Toni Morrison called Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, “required reading” when it was published in 2015. Amid the events of 2020, including the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the protests alongside a national reckoning with racism and police brutality, Coates’ book and the new HBO Special based on it are necessary reading and viewing for all of us.
The HBO Special Between the World and Me premiered November 21, 2020 and is available online streaming for free from HBO.
The new HBO Special was also based on the 2018 adaptation of Coates’ book staged at The Apollo Theater in New York City. The film includes readings from the book in addition to documentary footage, a clip from a Howard University commencement speech, animations and illustrations, and archival footage from various repositories, including collection materials requested from The University of Baltimore Special Collections & Archives. Some of the featured materials include clips showing Baltimore, Maryland circa 1968-1970 selected from the WMAR-TV Collection at The UB Special Collections & Archives.
Between the World and Me touches on numerous events from the author’s life including his childhood in West Baltimore and his college years at Howard University in Washington, D.C. It also describes America’s history of racism and white supremacy and how this has affected Coates and Black communities in America.
Coates wrote the book as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son as he was coming of age and finding his place in a country and world that includes racism, but the book is also a letter to America.
Though the book and HBO Special are not entirely about the events of Coates’ childhood in West Baltimore, his hometown and childhood experiences permeate the narrative. The film uses archival materials, illustrations, and documentary materials alongside readings from Coates’ book to provide a vivid portrayal of Black life in America and illustrate the lived impact of racism.
As an archivist at the University of Baltimore, but not a Baltimore native, I learn this city’s history every day. Seeing the archival materials in the film was an opportunity to be immersed as a viewer in Coates’ words and stories in a new way. Broadly, the film demonstrates the power and impact of archives in our society. Archives are full of memories, stories, and experiences waiting for us to listen and to learn from them.
Between the World and Me, as a book and as a film, weaves together the past and present in order to hold up a mirror to our faces. The past and present of the father and son in conversation are shown to be vastly different, but carry the same themes. In archives, we strive to preserve and make history accessible so that we can learn from the past and present, and build a better future. Reading Coates’ book and watching the HBO documentary certainly reinforces the hope that one day racism will be learned through archives and history and not lived experiences.