Finding a Place Between the World and Ourselves

Ta-Nehisi Coates
I had been anticipating Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me for all of three weeks. I must confess, I had not heard he was writing a book and I did not want to know too much of its content before reading it, in the same way that I detest previews and would rather watch a movie “cold.” What I knew of Coates was from his writing for The Atlantic. It was very clear to me that he questions incessantly. Only a person that questions in that manner can write with the knowledge and clarity that he does. I knew that he is a scholar of Civil War history, much like I am. Indeed, the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of Civil War-era history is fascinating.

I started following Coates on Twitter a week or so after I heard about Between the World and Me. Coates tweeted about the five books that “pushed him towards” writing the book. He mentioned The Great Gatsby, a book I have never liked. But he said he read the book in one sitting and that he realized great and moving books don’t actually need to be long. That’s really where I start this story because I read, like Coates did Gatsby, Between the World and Me in one sitting, interrupted only by a single meal. Let me explain that.

I started reading the book in a restaurant. I was having a quiet meal by myself and thought there could be no better company than a new book. Almost as quickly as I started reading, I put the book away. It wasn’t the white hipsters in a vegan restaurant with Mason jars containing light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t the drone of uninteresting conversations that these hipsters were having near my table. It definitely wasn’t the fact that I was staring at what looked like AstroTurf plastered on the wall, masquerading as décor in a vegan restaurant.

It was that Coates’ words immediately slammed into me and I felt my eyes welling. Tears are simply things I don’t do and I’m not under any delusion that crying is cathartic. I hadn’t read three pages when I came across the words that brought me to a realization about this book. It was a fact that I had not so much lamented, but recognized just days before while discussing, explaining, pontificating about the idea that slavery was not in conflict with democracy. Coates said, as succinctly as he always does, that democracy is a forgiving God. At that moment, I realized reading this book “cold” was a myth; I knew what it was about.

I realized reading this book “cold” was a myth; I knew what it was about.

I knew this book would affirm what I already knew, that it would wash over me like familiar waters. It did more than that in just a few pages. Written to his son, Coates admonishes him to never look away from the racism that extracts organs, cracks bones, and breaks teeth. He tells his son that he must always struggle to remember the past; that blacks were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. It was the exact kind of thing my parents told me at an age when I probably didn’t fully comprehend my responsibility to “struggle to truly remember.” Coates’ words crashed into me like waves. I put the book away and continued eating my dinner.

When I picked it up again, I could not put it back down until I reached the last word. Afterwards, I needed to sit in silence. I needed to digest what I read in the way you digest a meal you ate much too quickly and far too eagerly. Then I needed to write. I needed to write something about what I had read. Writing, I believe, is cathartic.

Coates speaks of fear on many levels. He speaks of fear for his son’s black body. My fear in writing this piece is minuscule and, in fact, trivial in comparison. Frankly, I feared that my words would not do his work justice. I must say, as an aside, that my writing is not celebrated for being particularly creative. I am an attorney. If it is celebrated at all, my writing is praised for being precise, methodical, and most importantly, correct. I say this because, although Coates writes about wanting to escape, his writing is free in a way that is rarely appreciated in my line of work. Coates says that in poetry, loose and useless words must be discarded. As much as I can reasonably assure you, I will do so that there are no loose or useless words to be found in his book. Certainly, he has discovered and unleashed the economy of truth in his own writing.

Still, because my fear that I will offend his work with my own literary shortcomings, no matter how insignificant, persists, I don’t mean this writing to be a review. I will leave the reviews to others. Instead, it’s an urgent request. It’s a recommendation with all of the fervor I can muster.

Read this book.

If you are like me, you may not read a book simply because someone who has written countless literary classics told you to do so. Perhaps my intellectualism has a foolishly stubborn ego that wouldn’t compel me to read a book just because an author I respect calls it, “required reading.” But don’t be so foolish or stubborn as to believe that it’s not required reading. It is.

I don’t mean this writing to be a review. I will leave the reviews to others. Instead, it’s an urgent request. It’s a recommendation with all of the fervor I can muster.

The book touched me in a way that is deeply personal. It is at once affirming, saddening, and frightening to read. I would not rob you of your moment of realization, perhaps your moment of sadness or reflection at the truths and the words that we could wish were not true. I would not rob you of the opportunity to see an image of yourself, your brothers, and your sisters leap off the pages. I will not rob you of your own catharsis. I will let Coates tell you.

If you ever found it peculiar that we are told to “never forget” the Holocaust and that we’re supposed to “always remember” 9/11, yet “get over” slavery, you may find a truth in this book. If you ever felt the emotional, mental, physical weight of struggling to truly remember the history of slavery and of blackness, you may find a truth in this book. If you ever viewed the struggles of blackness in America as a bucket with so many holes so hard to plug that you felt like we were playing a cosmic game of whack-a-mole, you may find a truth in this book. Or if you have ever started thinking about blackness, the journey we took to get to 2015 and all of the events leading us to this very day, and you became overwhelmed with it all. If you got angry because you were overwhelmed. If you were so angry, you cried. If you cried to the point of numbness and all you want is to feel again. You may find a truth in this book.

May I suggest to you that even if you’ve never thought too deeply on the myriad issues that come with what we know as blackness in America, you may still find a truth in this book.

Read it.

By Sonny Haynes

Sonny S. Haynes is a North Carolina attorney who loves seeking beauty in the art that life imitates. You will most often find her reading about Civil War history and Supreme Court justices, or watching Vietnam War-era movies and documentaries. Arts and innovation are her loves.