Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the stories that have cut into my soul and stayed there. Today, on Father’s Day, I have chosen to highlight one by award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates called Between the World and Me.
Coates wrote this book in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son. I read it in one day, which only intensified the impact of the book’s poetry and power. And of the pain. That pain got inside me, like the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s voice right before I have to get up and cut off the record to keep my soul from going into free fall. But I couldn’t cut myself off from Between the World and Me. The book demanded my attention. I couldn’t walk away.
The late Toni Morrison once compared Coates’ intellect to that of the eminent James Baldwin. This was high, well-deserved praise. Like Baldwin, Coates has an uncanny ability to deconstruct the interlocking horrors of American racism. He could have used this ability to turn his letterbook into a straight-up political indictment of America. Instead, being Ta-Nehisi, he turned the indictment into a work of art. I read parts of the book while walking through a university campus, down sidewalks and past naked-branch trees. With each page, I felt like I was stepping into the gray and the sunlight of Coates’ life: his years as a child, confronting his parents’ fierce, protective discipline and traumatizing Baltimore streets; his time as a student finding his voice at Howard University; his experiences as a young man falling in love; his ambivalent love of Paris; his rage and weariness as a father fighting for his son’s freedom and wholeness in a country where Black men get killed for sport. He gives his son his whole heart and his wisdom – but no answers, because there are none. Coates’ journey is not one of glory and revelation but of survival and consciousness. The journey is different for every Black man, and it is a walk that every Black man, including his son, must take on his own.
I will never understand what it is like to be a Black man in America, how it feels to be a man carrying around the knowledge that “the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body” (Coates, 2015, p. 9). But I know well the feeling of being transported into another self when you read the words of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing. The day I read Between the World and Me, I felt like I was breathing and crying inside Ta-Nehisi Coates’ skin.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. Spiegal and Grau.