Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is quite possibly one of the most demoralizing works I’ve ever read. This feeling is driven home even farther when considering that the book is written as a letter to Coates’ 15-year-old (at the time of its writing) son. Ouch!
I picked up the book for two reasons. First, it’s been on the New York Times Bestseller List for quite a while, and I was sick of looking at it without having read it. Second, I’m always interested in hearing other perspectives, and Coates has a significant reputation as a voice in the black community.
Coates does have an interesting perspective on race. For starters, he writes that “race is a child of racism, not the father.” In other words, race is a classification artificially manufactured by humans, rather than reflecting any meaningful distinctions. Nevertheless, Coates recognizes that black people have formed a community; it is diverse, but black people have come to identify with one another as a result of the oppressive American sorting system.
However, Coates begins to lose me when he begins decrying the education system as a tool of oppression, “a jail of other people’s interests.” To many, including many people with disabilities who have also suffered oppression, education has provided a path to economic freedom and upward mobility. Coates never really answers challenges such as this, except for saying that the individual intentions of educators should be forgotten: “What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary.” Later he writes that his “classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.” What a great thing to tell a teenager…
Coates continually engages hypocritical thinking Although he writes that he “raised [his son] to respect every human being has singular,” he refuses to respect individuals, such as the teachers described above or the police officer that shot his friend. Instead, he considers them tools of an oppressive system that cares only about promoting the American Dream. Throughout the book, Coates lovingly discusses past girlfriends, his wife, son is, and friends. But he refuses to grant individual white people the benefit of the doubt or to even view them as individual actors rather than “majoritarian pigs” in some diabolical system of systemic oppression.
Don’t get me wrong – Coates has ample reason to be upset about the way America has treated black people. Beyond slavery and sins of the past, America still makes it difficult for black people to find things like affordable and accessible housing. There are prejudices built into the system. However, unlike Coates, I haven’t given up on trying to improve the system. He tells his son, “Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.” That statement sickens me, as does Coates’ Jeremiah Wright-like reaction to 9/11. I still believe in my country, in all of its people.