Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau/Penguin Random House, 2015. 152 pages; $24.00 (hardcover); reading level: adult.

Within the first few pages of his book Coates uses a term borrowed from James Baldwin to define the enemy:  those who “believe that they are white.” In his eyes, “the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.” Writing in the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son (a device also borrowed from Baldwin) but with a self-conscious awareness that a diverse audience is looking over his shoulder, the book Coates stitches together is part memoir, part rage over having to fear for the very existence of his body, part confession for imposing that fear on his son, part diatribe against the enemy, and part celebration of Coates’s own writing ability as the vehicle through which he questions and works his way toward some sort of “consciousness.” Structurally, all those parts results in a literary creature with too many backbones. Single observations can be eye-opening but the whole feels vague and shapeless. That said, the fact that Coates has become the contemporary incarnation of James Baldwin means that those of us who know only the Martin Luther King strain of blackness would do well to take advantage of Coates’s invitation to peer over his shoulder, listening hard and trying to understand.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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