Ta-Nehisi Coates framed his non-fiction book Between the World and Me as a long letter to his son. Besides being non-fiction, this letter format gives the novel a personal tone, especially as it is addressed to a loved one. At first, I was uncomfortable with this level of intimacy because I felt like I was prying into another person’s life. At the same time, being first confronted with the straightforward salutation of “Son” I felt distanced because I am not a man and I am not family. As I was reading, I realized that “Son” is not simply Coates’ own son, who is not named until page 68, about half way through the book. “Son” is an address to all black men. It is Coates, a middle-aged black man, speaking to the new black generation about what it was like for him to live as a black body in America and how black bodies are still in danger.
Between the World and Me is gendered because it is written by a father to his son. Although gender does not fall under the scope of the novel, Coates recognizes it.
“The girl from Chicago understood this too, and she understood something more — that all are not equally robbed of their bodies, that the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know” (65).
The photographs are beautiful and give a raw human quality of a scrapbook or journal that I do not think could be wholly achieved through text alone. In the photos, you see Coates and his family and friends which makes his narrative concrete in a way that bypasses the inherent construct of text.
While the focus of Between the World and Me is race, there is a greater human idea of what the American Dream means and how it influences people, both the oppressors and the oppressed.
My favorite passage from Between the World and Me:
“The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror he outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. It was beginning to occur to me to question the logic of the claim itself. I had forgotten my own self-interrogations pushed upon me by my mother, or rather I had not yet apprehended their deeper, lifelong meaning. I was only beginning to learn to be wary of my own humanity, of my own hurt and anger—I didn’t yet realize that the boot on your neck is just as likely to make you delusional as it is to ennoble” (50).