When I was in high school, somebody gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X to read. I tried. I really did. But after a few chapters, I remember thinking “I have no idea what he’s talking about and I don’t think he’s writing for people like me.” I was young, and had lived a fairly privileged life in a very white town. My high school class of 400+ had a total of one African American student. And Malcolm X’s rhetoric was simply beyond my experience or even, at that time, my ability to imagine.
I think – I hope – I have progressed from that state of ignorance about issues of race. But it doesn’t always come easy. When I first tried to read Between the World and Me, I flashed back to the experience with Malcolm X. While I definitely understood Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words (his use of language is beautiful) I was not sure I completely understood his intent.
I ended up having to put the book down for a few months because my daughters needed to borrow it as it had been selected as the course book for their Freshman Seminar at Howard University. I’m not sure they read the whole thing – but they did get a chance to hear Coates speak to their class. I am pretty sure I was much more impressed/excited than they were…but hearing their impressions of him made me look forward to getting the book back and reading it.
Between the World and Me is a love letter to Coates’ son. It is love in the deepest sense – the way that parents want their children to know and understand the world and at the same time want to protect them from the harsh realities of it. Coates doesn’t sugar coat anything. His experiences – especially as a young boy – were often difficult. But his parents shaped that boy into a man whose intellectual curiosity was –is – almost insatiable. And that curiosity created a fine storyteller.
For me, the best parts of the book are when Coates describes his love affair with Howard University. I know the buildings he describes, and can imagine the power that Howard holds on him. I know my daughters’ felt the same pull to Howard the minute they saw it – they went from girls who figured they would “go to college somewhere” to girls who asked “what do I need to do to get in to Howard?” on a weekly basis. It may not hold the same Mecca status for them, but there is something magical about the pull it does have. And through that, I found the window through which I could access Coates’ writing.
I am still not sure I understand all the layers that Coates weaves into the writing. But I do know that I am richer for having been exposed to them.