Between the World and Me

9780812993547_p0_v4_s192x300“Black Lives Matter” has become another political issue dividing our country. Unfortunately, while some within the African American community use this as a unifying and empowering statement, that their lives are just as important as anyone else’s, others criticize the movement and this slogan, in that it might suggest that not all lives matter. Before we knew the names of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown, there was Prince Jones. Prince Jones was a young black man, shot in Prince George County, Virginia.  He had been a student at Howard University, was in the DC area, and before his death was chased through several precincts, as he was on his way to his girlfriend’s house.

Ta Nahesi Coates had been friends with Prince at Howard, and was deeply devastated by his murder. He’s a writer who grew up in West Baltimore, and has experienced racial profiling, and racial violence firsthand. This had a significant impact on his life – and it remains an influence on his writing. It’s something he talks deeply and personally about in Between the World and Me, which is addressed to his son. His son’s reaction to Michael Brown’s death reminded him so much of his own reaction to Jones’s death. It is personal, and touching, and challenges readers to put themselves into someone else’s shoes.

The book begins with a quote from Richard Wright, which includes a passage from which the title was chosen. Wright is known for writing Native Son, among other things, and once was a prominent and powerful voice in the African American community.  Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in Chicago in the 1930s.  He has no father, little education, and no job, and this bleak life, and the way in which the world viewed young black men at the time, becomes a self-fulfilling sotry. It’s interesting that he chose this as his opener, Coates and his writing seem to have been influenced by him, as well as other African American writers.

“And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,

Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms

And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me…”

He tells his son about growing up in West Baltimore, and never feeling in control of his body. The city and its streets were a dangerous place, whether it be at the hands of his parents, the police, or the streets themselves, he was vulnerable and at constant threat of violence. He attended Howard University, and it was there that he met his wife, and Prince George. He calls this place Mecca, indicating its importance to him, and the African American community. It’s also somewhat indicative of the influence Malcolm X had on his life, in his younger years he describes himself as more militant, although by the end of the book he seems somewhat softened.

In New York he began writing, and this is where his son grew up. He matured there, and he developed as a writer. He didn’t graduate from Howard, yet had been forever changed. There is so much truth to what he has said here about life in America, truth that needs to be heard. I was completely blown away by this book.  I had heard many good things about this book, and had even heard Coates interviewed.  I was still stunned by this book’s message.  It was real, raw, and heartfelt.  I was deeply touched, and after reading it I wanted to make everyone I know read it.  Unfortunately those who need to hear this message won’t be reading the book.  It’s an important one nonetheless.

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