Between the World and Me

Another personal first — reading a book to prepare for an upcoming comic book series.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the winner of last year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction, is partly a response to the killings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other unarmed black Americans. None of their slayers were convicted of a crime (most were never taken to trial), but Coates doesn’t revisit the details of these killings or lay blame on the exonerated, most of whom he does not name. He takes a broader view instead, arguing their deaths were just the latest development in a long history of violence against black Americans. His focus is on the destructive power of institutional racism, much in the tradition of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcom X, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Like these other authors, Coates highlights distrubing and shameful truths about American society in a thorough, almost scholarly manner, with an understated tone of righteous anger. This narrative, however, is framed in an extended letter from Coates to his son, bringing a tone of genuine affection that doesn’t dismiss the ugliness the author sees in the world, but does provide a reason for continuing to struggle against that ugliness.

The audiobook is read by the author, which from my experience doesn’t work well; I once listened to an elderly William Golding read his wonderful Lord of the Flies, and the experience can only be described as painful (the sniffing — dear Lord, the sniffing). Authors are rarely good readers, and Coates’ performance certainly lacks the polish that a professionally trained vocal performer could have provided. Yet the author’s voice is filled with a passion that comes from addressing his son nearly continually; his delivery may not be pefect, but not even a perfect actor could hope to emulate the power of his conviction, making the author’s decision to read his own work a wise one.  

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