True perspective

Between the World and Me

photo courtesy of ta-nehisi coates

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of America's foremost cultural commentators—a lyrical, gentle voice illustrating devastating truths about America and its history. His award-winning 2014 article “The Case For Reparations” (which earned the 2014 George Polk Award for Commentary and the 2015 Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice) lays out in vivid detail the ways that black life in America has been shaped not by a nebulous, ineffable force called “history” but by the very real actions of very real people.

Coates' new book, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, $24) continues his clear-eyed insight but takes the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son. In it, Coates recounts his lifelong journey to understand America and a black man's place in it, tracing a thread from his grandmother's kitchen through his adolescence on the streets of Baltimore, through “the Mecca” (his name for Howard University), through his experiences as a struggling writer and young father in New York City, to the streets of Paris.

Grappling mightily with the responsibility of preparing his son for adulthood, Coates delivers in a way that is both hopeful and sober. He doesn't hesitate to speak frankly of the racism woven tightly into American life, or of the lack of comfort provided to him by religion, martyrdom or the “twice as good” mantra of modern respectability politics. Instead, he prefers to contemplate and confront the messy, complicated truth.

The cover inscription my copy bears, from Toni Morrison—“This is required reading”—couldn't be more true. Anyone seeking insight into our world will find themselves transformed by this amazing work.