Between the World and Me | Study Guide

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Between the World and Me | Chapter 1 | Summary

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The author of Between the World and Me broke the work into three lengthy chapters. This study guide further breaks down those chapters into sections with titles.

Summary

Race, Racism, and American History

Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses his essay as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori. His story begins with his experience as a guest on a news show by remote video feed. The host had asked him why the progress of white America was built on "looting and violence." Coates felt an enormous gulf between the host and himself. To him, it was all too obvious: "The answer is American history."

American history is full of violence, theft, and enslavement, yet the country defines itself as a democracy. As President Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) stated in the Gettysburg Address delivered in 1863: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people." For America, then, the problem arises from the shifting definition of "people." Coates notes that in 1863 this term did not mean African American people as they had not yet been granted the right to vote.

Racism, Coates explains, is a product of the belief in "race" as a biological concept. He claims this is an error as race is a social construct. "White" is a new category that has taken the place of older categories of people, and it developed "through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land." Thus, the very concept of "whiteness" came about because of the subjugation of other human beings.

The disparity between the American image of itself as exceptional and its history of violence and oppression is the issue at hand. The belief in American exceptionalism and superiority encourages people to look away from its evils.

Coates notes that he is writing this letter to his teenage son because of recent violence against African American men and women perpetrated by police officers. It has become clear that police have been given the authority to kill African Americans without consequence: "The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions." Talking about racism, white privilege, race relations, and other similar topics can hide the reality that these concepts are all connected to the physical reality of violence against African Americans.

Coates examines the great sadness he felt when he was talking with the news show host. He describes this as a sadness that came from having to wake people up from the beautiful illusion they believe in about America—"the Dream." The Dream is beautiful, but he has come to realize it is not available to all people, and it is built on the backs of African Americans. "The question of how one should live within a black body," he tells his son, "is the question of my life." He continues, "The pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself." By looking directly at the brutality of America and its violence against African Americans, Coates has become free and strong enough to live in his own body.

A Life of Fear

Coates explains that he has known fear all his life—a fear common to all African Americans he has ever known. The "catalog of behaviors and garments" of the youth, their street fights, their music, their attitude—everything stems from this fear. The harsh discipline of African American parents is also a result of this fear. Coates relates several anecdotes about childhood punishments, including one from his own life. Once he had slipped away out of sight at a playground and received a harsh beating from his father for this mistake. For even small offenses, he would be on the receiving end of his father's belt. "Either I can beat him, or the police," his father would say.

Coates goes on to explain that the perils African American youth face are not surprising. Rather, they are the logical outcome of policy and law that protects and supports some people while oppressing others. Under such a system, black bodies are "breakable" by the forces of the world. He says certain moments in his life have slowly revealed this truth to him. When he was young, a boy had brandished a gun to show his own power and place in the pecking order. Coates recalls the feeling of fear: "I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from ... nothing." From watching television, he knew there was another world where young boys did not regularly face death but instead collected football cards and longed for pretty and popular girlfriends. He felt the vast distance between this other world and his own, but he didn't yet understand how the two were related. He simply knew he wanted to escape his own world.

Coates acknowledges that his son is growing up in a much different world than he did. In some ways it seems progress has been made with the election of an African American president. However, he sees that his son still believes that injustice occurs on an individual level—like when the white officer who killed an African American teen named Michael Brown faced no consequences. He recalls what it was like to be young and watch as the "crews" of "young men who'd transmuted their fear into rage" walked the streets of the neighborhood and committed violent acts in an effort to feel powerful. To survive, Coates learned to communicate with head nods and handshakes, to avoid certain blocks, to recognize "fighting weather," and adopted other behaviors that would help him stay alive. In some ways he feels that his son has a more difficult path. Because Coates himself had it a little easier, Coates knows more of the beautiful life there is to lose.

Coates also describes schools as another force working against him as a child: "If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left." He felt the subjects did not relate to his life and that the schools had goals that were vague or did not apply to him. Still, school was presented as a way to escape prison and death.

Caught between the violence of the streets and the false promise of school as an escape, Coates felt there was no way out, that any choice he made led to the same place: "Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body." He knew that this state of affairs was somehow connected to the Dream, but he was not sure how. He began to seek answers, reading books by African American authors and learning about the Black Panther Party, an African American political party that his father, Paul, had been a part of. In school, the teachings on the civil rights movement (c. 1950) focused on the nonviolent aspects of the movement, but Coates found this strange because the country was founded on violence and slavery, and it actively sought to extend its power in the world through military means.

