Between the world and me takes the form of a letter by the author to his teenage son, following on from James Baldwin writing to his newborn nephew in The fire next time but at greater length and historical scope – and with a palpable anger.
There are angry reviews on Goodreads complaining about how angry this book is. He’s clearly touched a nerve – to which I say ‘Good’. His scorn towards ‘The Dream’ in particular, America’s crass self-mythologising as a land of justice, opportunity and freedom, and towards those who cling to that dream is especially vitriolic. Much of the book is pure diatribe, and if it didn’t make people angry it would have failed. There’s no message of hope or pathway for transformation. The message is ‘Life is going to be hard because you’re black, son. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, but you’re going to have to find your own way yourself.’
I finished this short book in a couple of hours, but there’s a lot to unpack and I need to re-read it more carefully. I had an uncomfortable jolt after finishing it remembering that all the moral crimes and outrages that the author catalogues, past and current, are not specific to America, much as we like to think of that country being uniquely deplorable. That I can’t just smugly sit here on the other side of the Atlantic being suitably appalled by America’s bloody history and hideous present, when it’s our history and present too. Inseparably so. The unconscionable wealth amassed from slavery, legalised racial discrimination, brutal and corrupt police, deep-rooted racism in the criminal justice system and public institutions, the normalisation of prejudice, the reduced life chances, hostility and fear that black people live with – the list goes on and on. Obvious to many, I know, but it really hit me after reading this.
We think of slavery as a terrible thing that happened in faraway countries a long time ago, unaware or unbothered that it was the foundation of modern Britain as we know it, just as much as it was the US. When people are more outraged by statues of slave-traders being toppled than the history they commemorate, it tells you that Coates’s anger is entirely justified, and of the ongoing necessity of uncompromising blasts against white complacency.
I haven’t said much about the book itself I know. There is so much to discuss from this slim volume (which could easily run to essay length) but I just wanted to note this, as it may not be obvious that the book has a wider relevance than personal memoir / US-specific political critique.