Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Summary of Work
This work is a series of letters to his son about what it is like to be black in America and how his son, Samori, should strive to live his life in order to both survive and be aware of the world around him, and yet at the same time have joy in his life and take the opportunities that he can. He begins his work by telling his son that race is an invention that is not new, but just continually rehashed with each new country and nation. It used to be Jews and Germans and Irish and English, etc, that would discriminate against each other; now, in America, it is “black and white,” with many of the previous groups mentioned being eventually combined into a class of white, even though they had not previously been branded as such. And it is this myth of whiteness that allowed for slavery and exploitation of black bodies. Coates is very concerned that his son know that the struggle they are dealing with is much more than racism: it is the struggle for black embodiment and empowerment. Racism is a cover term for the destruction of black bodies, progress, and livelihood.
He remembers back to his time as a child growing up in West Baltimore, feeling trapped because he had to go to school but saw no purpose to it and at the same time had to live the laws of the streets for survival and yet had no desire for the violence that went on in the streets. His father would punish him regularly with the idea that it is better that he beat him than the police, and he didn’t understand what it was about until he grew up and had a son of his own. In his desire to get out of the system, he went to college at Howard, where he spent most of his time in the library reading in the stacks and the archives. His father worked as a librarian and archivalist there, so he had always been happy to read and get knowledge from books. His parents never gave him easy answers but always referred him to books. He became very fond of Malcolm X’s writings and ideologies, and sought to have those ideas reinforced and verified as fact from history books. But he found so many different perspectives, and his history teachers gave him so much information, that he had to dispel the illusions that he had built for himself. He says he is very grateful for those historian professors who taught him the issues with grandiose ideologies. For white people, he says that the ideology is the American Dream, and the Dreamers blur faces and forget trespasses and injustices against black people in order to maintain that dream, and they continue to commit crimes against blacks in order to keep the dream.
He learned a lot at Howard, which he calls The Mecca, and met many people there. It was a haven for him where he could see what his people and his culture could be and do. He met his wife on the Howard Campus, but he could not stay long enough to graduate, feeling restrained by the courses he had to take and not caring for the things he could graduate in. He started writing, which was the one thing he really liked. When they moved to New York City, they struggled. He was not making money as a writer, and she got a job and was nearly sole support. Their son was a toddler at the time. He recalls the layout of the city both structurally and racially, and discusses how when they went to a movie on the Upper West Side one day, his four year old son got pushed by a white woman, and he turned around and yelled at her, and other white men came to her defense and told him that they’d have him arrested. He got even angrier. He explains to his son that this moment is a moment of shame for him because he forgot the code of the streets and where he was. He should have been able to call out her behavior and move on, he thought.
He also takes a lot of time to discuss police brutality, shootings, and judicial injustice to his son, who was very upset after hearing the verdict in the Michael Brown case. he talks about Prince Jones, who he knew at Howard, getting shot by the PG policeman in Virginia. He describes his feelings of anger, because Prince was an upstanding citizen, with a fiancee and a daughter on the way; he was a very intelligent man, a prodigy, who valued experience over things; he had it all, and had seemingly beat the system of the ghettos and projects, and yet his life was still taken from him. Coates started writing about the injustice of the police system after that, full of anger. He offers no real relief or respite for his son about these injustices, but tells him that they have always happened, and will continue to happen, without consequences for those who commit the crimes. He talks about how Prince’s killer was put back on the streets to patrol without even a trial. He talks about Prince’s mother’s amazingly strong and calm reaction to the whole affair, even as she grieved for the loss of her son. Toward the end of the book, he describes sitting down with Dr. Jones and learning of her story of success, becoming a doctor and then the chief of radiology and being able to offer her son and daughter everything she didn’t have growing up. To talk about Prince comforts her, but at the same time, the pain never goes away.
Coates reflects on these shootings and injustices and how they are dealt with within the community. He says he knows that he is somewhat disconnected from them because they can speak of forgiveness and turning to God, but he does not believe in their God, but instead believes that this life is all we have. He tells his son that perhaps he could have taught him more if he did believe, but that he cannot offer that comfort.
His wife’s life had been very different than his growing up, and she had been afforded opportunities to travel when he hadn’t, among other opportunities. She lived in a more well off area in a more well off home. He never understood his wife’s need to travel, thinking back to his French class days and thinking that France was as far away as Jupiter. But his wife went to Paris and came back with stories and photos, and he went by himself later on and got to see a new world, one that was not underpinned by the same superficially-created racial divides of black and white. And yet he also noticed that there is simply a different system of oppression in place: France, like every other European country, was built upon colonizing and oppressing other groups of people. Being aware of that, he thinks, is important so that they don’t lose perspective on how systems of oppression function. He also goes back for a time with his whole family to explore France, and further comes to this conclusion.
He tells his son to live his life, to enjoy it and live it fully, and to fight for the struggle to equality, but to not fight it in hopes that the Dreamers will convert their thinking and ways and come down from their mountain. He says that also to think that gods or ancestors will come and reap revenge and justice upon the Dreamers’ heads is also unrealistic. Instead, he says, Dreamers will always keep exploiting black people, but with technological improvements, they are also exploiting the Earth, which is no respecter of persons. The Dreamers, he says, will eventually destroy themselves.
Brief Note on Themes
The main theme of this work is the exploration of what black embodiment means, and Coates does this through an exploration of his own experience with life and watching people engage with the oppressive superstructures forced upon them. Understanding what it means to be racially embodied versus simply a human being is the main message that Coates brings to his son and to all that read the book: there are different rules and codes imposed upon those with darker skin, and even if the rules are followed, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a good life free of violence and terror. And yet there are still spaces that allow for black communities to share in joy and the power of owning their own bodies, of living as a community and an individual.
There are two spaces outside of the Mecca of Howard University that he describes this happening: religion and dance. Religion offers comfort in a higher being and in the spirit, a relationship he doesn’t understand but can appreciate in the community it brings to people who are feeling broken and are oppressed. For dance, he describes it saying that he “would watch how black people moved, how in these clubs they danced as though their bodies could do anything, and their bodies seemed as free as Malcolm’s voice on the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies . . . . But in the clubs, under the influence of two-for-one rum and Cokes, under the spell of low lights, in thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot” (62). Movement, then, becomes a form of joy and communal engagement and solidarity; it is unique in its function for the community and the individual, as it affirms control over the body in a way that is not possible outside of the shared communal space.
This book also contains photographs periodically throughout the book: of Coates, of his wife, of his son, of the doors in France his wife describes to him, and more. It is worth considering how the photographs enhance the narrative. Is their purpose merely personal, to show his son? Or are they meant to emphasize important messages contained in the text about black embodiment and black bodies?
Brief Note on Dissertation Uses
For purposes of my dissertation, this book is going to be very useful in helping me to understand how the power of dance is a way to assert control over one’s own body and to be embodied in a communal space. In literature, then, dance could be discussed in terms of embodiment and communal and public messages of personhood. I have seen this discussed in lectures before in context of blues: it was one of the only ways black people, during enslavement and after, could assert control over their bodies and their lives, not dictated to by white people.