The best book I read in 2016, by a mile, is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me. It is moving, eloquent, and deeply disturbing. Coates wrote this as a letter to his 15-year-old son, describing his own childhood on the rough streets of West Baltimore, his education at Howard University (a place he loves so much he calls it “the Mecca” throughout the book), his early struggles as a writer, and then the success he finds in New York and at The Atlantic.
The book is basically a love offering to his son but it is also a very sober reflection on and an exposure of the history of racism and Americans’ perceptions of race and how it tragically affects him, his family, and his friends. Coates is an amazing writer. He’s transcendent. His style is straight-forward, simple and clear and yet it’s poetic and sometimes so beautiful I often had to stop and catch my breath I was so moved by his words. He’s honest about his fear and anger.
Several scenes in the book I found particularly memorable and moving [mild spoiler alert]: his terrifying moment of getting pulled over by a suburban-D.C. police officer for basically driving-while-black; the shock and rage after the shooting of Prince Jones; and the humbling lessons he learned years later interviewing Prince Jones’s mother.
I do much of my reading on public transportation and there were many times I stopped reading, glanced around at the faces of my fellow bus and train passengers, looked out the window at the south and west sides of Chicago, and felt like never before the question: why do we do this each other? Coates is not a problem solver. He doesn’t see easy solutions or pin his hopes on false symbols. He is not Dr. King or Malcolm X or anyone else I’ve read. But he has a gift for seeing clearly and putting into the most compelling of words what has happened in human history.
I happened to be reading this book in the last days of the presidential campaign, on election day, and during its immediate aftermath. In some ways it made the shock of the election even stronger. But in another way it didn’t – the post-election rhetoric really confirmed everything Coates is saying.
I’m grateful to my oldest son for introducing me to this author. Last winter he suggested to me that I read Coates’s now famous article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” Wisely and tactfully, anticipating my resistance, he said something like, “You don’t have to agree with his case at the end. Just read it.” I would say the same about this book.