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I read "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates and didn't know quite what to make of it until I read this review by Michelle Alexander, which helped.

The book came out about three years ago and is a long essay (about 200 pages) in the form of a letter from Coates to his teenage son. It is a rumination on the state of being black in the United States. Coates is not encouraging. The book feels like an extended cry from someone who has been wounded and sees no hope for recovery.

Perhaps Coates intentionally withholds the feeling of hope from his book -- hope for change, hope for a life free of the oppressive shadow of racism and fear of its sometimes-fatal effects. (One of Coates' college friends, unarmed, was killed in a police stop by an officer known for abuse, and nothing was done.) Perhaps he didn't want to offer the easy comfort of hope and joy despite it all, but to present the negative force of our country's awful history of slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow and the whole huge power of an economy built on oppression and a society immersed in bias. I can't blame him.

Alexander says Coates' book is refreshing because it was written for black people, without the softenings that black writers inevitably and perhaps unconsciously include for white readers. But I wonder whether the opposite is true — because Coates had a wide white readership both before and after this book was published — and I wonder whether he purposefully avoided offering white readers an easy retreat to, for example, the joy and success that he, Coates, has found, despite his hard childhood in Baltimore, despite the fear he must live with and the daily awareness of his status in this country as a subject of fear and contempt.

I don't know what his intentions were, as far as white readers go, but as a white reader, I believe this is a valuable book — for one thing, because it doesn't follow a traditional arc from struggle to uplift and because it doesn't end, or include anywhere, hope for the future. You cannot address a problem before you identify it, and you definitely cannot address a problem if you deny it exists. This book identifies the problem, and in very personal terms, establishes its malevolent existence. That is as far as it goes, but that is far enough.

Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at



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