Not long before Samori was born, Coates was pulled over by the Prince George County police for no reason. Afraid, he remembered the black people they’d killed, the FBI investigations they’d underwent, the reward their chief received. He was let go, but knew his body had been vulnerable.
That September, he heard the Prince George County police had killed someone from Howard University. He did not know who at first, but to his shock recognized the face of Prince Jones in the newspaper. Rage filled him. It made no sense – Prince was through the system, but they still got him. He had been driving to see his fiancée and was killed just yards from her home; the police said Prince had tried to run over an officer with his jeep.
At the service in the Howard chapel, people spoke of the comfort religion provided for them, but Coates felt none of it. The grieving rituals of his people were far from him, especially because he knew it was not just one man who’d killed Prince but his entire country.
Coates tells Samori he knows that right now police reform is in vogue; however, body cameras and diversity training are only ways that the rest of the population can pretend there is distance between themselves and the police. In reality, the police reflect the people in “all of its will and fear” (78). The police, racial profiling, and incarceration situation are from the will of the American people. The policeman who killed Prince embodied the country’s beliefs.
Even though he felt like a heretic, Coates did not believe in forgiveness for the destruction of Prince’s body. As time went on, the terrible details filtered in. The officer was a known liar. He was undercover at the time and given a description of a man neither the weight nor the height of Prince; it was “mistaken identity” but in actuality a farce. The investigation centered on Prince, not the officer. The officer was charged with nothing.
Coates realized that all the beautiful black people in their stunning humanity whom he saw at Howard could lose their bodies as well. Prince Jones symbolized all of Coates’s fears – if it could happen to Prince, why not him? The plunder was not just of Prince, but of everything poured into him. All of the time, lessons, love, and hope were shattered. Now Prince’s daughter would join the ranks of the fatherless.
At night, Coates held his son in fear. He realized why his own father beat him and his grandmother was so anxious. Black people’s children were all they had and they could be taken away at any moment.
He channeled his rage and fear into writing, investigating the Prince George County police on the internet. He marveled at this way of procuring information immediately, knowing his son never knew life before it. In his searches, he learned that the black residents of Prince George had an “impatience” for crime because they lived in the Dream. Safety for them was schools, skyscrapers, portfolios.
Coates ruminated on how in his youth he’d never thought he could live anywhere else. He thought Baltimore was it for him, but he began to encounter black people from all over the world when he was at Howard. His wife fell in love with New York through movies and music and they moved there just two months before 9/11.
On the roof of an apartment building they watched the smoke of the World Trade Center and Coates admitted his heart was cold. His heart was fixated on the tragedy of Prince Jones. The financial district of New York had trafficked in black bodies for centuries; it had always been Ground Zero for black people. There was no difference between the police who died there and the police officer who killed Prince Jones. These men of the law were “menaces of nature” (87) who could shatter his body at any time.
Returning to his life in New York, Coates describes the small place they had in Brooklyn and the poverty they experienced. He may not have had religion, he explains, but he always had his people. His friends and family lent him money and sustained him through hard times.
He remembered going into Manhattan and marveling at the money that was everywhere. He saw white people laughing, dancing, fearless in the galaxy that belonged to them. When he was in the West Village with his son he recalled feeling like an outsider and wondering if he would be accosted.
It distresses him that his son will grow up soon and he cannot protect him from people who may try to tell him that these are exaggerations or part of a distant past. He cannot protect his son from the police or security guards. He cannot protect him from the rules designed to “protect” him from the violence of this world. Black children were always told to be twice as good, which strikes Coates as a lot of wasted time trying to get ready to go out in the world and navigate it without offense.
One day, he and his wife took Samori to a preschool for a tour. He watched as Samori took off gleefully to play with the other children and felt an immediate pang of fear and desire to call him back. This was replaced by guilt, for Coates knew he was trying to curtail his young son’s happiness. He also bitterly knew white people, the masters of the galaxy, never had to impart these sorts of lessons.
The spectrum of people in New York was fantastically unreal to Coates. During the hot summers, people poured out into the streets; he never knew so much life existed. However, when he headed back to Flatbush, the old fear, the old world of the streets, came back. Each day he passed through many versions of New York.
He writes about a moment from when Samori was young. They had gone to see a show on the Upper West Side and were coming down an escalator. A white woman pushed Samori and told him to hurry up. Coates turned to her in fury and issued some choice words. The woman was shocked and another white man defended her. The man moved close to Coates and he pushed him away. Other white people gathered and someone said they could get him arrested. Shaken, he noticed his son standing there watching the whole thing.
At home he felt the extent of his shame and rage. He knew he had forgotten he was in the white world. He has told this story many times since, but out of a desire for absolution, not pride. He has never been one for violence but felt it that day. His great shame came from endangering his son.
The man’s comments about having him arrested also struck close to home because he knew he had violated the rules of the white world: no errors, be quiet, No.2 pencil, etc.
Samori will make mistakes like he did, though. He cannot always be Jackie Robinson (even though Jackie Robinson wasn’t always Jackie Robinson). Errors mean more for black boys, and the story of a black boy’s destruction always begins with his error.
The story goes that it takes one action from one singular individual to make a change, but Coates does not agree. Black people’s liberation has not come from only their own efforts. History is not only in their hands, but unfortunately each one of them must struggle.
Coates thinks about how the white woman who shoved his son would never think she was a racist. There never seem to be any racists in America, especially ones that people know personally. Those who believe in and uphold the Dream have to think it derives from honor and good works. They have to ignore everything else and cannot acknowledge the horrors of their own country. They do not want to turn to the murky and unknown. Samori must, though, if he is to keep his sanctity of mind.
This section contains the climax of the text, if it is proper to call it that – the death of Prince Jones. Jones’s death at the hand of the Prince George County police is utterly staggering to Coates because Jones should have been immune from such an absurd death; he was from a well-to-do family, highly educated, and far away from the streets. Coates realizes that no black man is immune from the violent vagaries of the police; any black man’s body can be destroyed at any time, anywhere. It is a devastating realization and one that is echoed in Samori’s shock and nascent realization that he could also be Michael Brown.
What is particularly compelling about this section is how unapologetically angry Coates is (and he should be). He rages against the police and the America that allows them to get away with their murders, admits he feels very little sympathy for the 9/11 attacks, sneers that no white person actually thinks they are a racist even though they most definitely are. It is a brutal, honest, and searingly personal part of the text.
Coates struggles with the fact that the apparatus that killed Prince was actually black. Prince George County has black politicians, black residents, and a black police force. His research into the county found that the residents there valued their comfort and safety; they lived more like whites and spurned their poorer black brethren. He questions why these black people embrace the Dream, but does not answer it in this work. New York Times writer Michelle Alexander wrote that the first time she read the book, she was disappointed that he did not answer such questions, but then mused,
Reading the book the second time, I held no expectation that the big questions would be answered. I knew they wouldn’t be. It seemed that Coates was doing for his son what his own father had done for him: demand that he wrestle with the questions himself. The second time around I could see that maybe, just maybe, this is what is most needed right now — a book that offers no answers but instead challenges us to wrestle with the questions on our own. Maybe this is the time for questioning, searching and struggling without really believing the struggle can be won.
An important element of Coates’s grappling with the death of Prince as well as a fundamental pillar of his intellectual worldview is his atheism. He is unabashedly unwilling to pray or use Christianity to influence his thinking and his advice for Samori. He does not believe there is a God that will eventually bring about justice or redemption for black people. He does not see the church as a way to “uplift” black people; the religious message of faith, hope, and progress is false and misleading.
This section also contains some of Coates’s most potent writing as a father communicating his worries for and to his son. And of course, what makes this more fraught is that it is a black father worrying about a black son. By this point, Coates has ably and incisively explained the fragility of the black body, and his intimate awareness of this fragility makes him afraid for his son. He knows that his son may grow up privileged, may be educated, may behave himself, but still fall prey to the rapacious Dreamers. He does not want to hold Samori back or limit him in any way, but it is difficult to allow him to run headlong into the world. He tells Samori he will have to struggle because it is the only way to live an “honorable and sane life” (97).