August 12th, 2016


Between the world and me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Dr. Jones greeted me at the door. She was lovely, polite, brown. She appeared to be somewhere in that range between forty and seventy years, when it becomes difficult to precisely ascertain a black person's precise age. She was well composed, given the subject of our conversation, and for most of the visit I struggled to separate how she actually felt from what I felt she must be feeling. What I felt, right then, was that she was smiling through pained eyes, that the reason for my visit had spread sadness like a dark quilt over the whole house. I seem to recall music - jazz or gospel - playing in the back, but conflicting with that I also remember a deep quiet overcoming everything. I thought that perhaps she had been crying. I could not tell for sure. She led me into her large living room. There was no one else in the house. Her Christmas tree was still standing at the end of the room, and there were stockings bearing the name of her daughter and her lost son, and there was a framed picture of him - Prince Jones - on a display table. She brought me water in a heavy glass. She drank tea. She told me that she was born and raised outside of Opelousas, Louisiana, that her ancestors had been enslaved in that same region, and that as a consequence of that enslavement, a fear echoed down through the ages. "It first became clear when I was four," she told me.
This is a tremendous short book about institutionalised racism in the United States, and in particular the simple fact that black Americans live in continual fear of being killed by agents of the state who are unaccountable for their violence, this being a situation deliberately engineered by the state. The death of Coates' college friend Prince Jones, at the hands of an undercover black policeman from the notoriously violent Prince George's County force, is the crux of the argument, framed as a letter from Coates to his teenage son but also of course an open letter to the rest of us.

The unaccountable use of fatal violence by the forces of the state is of course not unique to America, and where I felt Coates lost focus a bit was on the comparative side of things; I think that there are probably positive lessons to be learned by the US from security sector reform successes in other countries (many of which were actually supported by American taxpayers). It's also a little startling to read his starry-eyed impressions of France, which is hardly a racism-free nirvana. But at the same time, Coates is already one of the most vocal and eloquent commentators on race in the USA and perhaps more widely; and this book has his thoughts distilled into easily digestible length and form. Well worth reading.

This came to the top of my pile as both the most popular unread book by a non-white author and the most popular non-fiction book. The next in those categories are respectively The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 4, and The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj.