This book is not the only medium available to me that demonstrates the systemic plundering of black bodies by the conglomerate of American institutions we see fit to call a society. Between the World and Me is a secondary source—I can get much closer to the massacre than that.
This week, in Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot four times while he reached for his ID during a routine traffic stop. His girlfriend filmed the aftermath, and millions watched in real-time as she navigated that deadly space between trauma and an officer of the law.
Just two days before that, in Louisiana, Alton Sterling was pinned to the ground by two officers and shot fatally. Onlookers caught this incident on video as well, and in the span of less than a week the resulting media of both these incidents have roused the shock and outrage that they should.
The assassination of five Dallas cops during peaceful protests against police violence heaped onto the nation’s despair, and when the sniper who killed them declared he had set out with the sole intention of killing as many white officers as he could, many people began to think—tragically, deceitfully—that this was war.
These events and the media unfolding exponentially around them are all texts we should approach with critical minds: by now, if we have been diligent, we might have seen a pattern emerging, might have noted the futility of video documentation in shocking the nation awake, in holding the police forces responsible for their crooked execution of an already unbalanced justice. And we should all—I believe this strongly—read Between the World and Me before we set out to make our judgments.
Coates’ most recognized work takes the form of a letter directed to his fifteen-year-old child. “Son,” he writes, “Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.” He does not bother with a warm-up, there is no comfortable padding between the covers and the bloodiest of pages; Coates does not concern himself with the comfort of the white reader:
I write to you in your fifteenth year. I am writing to you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.
Coates’ language depicts with brutal palpability the pattern of violence and murder that the American economic engine generated at its inception, and which it continues to churn out en masse. His thesis is simple: that “race” is more than a naturally occurring abstraction which causes some to have and others to have not; that “the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” And just has he illustrates the manner of that landing, as he grabs the reader’s hand and walks them purposefully through the history of a nation that rests atop a mountain of black bodies, the weight of these violences begins to build upon the reader, compressing the mind into some form of understanding.
Coates’ perspective, that of a black man living in a America, is one that as a woman I recognize, even if I cannot fully relate. I too know something of the vulnerability of the body, of civilizations constructing themselves around my degradation, of an unseen but powerful barrier between the world as it is shown to me and the world as it incorporates me. I do not claim that we have tasted the same fruit, but rather eat from trees that grow in the same plot of poisoned soil.
Perhaps it is this proximity to perspective, this analog of marginality, that made Between the World and Me such a harrowing read. Perhaps (and I have to hope this is not the case), Coates’ book will not have the same impact on a white, straight man, on a person who has never had to question his sovereignty over his own body. But I cannot imagine the words—powerful, transcendent, irrefutable—could glide like so much oil on water over even the most indifferent of minds.
All I know is that I look at the world a little differently now. I won’t say that the book totally opened my eyes to the systemic racism of America, that I was blind but now I see, but I can tell you now that I feel different. That when my friends online post “hate cannot drive out hate” stickers on their timelines I pity them, because hate was never the issue. That when they despair at “all this violence,” as though the plundering of the black body had anything to do with the isolated assassination of five police officers, I know that they are sleeping. That when, like any good woke liberal, I make sure to check my privilege at a door, it is no longer something I want.
My white privilege isn’t a status or a gift: it is a necklace made of human bones and fingers. I don’t want it anymore. I can feel it draped around me like a noose. But even if, somehow, I could take my privilege off, the bodies behind those fingers and teeth would still need to be accounted for.
I cannot provide a critical endorsement of Between the World and Me because it is not critical; it is emotional, pathological. I have not been as changed by a book since I was a child, since my eyes were still wide open and my mind receptive to all the ideas aimed at it.
Toni Morrison’s review called Between the World and Me “required reading.” Consider it assigned.