Between the World and Me | Ta-Nehisi Coates

Kernel Fiona Fyfe reviews a very moving and powerful essay style letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son in BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a award-winning national correspondent for the Atlantic and the award-author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Coates has been called one of the greatest modern voices on race and it is evident his passion, fierceness and intellect is unparalleled on the subject. BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME is out now from the fine folks at Text Publishing. It is available at all good book stores or you can obtain it HERE in paperback or e-book. This one’s worth a read, not only did Kernel Fiona love it, it will leave you feeling impassioned and smarter. Enjoy Fi’s review……..all the best…….JK.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist with the Atlantic and the author of The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir. BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME is an important book. Aside from being beautifully written, it is a profound and poignant analysis of race relations in America. Presented in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Coates discusses the history of the black body, of segregation and the number of black bodies that are still disproportionately represented in prisons or worse, killed on the streets.

When Coates uses the term white he uses it as a means of describing those in American society who regard themselves as other. Being white means you are privileged with freedoms greater than those beneath you and horrendously armed and equipped to wreak havoc on those you deem as lesser. As a white body you have the power and more terrifyingly, the right to deny liberty, to deprive and destroy.

And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below (* Thavolia Glymph – Out of the House of Bondage).

Coates is a gifted writer and committed to protecting and enlightening his son about the brutality of racism. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.


Ta-Nehisi Coates Author Illustration by Ethan Rilly
Ta-Nehisi Coates Author Illustration by Ethan Rilly


He regards race as nothing more than a restatement of the greater problem. He rejects the proposal that the way forward is to meld black with white until we live in a coffee-coloured world. A lot of black people are already beige, he argues! And by speaking of race, all society is doing is reshuffling the haves and have-nots under an umbrella of rights.

For every Trayvon Martin or Prince Jones, there is a righteous police officer or civilian, believing themselves white who feel justified and ardent in annihilating a black body. Sometimes the catalyst for these murders is nothing more than a hoodie. Coates tells his son that it’s not safe to be black in 21st century America anymore than it was on the Southern plantations of the 1750’s. The life of a black body is tenuous at best and the wolf is never far from the door. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.

In 1997 at the end of an American holiday, I spent some time in Miami and New York with my friend Marc. Marc is an African-American, a lawyer and one of the most interesting people I know. I thank him for introducing me to a culture that previously had been entirely unknown to me. Instead of watching The King and I on Broadway, we saw Bring in Da Noise Bring in Da Funk. We hung out with some brothers, we combed the length and breadth of Manhattan looking for a copy of Tootsee Roll by 69 Boyz and we chilled out to Babyface. Marc roared with laughter at my naivety when I offered him some sunscreen at a theme park in Tampa. In a drug store he pointed out that band-aids that said “flesh-coloured” weren’t referring to his flesh. He took me to an African restaurant on the Upper East Side of New York and on another occasion introduced me to Soul Food.

Disturbingly, one of the aspects of that holiday that remains firmly etched in my mind is the night we tried to hail a cab on 51st Street with two other brothers who were Marc’s friends. Yellow cabs were pulling up right, left and centre and collecting passengers with clock-work efficiency. I was miffed as to why no one would stop for us until Marc told me that I would have to stand on my own and hail the cab because they weren’t going to stop for three black guys. I remember feeling a little sick as I stood on the kerb while my friends stood in the shadows and a cab immediately swooped in. I still feel ashamed and I still feel angry.

In college at Howard University, Coates is struck by the free rein that an attractive, dread-locked student allows herself. Not only is she a black body but she shares that body with men and women and she lives in a house that is racially and sexually open to experiment and exploration. He marvels at her power.  The girl with the long dreads who slept with whomever she chose, that being her own declaration of control over her body.


Ta-Nehisi Coates Author Image
Ta-Nehisi Coates Author Image | Image Provided by Text Publishing


College itself offers him a certain freedom but still he feels constrained by the whiteness of the arrangement. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Still it is through his college degree and subsequent interest in journalism that he meets like-minded souls and other black bodies that are walking the same path and awakening to the reality that fear is all around them and it is a fragile road they navigate.

It is the reflection of black people through white eyes that also unsettles him. He is disconcerted by the Sambo caricatures of white artwork that appeared after enslavement where black bodies were portrayed as lustful and simian. He contrasts this with the regal image of the black Magi of the 16th and 17th centuries where black bodies were momentarily depicted as human and splendid. The later images that mocked and terrorized leave him feeling psychologically and physically exhausted.

He writes: perhaps being named black had nothing to do with any of this; [the ugly characterisations] perhaps being black was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah. Critical race theorist, Derrick Bell wrote of this categorisation in his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, where he talks of the yawning chasm that still exists between civil rights and reality. Coates is only too aware that white friends can attend a football game with a black body and cheer for the star black player on their team but then just as easily start yelling “get that nigger” when a black body from the opposing team has the ball.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME is a beautifully crafted meditation on what it means to be a black body in contemporary America. Drawn largely from Coates’ personal experiences, it is also a reflection on the Civil War and the ugliness of enslavement. His prose is eloquent and vivid and his message is both sagacious and confronting. Undeniably he is one of the most articulate and important writers on race relations of our times.


4 and a Half Pops


Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then. You can catch her and her tweets at @FionaJayneFyfe1

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.