Summary: An impassioned letter from an African American father to his 15 year old son.
Between the World and Me deserves all of its praise. It will be on virtually every ‘Best of 2015′ book list. I need some space, but I would like to read it again before the end of the year.
This is not an easy book to read. I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by Coates. All of the passion and pain of the book carries through. However, this book of passion and pain and not easy to take.
Coates formats the book as a letter to his 15 year old son on the occasion of his disappointment that Darren Wilson would not be indited or face trial for the shooting of Michael Brown. The book recounts Coates’ life and place in the world as an African American man.
Overwhelmingly it is about his concern for how his son will live, how Coates will not be able to protect him from the pain of life that is unfairly biased against him.
The book is roughly divided into three sections. The first is about the ‘plunder’. The systemic loss of safety and autonomy that Coates, and all African Americans, face because of results of racist institutions. This section also tells the story of Coates own growing up years where he learned to navigate his way through his isolating urban streets.
The second section is about his coming of age at Howard University and how he was ‘made for the library and not the classroom’. His eyes were widened as he learned about others and their different backgrounds and world. He met his wife and they married and had their son and moved to New York. But also how he was frustrated with what his learning revealed.
The third section was about the killing of his friend from Howard University, Prince Carmen Jones, by a cop in 2000. Jones was an engineering student, the son of a highly respected doctor. The cop, who was black, was undercover, and pursuing a 5 ft 4, 250 lb suspect. He mistakenly identified Jones, a 6 ft 3, 210 lbs, as the suspect. He and his partner, in separate unmarked cars followed Jones across two state lines for 16 miles without pulling him over.
When Jones stopped, knowing he was being followed, the cop and his partner blocked him in a driveway. There was a confrontation and the cop shot 16 times, striking Jones 6 times, five of those bullets were in Jones’ back. At the time, Jones was only steps from his fiancee’s home.
Coates originally wrote about the story to both bring publicity to the shooting and to help himself work through his own grief. Here, and in several other places, Coates is frustrated with the Christianity of those around him that asks victims to forgive their killers without any expectation of justice. The cop, who had other incidents, and the police force, which had multiple federal investigations into its policing practices, were found to have acted reasonably. The cop and department later settled a civil excessive force lawsuit.
Throughout the book, Coates is interested in the systemic issues, more than the personal ones. It did not matter to him that the cop was black, he was working in a systemically unfair system that did not hold him responsible for his abuses of power.
What was most uncomfortable for me is how often I wanted to argue with Coates. ‘There are other ways of understanding that’. or ‘Not everyone thinks that’. But that is at least partially the point of the book, Coates is telling the reader how he thinks and how he has received the world. And taken as a whole, it is hard to argue that his perspective is not one that needs to be heard and understood.
There are a few points where Coates gets a little too much in love with his own language. He is a talented writer, but occasionally a bit self indulgent. The writing is most compelling when it is most personal. But Coates does not want the whole book to be personal, he wants to explore the systemic.
I want to read the book in print the next time. I am glad I listened to the audiobook first. The tone and voice carries through well in audio. But a second reading in print to force me to work through the ideas a bit more carefully.