The Breach Between the World and Me - Sazi Bongwe

A review of 'Between the World and Me' By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me serves as the ideal framework through which we ought to consider our continuation of the Black Lives Matter Movement as we know it in July 2020. The commentary that Coates provides in this book, while published in 2015, seems almost as if it was tailored to this moment in history - the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. Yet, marvelling in the book’s ever-increasing relevance is not so much an acclaim of Coates, so much as it is an indictment on American society and the racism that continues to pervade it. ‘Between the World and Me’ is, to quote John Green, “a short, relentless and brilliant meditation on race and history in the United States,” presented in the form of a letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ adolescent son. Coates conveys these thoughts in a way that makes them so universal so as to become personal to every reader, but especially every black reader. Coates expresses to his son that “what I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.” If there is one thing that Ukuzibuza aims to achieve; it is a collective and mutual growth into consciousness. The name of our website means ‘to ask oneself’ and Coates so accurately extends that notion when he describes “questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” I could not think of a better, and more current, book to review and through which to explore and make an attempt to grow into consciousness.

Ta-Nehisi Coates encapsulates the central premise behind the book and his time at Howard University in saying that “I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me.” In this, he implores the reader to search for this question in their own lives. Critically, ‘the world’ described here by Coates is not merely the physical world around us, but rather a world permeated by ‘the dream’ - a recurring notion that Coates makes reference to. Take this passage, with which he introduces the Dream :

“I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”

Reading the book once again, I have been inclined to make an attempt to fully understand the breach between the world and me. My position, however, is distinctly different to Coates’s and he notes this distinction in the knowledge he imparts on his son. On the inherent distance that exists between every black person and white America, Coates says the following :

“I have never asked how you became personally aware of the distance… But I know that it has happened to you already, that you have deduced that you are privileged and yet still different from other privileged children, because you are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country. What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility.”

My engagement with the Black Lives Matter Movement has been underpinned by the sense of my own privilege - especially as an economically well-off black South African witnessing police brutality in my own country from a place of relative comfort. Navigating my existence in a top white private school, I have felt the sense of my responsibility now more than ever. The breach between the world and me, while distorted before my eyes, could not have been made clearer in these last few months of social turbulence. I know now, more than ever, that my proximity to whiteness makes me that much more capable to combat it. As Coates puts it, I am lucky enough to “[enjoy] an abnormal amount of security in [my] black body.” The book evokes subtle awareness of this changing reality, such as when Coates says of black people he encounters living in old age in the city of Chicago, “ I admired them, but I knew the whole time that I was merely encountering the survivors… In those homes I saw the best of us, but behind each of them I knew that there were so many millions gone.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son, Samori Coates. An image included in the book.

Reading ‘Between the World and Me’ contextualises my urge toward change in a way no other book ever has. Coates says to his son, “I wanted you to be conscious, to understand that to be distanced, if only for a moment, from fear is not a passport out of the struggle. We will always be black, you and I, even if it means different things in different places.” This sentiment is why it is stressed so much that Black Lives Matter is not a moment, but a movement. This time cannot be fleeting and we cannot allow our momentum to deteriorate - as we find ourselves in the middle of an eternal struggle. I know that leveraging my privilege and navigating the spheres of society I have abnormal access to arms me with unique weaponry with which to form part of of an incredibly necessary struggle. As we continue on fighting for justice for lives lost and for lives that need not be lost, it is essential that we remain cognisant of our distance, our privilege, and our responsibility.

In saying this, the ever-increasing burden on the shoulders of every black life has often occurred to me. The notion that in addition to being subjected to injustice and systematic oppression, black people must bear the added responsibility of forging the way out of these and breaking down a society which sustains them. It becomes easy to misconstrue the black experience as being exclusively a life lived in perpetual, multifaceted hardship and in commitment to the struggle. It’s for this reason that the way in which Coates’ describes being black in this book becomes so valuable. This quote that he includes from what the mother of a murdered black boy said to Coates’ son has stuck with me and they’re the words that I believe every black person should hear :

“You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.”

On an intellectual level, Coates provides insights into race that are just so revelatory. Two specific ideas have stuck with me. The first is when Coates says that “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” And the second is the brilliant analogy that ‘to yell “black-on-black crime” is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.’ Coates has allowed me to break away from viewing metaphor as something spoken about only by English teachers in reference to old white poets, but as a critical device through which to conduct and convey meaningful and essential truths. These notions of race, racism and violence are deeply ingrained in our society but Coates deconstructs them through quotes such as these in such a way that allows for every reader to gain an understanding of the blunt yet nuanced dynamics at hand. I could quote from this book forever - my copy is extensively underlined, highlighted and annotated. There are so many more revelatory insights that I have left unmentioned and I genuinely believe that it is a book that ought to be read by everybody. As Toni Morrison puts it, “This is required reading.” This book informs for me what Coates describes as “a healthy skepticism and a deep belief that we could somehow read our way out.” This website and so much else that I’ve done and will continue to do are in many ways an extension of this healthy skepticism. Between the World and Me affirms my belief that I can somehow read my way out. My hope is that in collectively engaging in writing on platforms like this one, we can share that same conviction.

As we move forward and continue in the assertion that Black Lives Matter, continually referring to this passage that Coates’ provides feels necessary :

“The terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think they are white, which is to think they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to society...But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious.”

Between the World and Me doesn’t pretend to be all-knowing or to hold all the solutions to an inherently problem-filled world. One of my biggest takeaways from the book is when Coates says this to his son : “The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” Perhaps then that is where we stand : as conscious citizens of a terrible and beautiful world. Let us use our consciousness, from books such as Between the World and Me, to embrace the beautiful, and fight against the terrible.