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Craig Stori BookMarks: Between the World and Me

27 Jul 2021 5:58 PM | Emily Kawasaki (Administrator)

The editorial staff of The Interculturalist: A Periodical of SIETAR USA considers it important to include something of special DEI interest in each issue. For this issue, Craig Storti reviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book and for those who have read it, you will appreciate his words. For those who have yet to read it, this is an excellent introduction. (Ed.)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, reviewed by Craig Storti

More often than not in this column, we try to introduce you to books you might otherwise overlook—travel writing, expatriate fiction—so you can chase them down lest they elude you altogether. This month the tables are turned: we are chasing down a book that has almost eluded us. And what a loss that would have been.

There are no two ways about it: Between the World and Me is a deeply disturbing book. That is not a criticism; in fact, I think it is probably how Coates intends for it to affect readers—White readers to be sure, but perhaps Black ones as well. The book is framed as a letter from a Black father to his 15-year-old Black son. The purpose of the book is to explain to the boy how things are in the wider world he is about to enter, why things are that way, and what the boy will have to do to survive—not to succeed, mind you, but just to survive. Coates’ central premise in the book is that life as a Black person in America is fundamentally not “safe.” Your body is not safe—it isn’t even yours, Coates claims—for any number of reasons. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time—and there are many such places—there is always a chance, a good chance, you may be perceived as a threat—think Trayvon Martin—and threats, of course, have to be dealt with. If you are pulled over for a routine infraction, a broken headlight or for speeding, at best you may end up deeply humiliated, and you may also end up beaten, in jail, or dead. In many situations the wrong look, the wrong gesture, saying the wrong thing—or the right thing but in the wrong way—can easily lead to confrontation, and for Black people confrontation never ends well. Anytime a Black person is outside a Black neighborhood, is anywhere in the White world, there is always the possibility they will be an object of suspicion, even fear. And where there is suspicion, there is danger.

Not being safe might not matter so much if a Back person could rely on protection of one kind or another, but there isn’t any. Parents cannot protect a Black child from the wider world (or even protect themselves), the law cannot protect him or her, the “system” certainly can't; indeed, the system is designed to exploit.

Is it any surprise, then, that people who are fundamentally unsafe and unprotected should live every day in constant fear? Sometimes the fear is visceral and immediate, when they are in real danger, and other times it’s in the background, just waiting to be triggered. But it’s never not there; it can’t be or they wouldn’t survive because their fear is their only protection. What must it be like to live moment to moment never sure when you are going to provoke someone, to rub them the wrong way, to trigger the most frightening thing in a Black person’s world: an incident. To live in fear is to always be on guard, to never dare to be natural. If there is a single White person reading this column whose daily experience consists of this kind of ever-present fear, I would be very surprised.

There is a heart-breaking scene late in the book when Coates takes his 5-year-old son to a movie in Manhattan. On their way home they take an escalator down to the subway stop and when the little boy gets off the escalator, he doesn't move fast enough for an impatient white woman, who pushes him aside to get past him. Coates is furious and confronts the woman, who gets angry; a crowd gathers, mostly white people, and one white man shouts at Coates that “I could have you arrested!” And that’s just the point: he could. And it would almost certainly not end well for Coates. Coates is ashamed that he has forgotten the code of behavior Black people have to learn, have to internalize, for such situations, the code he desperately wants to make sure his son learns, that you never make a scene. Because that’s the only way you can survive if you’re not safe.

Very early in the book, Coates’ son has stayed up for the 11PM news to hear the verdict in the Michael Brown case, whether the police officer charged with Brown’s death, will be found guilty. When the policeman is exonerated, Coates’ son gets up, saying “I’ve got to go”, shuts himself in his bedroom, and sobs. He has just learned he’s not safe, that his body is not his own. “I am sorry that I cannot make it okay,” Coates writes. “I am sorry that I cannot save you.”

I was never quite sure I understood the title of this book, but I think the reason Coates spends so much time describing his life as a Howard University student may explain it. His point is that inside Howard the world was Black, so there was nothing between Coates and the world; the world was Coates, and Coates was the world.

There is another point Coates makes, and it is not uplifting: the world that keeps Coates at a distance, that renders him fundamentally unsafe, is based on denial. For anything to change substantially, White people would have to confront a lie, to stop believing that which is the foundation of their self-esteem.

How likely is that?

And remember: This book was written before George Floyd.


  • 28 Jul 2021 4:52 PM | Marcella Simon
    Excellent review Craig. It was a hard book to read but worth it.
    Link  •  Reply

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