I just admitted to my mother that one of my regrets from college was not taking more African-American/African literature courses. I’ve been acquainted with Ms. Morrison, briefly introduced to Mr. Baldwin and tried to get an audience with Mr. Wright and Mr. Ellison on my own. And while I’m glad I have at least read Native Son and Invisible Man, I wish I had read them under the instruction of experts in the field of African-American literature in the same way that I was guided slowly through Anna Karenina by a Tolstoy expert.
Like any piece of literature, background knowledge is not necessarily required to read and learn something from Between the World and Me. But had I not read Another Country by James Baldwin this past semester, or taken a few courses in African-American history, I might not have appreciated everything Coates writes about. I might not have appreciated the stifling heat with which he describes New York City, the heat that contains the history and pain of generations of Black people that walked those streets before him. I might not have appreciated the contrast between this and the streets of Paris. Having walked the streets of that city myself, I understood immediately the difference that he tried to articulate.
Black Americans can breathe in France. Our histories take a backseat to a different country’s history. I remember the relief I felt walking along the Seine, scanning the books in the bouquins, taking pictures of the ponts as I looked in on another culture, distanced from my own history, which allowed me to inspect the burden America placed on my back from a different angle. But I refuse to mistake the lightness of being away from an oppressive society for utopia. France is not a utopia. Four years of intensive study of French culture in university taught me that France could give America quite a run for its money in a contest of whose better at actively forgetting the atrocities its country committed.
Between the World and Me talked to me in a way that reaches me best: through my father. My dad’s my best friend, a quirky, talkative engineer from a dusty corner of Virginia. He grew up walking the streets of Landover, MD with his cousin, telling stories with the same rhythm that Coates’ youthful narratives had. I recognize the masculinity he describes in my father’s story, which I know better than my own. I see the protectiveness he describes as he confronts a woman in the Upper West Side in the way my father used to tell me not to put my hands in the pockets of my hoodie, that I couldn’t take my books into the store and that I shouldn’t wave to cops from the backseat window.
The way that Coates describes his fascination with Malcolm and his fascination with books and the rage he felt at Prince Jones’ reminds me of the way I sat holed up in my room at school for four straight days and wrote what I consider a 15 page expose on Fox News’ biased coverage of the Michael Brown incident for my foreign affairs class. I understood what he meant when Michael Brown was to be his son’s Prince Jones. Michael Brown is my Prince Jones, too.
I know what it is to feel a need to accurately express what it is to be Black in America today, in an attempt to protect a child. I wonder about this every day. I fear for the children I don’t have every day. In my mind, all I could ever want one day is two little Black boys and I already want to give them everything. But I fear becoming Maple Jones. I fear for the life of a child that may not even ever exist.
But now we have this book. 152 pages of truth. Or maybe, 152 pages of unanswerable, but by no means irrelevant, questions that are meant to shed light on something that we are every day.