The most obvious theme of the work is the racial divide that exists in America. Extending from early American history when blacks were enslaved to the present day in which black bodies are under constant surveillance and threat, white society has consistently denied the humanity of blacks in order to maintain its spurious "Dream." One of the main distinctions Coates makes is that racism gave birth to race, not the other way around. Race is a construct; it is something to which an absolutism is attributed but in reality is blurry. White people are not actually white but rather they think they are white because it gives them their power and privilege. Racism is thus so insidious because the people that think they are white also do not think they are racists. They claim disparities of wealth and education and treatment by the police are differences that just exist; they are more like natural forces than specific ideologies, laws, etc. Racism is primarily enforced through the plundering and subjugation of the black body.
The Dream might not sound that bad on the surface - it entails a comfortable suburban home, spacious lawns and driveways, BBQs and pool parties, pie and strawberry shortcake. However, it is much more insidious than it sounds. It was created by historians and fortified by Hollywood, Coates writes. It is very accessible for whites but is built on the marginalization and suffering of blacks. It requires ignorance and blindness to the realities of the racial divide. It is characterized by the plunder of black bodies and of the Earth. It is exclusionary and rooted in white supremacy. Coates concludes it is so pervasive and conceived of in such noble and moral terms that it is unlikely the Dreamers will wake up.
The Black Body
One of the most salient components of the text is that the black body is constantly under threat. Racism, Coates writes, is a visceral experience. Throughout American history, black men and women were shackled, beaten, tortured, lynched, raped, and sprayed with high-power firehoses. Now, they experience police brutality and senseless shootings - being shot for holding a toy gun, shot for listening to loud music, put in a chokehold for selling cigarettes, arrested and restrained for trying to enter their own home. It is the subtle ways in which a black body must comport itself in public. It is the Dreamer-created "killing fields" of the urban ghettos where blacks navigate neighborhoods beset by crime and poverty. Violence is a constant in a racially divided America.
Living in America under the weight of the Dream can be astonishingly difficult for black men and women to say the least. One of the ways they can endure is through the support, love, and acceptance that comes from their immediate and extended black family. This work is a letter from a father to his son; it is searingly personal and intimate and reveals how elders ought to pass their advice and experience down to the youth. Coates explains how when he and his wife were living in New York and did not have a lot of money, his people always helped him out. Indeed, Coates's story is filled with accounts of friends, intellectual compatriots, lovers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and neighbors. He even speaks of the black writers who influenced him in a way that suggests family (he calls them his "ancestors" and lovingly but bemusedly details their infighting). Family and community are intrinsic to maintaining the struggle.
Education and Learning
Coates's learning of how the world works initially takes place in the streets, especially as he eschews the Baltimore schools as useless in reducing the distance between the world and himself. When he attends Howard he is more open to education in a formal sense, but also embraces the role of an autodidact. His self-learning is remarkable and extensive to the point that the classroom almost seems like an extension of his own reading and work. His education also comes from interactions with people around him and from his immersion in the wider world. He learns not just the history of black people in America, but also how to think, how to love and feel in different ways, how to answer that essential question of what exactly is between the world and himself.
Coates is not optimistic or hopeful about things changing in America, but he does not counsel apathy or ambivalence. He tells Samori that he must continue to struggle everyday. He must not let his guard down or become complacent; he must fully confront himself as a black man in contemporary America even if it is difficult and seemingly senseless at times. The struggle is what makes life bearable; it keeps one sane and grounded in a world that is capricious and callous toward black people. The struggle can be mitigated by the study of black intellectuals as well as the embrace of one's community of fellow black men and women.
Legacy of Slavery
Coates doesn't just focus on the present; he also dips back into the history of America to discuss how slavery was the first and most horrific example of America destroying and plundering black bodies. He gives sweeping accounts of just how many people were enslaved, but also makes it very personal by discussing the individuals who were enslaved. He does not let Samori or his reader forget that each slave was a living, breathing human being with hopes, desires, fears, and the capacity to hurt emotionally and physically. He warns Samori not to forget about the humanity of these people or to look at them only as the path to where he is today.
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.