On the front cover of Between the World and Me is a statement by Toni Morrison that Coates’s work should be considered required reading—I couldn’t agree more.
I included this book in my summer reading list because I wanted to better understand social and cultural challenges facing society, such as racism and discrimination, from diverse vantage points and literary genres. Between the World and Me received the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Biography/Auto-Biography. To say the least, this book comes highly recommended.
Between the World and Me is written in the form of a letter to Coates’s adolescent son. This creative format makes the book feel intimate; the reader is given access to a private exchange between father and son. Throughout the book, Coates explores topics of race, violence, discrimination, slavery, and police brutality through personal experience and historical analysis. Coates guides the reader through reflections on his childhood in Baltimore, his experience of the vibrant student body at Howard University, and his trips to Paris. The author essentially invites the reader to step into his shoes and to understand the world through the experiences of his black body.
Having taught undergraduates in geography and Appalachian studies for over seven years now, I could not help but think of all the courses in which this book could be assigned. Coates’s writing speaks to scholars in the humanities as well as the social sciences. I also thought about how important it is to read about the experiences of those who voices are often silenced; to listen and to learn about the lives of other peoples and cultures all across the globe—and to keep reading such texts throughout our lifetime. We need to keep listening to one another.
We also need to keep remembering. A few days after finishing Between the World and Me, Darrell (my husband) and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Again, questions about discrimination and violence were in the forefront of my mind. Although it can be difficult to understand how a group(s) other than your own experience racism and discrimination, museums can often serve as a medium through which to foster empathy. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum begins this process by giving visitors an identification card. The card tells the story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. Some individuals escaped or emigrated after the Holocaust. Others were killed, or their fate is simply unknown.
I kept the identification card given to me when entering the permanent exhibition. It is now laying on my desk. Inside this identification card was the story of Frida Adler, born in Selo-Solotvino, Czechoslovakia. Frida survived and emigrated to the United States in May 1946. Her story seemed so important, so sacred, that I had to keep the card. This is card #2921.
We must continue to work hard to listen to and honor the voices of those whose experience is different from our own. We must support what is right and good and just in the world, and we must be quick to stand against discrimination is all its forms. Closing ourselves off to the plights of others leaves all of us weakened.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
—Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)