coates writes to his 15-year-old son Samori, both about what it means to be black in America, and about his overwhelming love – as well as hopes and fears, for Samori.
Coates frames his rage in poetic verse as he charts his personal growth through the years. Underlying the story is a legacy of fear that he has had to live with, first for his own life, and now for the life of his son, who could be killed at any time just for looking the wrong way or being in the wrong place – in short, for being black.
He explains what has driven the black-on-black violence of street gangs; the appeal of Malcolm X to young disillusioned blacks; the sense of powerlessness that drives both; and most saliently, the disparity between the realities of black and white lives. He talks about both the history of civilization and the history of America in terms of the white-washed patina that has always distorted the role of blacks. He constantly references the American Dream, and how it reflects white lives, even as it was built on the bodies of black lives, who are tempted, confused, and alienated by its unattainability.
Coates tells his son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” But ultimately, as Coates further advises him, “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
Evaluation: This powerful, riveting testimonial is also a confirmation that the personal is indeed political, especially in a country which is institutionally designed to favor whites over people of color, males over females, straights over gays, and paradoxically, myths over honesty. I consider it essential reading for Americans.
Note: Winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction
Published in hardcover by Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Audio version available (215 minutes) from Penguin Random House Audio Publishing, read by the author.