Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Last Updated on March 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1318

Coates shares with his son that shortly before he was born, Coates was pulled over by the Prince George County police. Various stories of others who had suffered police brutality began to fill his mind, the stories of Elmer Clay Newman and Gary Hopkins and Freddie McCollum. He knew that at this time, this particular police department fired its guns often, prompting the FBI to open numerous investigations, often all in the same week. He also knew that the police chief was rewarded with a raise.

Coates was released without any reason for being pulled over, and a few months later he read about another killing by the Prince George County police. Coates was shocked to learn that the deceased was his friend from Howard, Prince Carmen Jones. Jones had been shot not in Prince George County but all the way in Northern Virginia, having been followed there on a police directive. He was shot only yards from his fiancée's home. The officer claimed that Jones had tried to run him over with his Jeep.

Coates returned to Howard for his friend’s service. Jones’s mother, Dr. Mable Jones, saw this tragedy as a call to move into activism. Others spoke of asking forgiveness for the officer. Many spoke of Jones’s belief that Jesus was always with him. 

Coates could find neither forgiveness for the officer nor any higher purpose in his friend’s death. Not a religious man, Coates believes that his soul is the connection to his neurons and nerves and that his spirit is his flesh. Thus, the officer had forever destroyed all that could ever exist of Prince Jones, and Coates did not pray with the other mourners: he “believed that the void would not answer back.”

Coates had never considered living in New York, but when his son’s mother secured a job there, the family moved just before September 11, 2001. Coates looked out on a devastated city after that tragedy and asserted that “Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city.” He also could not see the difference between the officer who shot Prince Jones and the police and firefighters who died at the World Trade Centers. To Coates, none of them were human.

Sometimes, Coates took the train to Manhattan, constantly in awe of the money flowing everywhere. He was particularly captivated by the white people on West Broadway, coming out of bars with wine spilling everywhere and no police to monitor them. He saw them as “utterly fearless.” As he looked around, he also noted white parents jogging with double strollers and young sons “command[ing] entire sidewalks with their tricycles.” 

Coates thought back to his own childhood, in which all black boys and girls were urged to be “twice as good,” which he now interprets to mean “accept half as much.” He understood that no one was providing this same advice to the white children he observed in New York.

Coates recalls the time he took his young son to see Howl’s Moving Castle on the Upper West Side. As his nearly-five-year-old son dawdled along after the performance, a white woman pushed him and said, “Come on!” Immediately, Coates sensed that she was “invok[ing] [her] right over the body of [his] son.” Coates accosted her for touching his child, and she shrunk back. However, a white man rose to her defense, noting that he could have Coates arrested, which Coates further interprets as “I could take your body.” Returning home with many mixed emotions, Coates realized that his greatest regret about his reaction was that he endangered his son through his efforts to defend him. 

When the Civil War began, black bodies were collectively worth four billion dollars. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they were able to amass great wealth because of the availability of stolen black bodies. Black bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. They built the Capitol and the National Mall. And when the first shots of the Civil War were fired in South Carolina, black bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. 

Coates tells his son that the destruction of black bodies is national heritage. Without the right to break black bodies, those who believe themselves to be white would be forced to fall from their metaphorical mountains and lose the Dream. They would then have to determine how to “build their suburbs on something other than human bones.” He tells his son that he is sorry that he cannot save him but that he would never want his son to be like those who believe themselves to be white. Instead, he wants his son to be a “conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”

Recalling the first time he took his son to work with him, Coates asks his son if he remembers the mother of the dead boy who was killed by a white man for playing his music too loud. At the end of their meeting, the mother looked at Samori, imparting this wisdom:

You exist. You matter. You have value. . . . You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.

Coates is thankful that she’d given his son the same message that he himself had been trying to deliver, fighting back against the idea of disembodiment. 

Believing that the Dream is the pinnacle of American ambition, Coates never imagined that something else existed beyond the suburbs. When Samori’s mother took a trip to Paris to celebrate her thirtieth birthday, Coates was merely “bemused” with her dreams. However, her return to America sparked something new in Coates himself as he watched her eyes dance with the possibilities in another setting. Several years later, Coates himself was in Paris, wishing someone had told him the true purpose of learning French all those years ago. Being in an unfamiliar country brought a world of new understanding to Coates. For the first time, he felt “really . . . alive” and knew that he had “always been alive,” even back in Baltimore.

As he immersed himself in French culture, Coates suddenly felt “landless and disconnected” and understood that he carries “generational chains” that connect him to certain zones. He wished he had felt this sooner. He also wishes he had been given a past “apart from the fear.”

Taking Samori back to Paris that summer, Coates mused that he wanted his son to have his own life, apart from fear. He wanted his son to see people living under different rules and encapsulated in an entirely different life. And while he reminds his son that their dark skin color is not a distinguishing feature in France and that they were not enslaved in France, he also notes that France too was built on the destruction of bodies. He urges Samori to remember the broader consciousness of collective suffering. 

Coates tells Samori that Samori knows so much more than Coates did at the same age, and thus his route through life will be different. Survival and safety are not enough for Samori, and his father sees within Samori the dreams that leave him with “an array of warring emotions.” He urges his son to understand that the beauty within him is possible because of an abnormal amount of security in his black body. 

Through both Prince Jones and Mike Brown, Coates reminds his son that the Dreamers both quote the nonviolent ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and advocate for larger guns for the strong. He returns to the idea that the Dreamers view the black body as currency because it is a national tradition. He ends the section by noting a great irony: black lives are cheap, but black bodies are “a natural resource of incomparable value.”

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