Ta-Nehisi Coates on African American history

Between the World and Me is the latest book from award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, with whose work we were privileged to review in the Sunday Supplement a few years ago. You don’t have to…

Ta-Nehisi Coates on African American history

Between the World and Me is the latest book from award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, with whose work we were privileged to review in the Sunday Supplement a few years ago. You don’t have to be particularly interested in African American history to enjoy his books: the very reason I love them is that they explore that history’s meaning with grace and gravity, and include lots of humour.

In his most recent book, he describes how race has been won and lost throughout American history. “When I was a kid,” he explains, “there were only two kinds of black people, two kinds of black Americans: rich and poor.” He had no idea that black Americans had been making history for hundreds of years, or that wealth and slavery were part of that history. Neither did the authors of his grandparents’ memoirs, or the parents and siblings they’d left behind, or his own children, or any of his friends who were of that same generation.

But a black historian’s view of history is fundamentally different. Historians have a way of understanding the past that brings them into contact with the relationships of human beings, humans whose secrets the historian should be able to discover. We’re all outsiders looking in, looking for the truth about other people who are like us but not as we are. This is the job that historical research, and especially the study of African American history, is.

This is also why, by the time Coates was one, he was prepared to make an honest assessment of his own own father’s past. He went on to describe the sacrifices that black Americans made to build a more prosperous, progressive nation in his previous book, Between the World and Me. Here, he looks at how American history has won and lost black people’s lives.

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