If great writing makes us view the old world in a new way—and I think it should—then I can’t think of a better example in recent years than Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me.
by John Dennehy
The book, which is short enough to read in a single sitting, is told through a series of letters the author is writing to his young son, explaining race through his own upbringing. The power of the work is in how intensely personal it is while still allowing the reader to walk alongside the narrative, as a part of it, as an invisible observer.
I try to be self-critical and conscious of things such as race and privilege but reading this work absolutely gave me a new vantage point. It made it so easy for me to compare my own upbringing and experiences with those of Coates, to easily recognize that we grew up in different worlds—unequal worlds. We can never fully understand how it feels to be someone else, how life would be if we were born into a different gender or race. But the more we can break free of the assumed notion that our perspective is representative of everyone else’s, the more we can see glimpses of what life may be like for the other, the better we can understand the world in which we all live. A little empathy goes a long way.
Between The World And Me should be read by anyone with an open mind who wants to see race relations in America from a new angle. I’ll close with one of the many excepts that resonated so powerfully with me:
All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much. It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder. It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments….It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three hours a day for us.
John Dennehy grew up in New York but moved out of the country when President Bush was re-elected. For five years he lived in Latin America, returning to the United States in 2010. He writes about travel, politics, media and currency and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Vice, Adbusters, Truth-out and Narrative. His work has been featured by Public Radio International and the New York Times. He blogs at www.jdennehy.com