Coates' book is presented as a letter to his teenage son. It's his attempt to describe what it's like growing up black in present-day America from the inside out, using his own life as his touchstone. He presents his world from a personal, subjective point of view. This isn't a sociological or political text. In the book Coates renders his confusion, his questions, his grief, his anger and his joys with literary clarity, and with a depth that can't be captured in a dry, "objective" discussion of the issues.
It would be incorrect for me to say I "understand" the book. You can only understand the world he's trying to capture if you've lived it, if you've felt it in your psyche and your nerve endings. Intellectual understanding, even combined with valiant attempts at empathy, can't substitute for being there on a day by day, minute by minute basis. I'm an older, white, privileged male who does his best to comprehend the nature of racism in this country, but I know I'm looking at that world from the outside. Coates grants me the ability to get as close to what the life of a black man is like as any recent work I can think of.
People compare Coates' book to James Baldwin's electrifying 1963 work, The Fire Next Time. It's a valid comparison, but for me, the experience of reading Between the World and Me is more like what I felt when I read Ralph Ellison's great 1952 novel, Invisible Man. That's the only other book I can remember that gave me the momentary sense of living the black experience, and helped me understand how distant it is from my experiences and how limited my understanding will always be.
This book deserves to join the literary canon alongside works by Baldwin, Ellison and Toni Morrison. So let me end by quoting what Morrison wrote about Between the World and Me.
“I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading."