Coates proclaims that the entire history of America argues against the truth of his son. Coates himself was obsessed with Civil War history; he went to battle sites in the South but felt uncomfortable that the other visitors cared more about flanking and troop maneuvers than what those things were engineered to achieve. Black bodies were worth four billion dollars at the onset of the Civil War. Black bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall; their bodies were the motive for war.
At Gettysburg he saw Pickett’s men charging to pursue their “strange birthright –the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body” (102). The end of the war was also a lie, a lie in which both sides fought honorably. The end of the Civil War brought the Dream, which historians supported and Hollywood fortified.
The destruction of the black body is the heritage of this country. Slavery was not just “borrowing labor,” but rather casual beatings, rape. It had to be upheld by blood. People who believed themselves white saw black bodies as the key to their own social hierarchy and believed they had the right to break other bodies.
White people also derived meaning for their social status because others were below them. Coates and his son are the below. Whites don’t exist without them because they need myths and do not want to tumble off the metaphorical mountain into the valley.
The burden for black people is not just living among the Dreamers but being told that the Dream is just and noble and real. It is unimaginably difficult to always have to think of oneself as the “below” of a country. The only way to surmount this terrible insanity is to struggle against it.
Coates apologizes to his son for not being able to make it okay or save him, but acknowledges that his son’s vulnerability might let him get closer to the meaning of life. He does not want his son to live like the Dreamers; he does not want him to forget the need to confront the realities of life and to not simply pretend they don’t exist. He wants his son to be himself, to love as he wants, to not make other people comfortable, to not have to be twice as good, and to be a conscious citizen.
Coates remembers how he once saw a black man losing his home in Chicago. He saw the man’s wife’s confusion and hurt, and the man’s anger and humiliation. The man was powerless like black people often are in the face of the Dream and its reverberations.
Coates explored Chicago all week and visited a handful of elderly black people in their homes. Their homes were filled with memories, awards, and portraits of the deceased. Their struggles were obvious, but Coates knew he was merely seeing survivors. These people were lucky; it was not just their hard work that allowed them to be here.
The ghettos in Chicago were as planned as any subdivision. There, black children grew up in the new killing fields. Coates scoffs at the concept of “black-on-black” violence because it is jargon that banishes the men who created those places. These killing fields were created by the Dreamers, but “their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them” (111).
As Samori grew up, Coates tried not to hide anything from him. He recalls interviewing a black mother of a boy killed by a white man who was angry that the boy would not turn down his music. That killer was not convicted; once again the black body was destroyed at will. Coates brought Samori with him to the New York hotel where the mother was staying. He noted how self-possessed she was. She would not let people forget her son and she wanted him to live on in her work to bring his story to light. She told Coates not to mistake her calm for anger. Before she left she turned to young Samori and told him he mattered, had value, and could wear his hoodie and play his music and be himself. Coates was glad she said that and admitted it was hard for him to be as clear because he is afraid for his son.
Coates writes that he is almost forty years old and living a life the young boy who grew up in Baltimore could not imagine. He spent his studies looking for the right question to understand what was between the world and him. He did not just study “race,” which is a construct, or even “black,” which is misleading. These studies brought him joy and his struggles brought him meaning. It has not been easy, of course. As a young boy, his eyes betrayed him – he saw wealth, he saw cul-de-sacs, cars, and treehouses, and he wanted them. He always wondered what was beyond them but did not know.
His wife did, though, and took a trip to Paris when she was thirty. Coates remembered not quite understanding her dreams of Paris but when she returned he was beguiled by all of her glowing memories and the possibilities she painted. He saw the pictures she’d taken of the incredible doors throughout Paris and was struck by how he’d never thought doors could be different elsewhere. Paris was not just a “thought experiment but an actual place filled with actual people” (119).
By this time, Coates’s world was not that small. He had friends from all over the place; these friends were “black” not because of their color or features but because they suffered under the Dream. He recalls a moment at an airport luggage conveyor belt when he bumped into a black man and said “My bad” and the man replied “You straight.” It was a small exchange but made Coates aware of the world he was a part of. What divided him from the rest of the world was, then, not skin color but the injury done by the people who insisted on naming them and telling them how much that naming mattered.
Coates received his passport seven years after looking at his wife’s pictures of doors. He was getting ready to go on his own trip to Paris and told her he was nervous. She listened and held his hand. When he arrived in Geneva things happened very quickly. He had to navigate this unknown place; it was initially scary but then became thrilling in all of its possibilities.
In Paris he checked into his hotel and walked around the lively, effervescent city. It did not have the fear of New York. He had dinner with a friend and was astonished by the food and the experience. He visited a museum and a public garden. He felt like he was in another country but also on the outside of it; he was a “sailor –landless and disconnected” (124). He almost wished he could have grown up there. That summer, he and his family returned to Paris.
He tells Samori he wants him to have his own life and apologizes for his own generational codes and chains. He is ashamed of his fears and he wishes he had been softer with Samori. His wounds came from his loving but hard house and he has tried to be more loving with Samori.
The old wounds manifest themselves in interesting ways and he does not want Samori to have to adhere to the rules he did. He wants Samori to be conscious, however. Even France is not perfect and has its own past of colonialism and intolerance. France’s wealth came from other bodies just like America’s.
Coates believes himself to be a survivor of his past; it almost feels like surviving a natural disaster. Samori’s route will be different. He knows things at this age that Coates did not know in his twenties. Samori has hopes and expectations already, which makes Coates proud but afraid.
He ruminates on the possibility that Samori was so affected by Michael Brown’s killer’s exoneration because he’d realized that the Dream could get to him too. The Dream had always been sustained by black bodies and it always will be.
One of the main themes of Between the World and Me is an honest accounting of the history of the US. The Civil War in particular has been subject to a softening, a blurring, a fudging of its brutal truths. Southerners endeavored to shift the causes of the war and its goals by focusing on the “brother-versus-brother” narrative and downplaying the fervent desire to protect an economic and social system based on the pillage and destruction of black bodies. Battles like Gettysburg that have achieved legendary status were nothing more than fights to preserve an inhumane chattel system of labor. Reconstruction did not bring the nation together racially, and the years following the war laid the groundwork for the Dream and for the ways in which the country would maintain its racial separation without the actual presence of slavery.
When it comes to slavery, Coates uses both macro and micro examples of its horrors. He points out the massive number of enslaved people – four million – and how much their labor was worth. He sweeps over the sprawling urban ghettos to remind us of how many millions of black people still live in violent, squalid conditions due to redlining and discriminatory housing laws. However, he also reminds readers of the individuals whose lives were caught up in bondage. He brings his focus to the body, to the woman suffering from losing her child, to the man weary of being beaten. This is reflected in his focus on the bodies of black people today and how they can be slammed up against a wall by police, put in a choke-hold, frisked for no reason, shot dead in the street. Racism is indeed a visceral experience.
Added to Coates’s experiences in Baltimore, Washington D.C., and New York is Paris, a city with which he became enraptured with much like James Baldwin and Richard Wright many decades earlier. In an interview with The Guardian, Coates tells Tim Adams about his feelings regarding Paris and how it helped him finish the final draft of Between the World and Me:
I fell in love with it here and I still feel that. I like the distance. It’s helpful for me. It is interesting for me to be here and to be seen just as an American, primarily that. I talk and that’s my identity. It is a very different mask to back at home. The lines around race are much, much harsher at home. I am not saying they don’t have issues around racism here or in London or wherever, but racism in America is very, very sexualized. I haven’t fully worked that out but I think the way people actually came to be in America, through sexual violence, really has affected how black folks are seen. It is not the same as an immigrant population, as someone who just happens to be from somewhere else. Especially down south. There was no United States before slavery. I am sure somebody can make some sort of argument about modern French identity and slavery and north Africa, but there simply is no American history before black people.
Paris is important to Coates because it was part of his intellectual awakening, much like Howard. Growing up in Baltimore had circumscribed his conception of the wider world. Seeing something as simple as the doors in his wife’s Paris photographs made him realize that America was singular in many respects – and not in a good way. His time there allowed him to inhabit his body in an entirely different way. It was and is a place of refuge and respite.
However, Coates knows that he cannot simply escape America. He told NPR, “I love America the way I love my family — I was born into it. And there's no escape out of it. But no definition of family that I've ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate , never speaking directly. On the contrary, that's the very definition in my house, and the house that I grew up in, of what family is.” He must stay here and struggle here because this is where the work is to be done. This is where he comes to terms with himself and his history. This is where he uses his writing to educate, provoke, and condemn. He may need to escape America from time to time but it is his home in all of its deeply entrenched imperfections.