Part of Coates's work in this book is to dismantle certain myths. One of those is that race is a real, tangible thing defined by hue and hair and other clear boundaries. Coates explains how whiteness is a construct because who is considered white has changed so many times throughout history. Blackness, then, is also a construct. It was created to make sure there was a "below" - a mass of people that lays the foundation for the privileged group to stand upon. This makes the notion of race even more insidious since people do not understand its origins and it is difficult to find real ways to address it.
America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation to ever exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.
Countries throughout history have oppressed groups of people for arbitrary reasons, but not all of them claimed the mantle of exceptionalism that America does. America consistently touts its glorious, democratic heritage; it waves flags, lights fireworks, quotes from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, imposes its will on the world. It compares itself to other countries and finds them wanting. If a country does these things and generally considers itself the grandest and most enlightened country in the world, then it ought to be able to withstand the scrutiny and questions levied at it. The hypocrisy is simply too much to bear, Coates writes, because America's treatment of black people absolutely does not dovetail with its conception of itself.
The crews walked the blocks of the neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.
Coates's discussion of Baltimore is both illuminating and deeply sympathetic. The young men in the streets who wear flashy jewelry and low-slung pants, swagger, play loud music, carry and shoot guns, sell drugs, and embed the streets with intricate codes of behavior are not "thugs." They are human beings whose marginalized existence has led to their sartorial choices and out-sized physicality, which stands in for any actual sort of power or security. This is a much different way than many people would like to view these young men, and it is a testament to Coates's lucid, immediate prose that such a misleading myth can be shattered so easily.
Why were our only heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this nonviolence.
This is another example of Coates easily dismantling a pervasive worldview, this time of the Civil Rights Movement. Heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marchers and students that conducted sit-ins are revered for their nonviolence. They are upheld as moral examples of the highest degree. On the other hand, activists who were more militaristic, impatient, angry, and aggressive were considered threatening and deviants from the "proper" way of conducting a movement for equality and justice. Coates wonders why it is the people who are oppressed and brutalized who must embrace nonviolence. Why must they be in need of this holiness and exalted morality? Why do the tyrants who reign over them get to maim and destroy? America is a country built on violence and pretending to valorize nonviolence is disingenuous.
I had thought that I must mirror the outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. It was beginning to occur to me to question the logic of the claim itself.
Coates undergoes his intellectual evolution at Howard. Here he comes to discover that the things his eyes coveted when he was younger - the emblems of the Dream - are not necessarily worth coveting. This Dream is impossible for black people to fully obtain, and moreover, it is a flawed and false dream anyway. The residents of Prince George County are perfect examples of how black people who have embraced the Dream have also become ignorant, callous, and compromised. There has got to be a new dream because this one is inherently problematic. This mirrors the disparities in ideology between the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement leaders and the Black Power advocates who came later; the latter argued that trying to be like white people was not something to aspire to.
Prince Jones had made it through and still they had taken him.
Prince's death shatters Coates because it defies logic. Prince was raised in a well-to-do family. He was educated, ambitious, and moved in rarified circles. He was not a kid from the streets and by all accounts should not have been killed by the Prince George County police. Blacks are told that if they do things right they will not face any trouble. After all, racism does not truly exist and anyone who is wealthy and educated ought to be fine. This is completely negated by Prince's death and Coates knows it. He is shocked because the reality of what might happen to him is very clear.
I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.
One of the most potent components of the text is Coates as a father writing to and about his son. Ostensibly he is the same as any other parent: he loves his child, he does not want him to suffer or struggle, and he wants to offer him the world. However, by dint of his blackness this is not as easy to achieve as it is for white people. He has to watch as his son grows conscious of the racially divided society in which he lives. He has to see him subtly disrespected and devalued, if not brutalized in more terrible ways. His experience starkly contrasts with the white parents that he sees raising their children. They don't have to worry or hold their child back in fear of their bodies being destroyed. This quote poetically conveys this fact.
so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body's destruction must begin with his or her error, real or imagined...
Almost any time a black person is victimized, their error is put out there for the world to debate. The policemen and angry whites who destroyed black bodies are never held accountable. Their backgrounds are not raided; their demeanor, gestures, voice volume, and clothing are not dissected. Instead, black people are seen as "deserving" of what happened to them. They were wearing hoodies, playing loud music, selling cigarettes, carrying a toy gun, etc. Perhaps they were tall or looked threatening; perhaps they had misdemeanors in their past. There is a devastating double standard here and one that many people refuse to recognize.
They had worked two and three jobs, put children through high school and college, and become pillars of their community. I admired them, but I knew the whole time that I was merely encountering the survivors...
The older people Coates encounters in Chicago by all accounts are very inspiring. They've worked hard and managed to eke out a decent, sometimes even prosperous, life. They are the examples to aspire to. People, both black and white, may look at them and think that if they can do it then anyone can. However, this is not the case. These are the "survivors," Coates notes - the ones who didn't make it are gone or invisible. Those who didn't make it are greater in number, but it is the survivors that attract people's attention and commendation. This can be misleading and should thus be considered with nuance.
Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos - the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing - and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.
Coates does not end his letter on a happy note. In these last lines as he drives through Chicago, he brings the letter back to his difficult upbringing in Baltimore. He reminds Samori (and readers) about the bleak and unfair life of black people in America. It seems unlikely that this will change. Coates offers no hope or inspiration or promises of uplift. This differentiates him from other writers on race, but places him in the tradition of Malcom X, his intellectual ancestor.
Between the World and Me Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Between the World and Me is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.