Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1201
Written as a letter to author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s teenage son, Between the World and Me explores the experience of living inside a black body. From the start, Coates maintains that the success of white America is possible due to its history of looting and violence. He examines Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 regarding a “government of the people, by the people” and notes that “the people” is actually conflicting phrasing. After all, in 1863, this certainly did not include women and children. Part of this conflict is due to Americans’ need to classify groups by race, which Coates suggests does not exist as an entity in itself but is instead a product of racism.
Americans, and white Americans particularly, enjoy living in “the Dream.” It is symbolized by Memorial Day cookouts, driveways, Cub Scouts, and treehouses. It has a smell: peppermint. It tastes like strawberry shortcake. Coates has at times wanted to escape into this Dream that never included him, but he also realizes that the Dream was built on the backs of blacks in America.
Coates has seen fear in the black faces around him for his entire life. The black boys who wore big rings and medallions paired with big, puffy coats and full-length, fur-collared leathers were afraid. The black girls who laughed loudly, wearing gilded bamboo earrings, just before squaring off for a fight were afraid. His father, who delivered punishment with a black leather belt, was afraid. The mother of the girl on the bus who whipped her daughter with cables and extension cords was also afraid. The ultimate source of fear is “the system that makes [a black] body breakable.”
When he was eleven, Coates was standing at a 7-Eleven when another boy reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun, a “rage” welling up in his eyes that let Coates know that his body could be easily “erased.” Coates told no one.
In order to survive, Coates explains that he first had to survive the streets. “Crews” roamed Baltimore, and their fear had transformed into a rage that proved an ongoing source of danger. Coates was forced to learn a language of head nods and handshakes that became essential in securing his body. He tells his son that he always knew that this third of his brain which was always focused on keeping his body safe should have been enjoying some more beautiful part of life.
Yet it was not just the streets which Coates had to survive. He states that “if the streets shackled my right leg, schools shackled my left.” In school, he learned to follow rules, such as always walking on the right side of the hall and having extra number 2 pencils. He was forced to sit through French class, although he had never met a French person and “nothing around [him] suggested [he] ever would.” School felt distant, and worse, it seemed to have no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls.
Coates’s parents rejected all religions, so he never felt that any “just” God was on his side. The beatitude that “the meek shall inherit the earth” meant nothing; in Baltimore, he witnessed the meek being battered and bashed.
He came to realize that the fear blacks felt was somehow connected to the Dream, but he could not determine the connection. Since his own father had been a local captain in the Black Panther party, he began reading all of his father’s old newspapers and books, trying to find these connections. Around the same time, he realized that his teachers always focused on the nonviolent heroes of the civil rights movement. And he simultaneously realized that white America claimed its land through murder and slavery. Civilization is secured and maintained through savage means.
Coates began studying the philosophies of Malcolm X, who wasn’t celebrated for being non-violent. Instead, he issued proclamations:
Don’t give up your life, preserve your life. And if you got to give it up, make it even-steven.
Coates identified with the idea that his life was as valuable as any other because being black was beautiful. He loved Malcolm because he felt Malcolm never lied, unlike the streets and schools. Malcolm also didn’t care if he made people who believed they were white uncomfortable in their beliefs.
Howard University, where Coates was admitted for college, provided his only true sense of a mecca. The vastness of the black experience, which included everything from beatbox to Sonia Sanchez, from Russian scholars to bone lab enthusiasts, expanded his sense of the black world.
Longing for a new history that told of the struggles and victories of his own people, Coates began reading voraciously. He discovered the story of Queen Nzinga, who ruled in Central Africa during the sixteenth century. When a Dutch ambassador tried to show her disrespect by not allowing her to sit, she commanded one of her assistants to kneel on all fours and create a human chair for her.
One thing became clear quickly: There was no singular narrative of the black experience. Instead, history is full of factions—and even factions within factions—that prevent definitive and easy answers to the questions Coates examined. Coates realized that the true personal goal of his education was to break all the dreams—the comforting dreams of both Africa and America. He recognized that “there is so much terrible out there, even among us.”
Coates’s professors sharpened him, challenging his perceptions of the philosophies of Malcolm X. He took a survey class on Central Africa that didn’t romanticize the topic; his professor urged him to see that his body is not symbolized in Queen Nzinga but in the assistant who was forced to bend to serve her queen.
Coates came to question the existence of race and believes that maybe being called “black” is just the term for “being at the bottom.” After all, “black blood wasn’t black; black skin wasn’t even black.”
At Howard, he fell in love three times with three very different women; the last is his son’s mother. The couple decided not to get married, focusing instead on protecting their son with all they could muster. When Samori was born, Coates considered the mecca and all it encompasses, and he wants his new son to have all of it, exactly as it is. He wants his son to know that he will never discover the entire world in school or on the streets. He hopes his son realizes that the struggle of their ancestors, and particularly the experience of slaves, has provided wisdom. He urges his son to see slavery itself not simply as a topic but as an individual experience. Slavery was one woman who loved certain people, who enjoyed a certain stream, who loved the way light fell in one corner of her woods. Slaves were “people turned to fuel for the American machine,” and slavery itself was not destined to end.
Coates urges his son to protect his black body and to realize that the crimes of other black bodies will always be attributed to him. Somehow, he must find a way to make peace with the chaos.