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Between the world and me

Between the world and me is a letter from a father to his son about living in the United States of America in a Black man’s body. There are moments in this book where the beauty of Coates’ prose is quite breath-taking, and the whole is sustained by an intellectual rigour that allows it to shine all the better.

Coates’ book is part episodic memoir, part philosophical consideration of the problem of the American Dream and its fundamental constitution in the exploitation and plunder of Black bodies. He describes growing up in Baltimore, and the ways in which he learned to live and posture on the streets: the violence and fear. He delineates his discovery of what he calls The Mecca, the sacred place he found in Howard University and its libraries, where he learns to know the gift of study, reading and reading – and writing so that he might learn how better to question and think. He relates the pain and realisations he came to as a result of the murder at the hands of a police officer of a friend from college, Prince Brown, and the effect this had on his understanding of Black bodies and the America they built and continue to have to die for. And he offers an account of the beautiful sense of lightness and being free of some of these bindings he found in travel, in a trip he took to Paris. And throughout, he thinks through what all of this does to and for that complex relation “between the world and me”, and what it might mean to and for his young son.

I first encountered Coates in his famous article for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” – which is excellent, and well worth looking into if you haven’t read it yet. He brings the same careful intelligence of that article to this book. Here is it coupled to a gentleness and a tentativeness that make for a read that is all the more compelling. It is distinctly the question of the male Black body that takes centre stage in the book, but as a letter from a father to his son, it makes no promises to be anything other than that. Toni Morrison called Between the world and me ”required reading”, and she knew what she was talking about.

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