In the years following Prince’s death, Coates thought often of the man’s daughter and fiancée, but mostly he thought about his mother. He called her and asked if he could come see her. She agreed and he arrived in Philadelphia to visit her at her home.
Dr. Mabel Jones was an elegant, older black woman. Her eyes held a deep sadness that Coates was afraid his visit had reawakened. The house was quiet and a picture of Prince was on display. They drank tea and she spoke of her enslaved ancestors. She was reserved, ladylike. Her eyes were full of iron and power. She’d integrated her town’s high school, became a track star and class president. She told Coates how people loved her, but jeered black members of other teams while she sat right next to them. She had a full college scholarship and worked incredibly hard to become a radiologist, something she saw no other black person becoming. People treated her with respect when she became chief of radiology at a hospital.
Coates asked about Prince’s childhood. He was charming, curious. He wanted to go to Howard even though Mabel wanted him to go to an Ivy. Prince was tired of having to represent other people, tired of being singled out, tired of not being normal. At Howard he got to be normal.
Coates compares Mabel’s face to the stoic faces of 1960s protestors. Their looks were “noble and vacuous” (142). Dr. Jones could not lean on her country for help with her loss. The county has forgotten; it is part of the Dream. Dreamers, Coates speculates, would rather live white than live free.
Coates returns to Dr. Jones’s account of Prince’s death. She described how she found out and how crushing the pain was. She’d expected the officer to be charged but he was not. She worried now about her daughter bringing a son into the world. She had raised her children with such luxury and access but one racist act could still destroy it all. She compared this to Solomon Northrup in Twelve Years a Slave.
Out in his car, Coates ruminated on the loss of Prince and everything invested in him. He thought of the protestors in sit-ins and marches and how perhaps their bodies were willingly parted with because they knew their bodies weren’t theirs to begin with. It is unlikely, he writes Samori, that the Dreamers will ever wake into consciousness. He must live now. His body, his moments are too precious. They will reap what the Dreamers sow, but the Dreamers must be aware of this as well. Technology allows them to rape the land as they plunder bodies. This is the “noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately the Dreamers themselves” (151).
As he left Mabel Jones’s house, several more thoughts flitted through his head. He recalled the weight of his blackness being lifted, of melting into the crowd, at a Homecoming game at Howard. This was a place of black energy, of the people who created themselves even though whites had created their race. He tells Samori not to struggle for the Dreamers but to hope for them. They will have to learn that they are creating the deathbed for everyone.
On the drive out, he passed the ghettos of Chicago that are so much like the ghettos of Baltimore. The old fear returned.
Some readers might have anticipated a few inspirational words at the end of Coates’s letter to Samori; however, the author does not have any to proffer and ends his short but luminous book with a bleak image of driving through the ghettos of Chicago in the rain. What is very clear is that racial injustice and the Dream do not seem to be going away anytime soon, that believing one person can make a difference is a foolish idea, that black people will suffer from inequality and injustice for a very, very long time. Optimism and hope of change are conspicuously absent. In The Guardian, Tim Adams writes, “his book is short on solace or solutions or much in the way of optimism. It preaches a gospel of brutal truths about race, and stresses the importance of acknowledging them as an aspiration in itself. Despite the fact of a black American president, despite the media focus on the protest against police killings, he sees no prospect of much change, at least not until America acknowledges the facts of its history. It is, I suggest, an argument above all against the requirement to be hopeful. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘But I’m a writer. I have no responsibility to be hopeful. This is literature. I don’t need to be arguing that in five years we are going to turn a profit. I don’t need to look for redemption.’”
The story of Mabel Jones and its placement at the end of the text exemplifies Coates’s mindset by showcasing a black woman who had done everything “right” for her child but saw him mercilessly cut down despite these advantages. There will always be something “between” a black person and the world. Those lines of W.E.B. Du Bois – “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question” – taken up by Richard Wright and Coates echo throughout the text. The answer of “the Dream” is easy but there is so much that goes into that.
What then, is Coates’s advice for Samori? It is to struggle and be free as much as one can in order to stay sane and find meaning in life. This is not easy, of course. In The Nation, Jesse McCarthy notes, “Perhaps one discomfiting lesson of Coates’s book is that the work of living with a free mind has to be undertaken whether or not one can ever truly live in a free body. The possibilities for a black child in this world are constrained by the ability to forge a sense of dignity in it. Whatever the price, that struggle is worth it. That struggle is also our inheritance, passed down through generations held in bondage.”
This struggle will occur alongside other black people, which functions as one of the less bleak moments of the book. Coates’s experience at Howard’s Homecoming reinforces the beauty of the black race (even though it is a construct) and the incredible relief a member feels when sinking into it. Family and community are thus important allies in each individual’s struggle; Coates’s entire letter is a way to let Samori know he understands and is here for his son.
Between the World and Me is not perfect and many critics have found various points that should not have been elided (i.e., social class and immigration) or minimized (women’s “two handicaps,” to quote Shirley Chisholm); nevertheless, it has fully entered the public discourse on race and has become so well-respected that Sonia Sotomayor even referenced it in her now-famed Supreme Court dissent in Utah v. Strieff (2016). She wrote, "For generations, black and brown parents have given their children 'the talk'—instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them. See, e.g., W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); J.Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963); T. Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)." Clearly Coates is part of an illustrious pantheon.