Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)
Every so often, a library patron presses a book into my hands and says, “You must read this NOW.” I want to turn the tables and press Between the World and Me into the hands of everyone who comes through the library’s doors.
The book is written as a letter from the author, a well-known journalist with The Atlantic magazine, to his fifteen-year-old son. He is giving the boy advice about how to navigate the culturally fraught experience of being a young black man in America. Coates draws from his own experiences, as well as from history and current events, in his brilliant exposition of the struggles all black men face.
I am neither black nor a man, so there was little I could personally relate to in this book. Yet it resonated with me. Coates elucidates truths I have never, not once in my life, considered–yet that millions of my fellow Americans deal with every single day. For example, he points out that a young black man like his son cannot wear a hooded sweatshirt and walk alone on an unfamiliar street without risking being stopped by the police or even attacked by a zealous vigilante. That is an experience I have never had.
But it put me in mind of a story I heard recently: The instructor of a self-defense class divided the class into two groups, men and women. She asked each group to make a list of steps they take to protect themselves from rape on a daily basis. The men didn’t write down a single thing. The women had many, many items on their list: walking in groups, carrying mace, using keys as a weapon, etc. (Having once been a single, female college student on the east side of Milwaukee, I can definitely relate to that experience.) The exercise was intended to demonstrate to the men in the class that the women went about their daily lives with a fear of rape always present in the back of their minds. That’s what Between the World and Me did for me, in terms of race: this book showed me the fears and insecurities that American culture ingrains in the minds of our young black men.
Of course, I have some differences of opinion with the author. Most importantly, he tends to talk about “Black America” as if it were monolithic, and he gives very short shrift to the important differences between male and female experiences. But those little quibbles can’t take much away from my opinion that this is a must-read book for anyone who hopes to understand the issue of race in modern America.
Located in Adult Nonfiction (305.8 COA)