Coates recognized that the idea that if a student behaved and did well he would escape to a better, safer life was just one side of the story. The other side was that if the student failed to behave or do well, society had no responsibility to keep him safe. Therefore, he came to see that the violence of the streets and the teaching of the schools were both parts of the same system. They were based on fear and the certainty of dire consequences if one failed.

Howard University, the "Mecca"

Coates describes how he became more interested in African American leader Malcolm X (1925–65), who spoke of the "sanctity of the black body" and who "never lied, unlike the schools ... unlike the streets and ... unlike the world of dreamers." Coates eventually attended Howard University, a historically African American institution and a kind of Mecca (a place considered a center for a specific group of people, interest, or activity) or "crossroads of the black diaspora." Being at Howard affected Coates deeply. It expanded his understanding of what it was to be African American and impressed upon him that people who believe they are white seek to preserve the idea of whiteness through domination and artificial categories of people. The people at Howard showed the beauty of African American culture and black bodies, counteracting the common narrative that white culture and white bodies were more valuable and important. Coates felt that what was needed was a new narrative of history that reflected the beauty and worthiness of African American people. He believed that delving into the accomplishments of African Americans around the world and throughout history would clarify all the questions and concerns of his life. What he found, though, was that even within the leaders, thinkers, writers, and artists of the African American community, there was not one story but conflicting ideas and factions.

Through study, reflection, and reading and writing poetry, Coates came to realize that he had made his own dream—one that replaced "the Dream" but was still a romanticized, mythological fiction. Through his poetry, Coates questioned his own ideas and tried to get to the "cold steel truths of life." He began to see the discomfort, chaos, and discord among his friends and mentors as a guide leading to an essential truth, not as an obstacle. He realized that as a writer, he needed to reject the tendency to build a Dream—a romanticized narrative of the past—of his own. His history professors helped by poking holes in his (and Malcolm X's) ideas about the nobility of the African American race. After a time he realized that the problem was not that he had accepted the white Dream but that he had accepted the idea of dreams at all.

Finding Love and New Understanding

Coates fell in love with a few different women at Howard University. One was a woman from California who was well traveled and had relatives in India. She opened his eyes to other worlds he didn't know anything about. Another was a tall, bisexual woman with dreadlocks who had been raised by a Jewish mother. She challenged the derogatory ideas of LGBTQ people Coates had grown up with, and this made him realize that although he had felt the effects of discrimination, perhaps he was complicit in other forms of hate. He felt that his "tribe" was being dismantled as he learned more about the world and the different people in it, and somehow he was forming a new tribe.

Coates worked as a journalist and wrote poems. Journalism gave him another way to ask questions that would get to the heart of why his life had been so different from the Dream.

The last woman Coates fell in love with at Howard was from Chicago. Her name was Kenyatta, and she would become the mother of their son, Samori. Kenyatta had never known her father, and her influence made Coates aware of the additional injustices African American women face. Because of her experiences growing up, Kenyatta had "the same knowledge" Coates had gained from his observation of the difference between his own life and the Dream on television: "The great barrier between the world and me." Samori's birth changed Coates's relationship to the world. He didn't need to survive for only himself, but he needed to survive for his son. Furthermore, he wanted his son to understand the world: "I wanted you to claim the whole world, as it is."

Coates ends this letter with a reflection on the importance of continuing to struggle against injustice and against a view of the world that is too neat or easy: "You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity." He cautions his son not to see slavery as a distant event made up of masses of nameless people but as individual stories of people whose lives were stolen and whose bodies were "transfigured ... into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold."

Analysis

In the opening scene Coates is giving an interview in which the questions he is asked reveal to him the vast expanse of mental and emotional space between the host's conceptualization and experience of the world and his own. The experience is illustrated by the physical situation—he is not in the studio with the host but is appearing by remote video feed. There is a literal distance between himself and the host.

This scene illustrates two essential aspects of the essay to keep in mind. One is the way the scene reflects the title, Between the World and Me. The distance between Coates's own experience and other things, such as the experiences of other Americans, the experiences of people from other cultures, the narrative of American exceptionalism, and the "Dream" is the driving force behind the essay. It is this distance that prompts him to pose questions, and question is an important motivating force in his relentless pursuit of understanding the world in all its horror and violence.

The second aspect of the essay to keep in mind is the way Coates constantly returns to the physical, visceral reality as the distillation and end result of the world of ideas. The idea of distance between people's perspective and experience is reflected in the physical distance between them. The neighborhoods of Baltimore among which Coates spent his childhood were not only separated in intangible ways—music, ways of thinking about the world—from the suburbs, but they were also separated by physical distance. More importantly, they were separated by the experience of the people that inhabited them. In Coates's world the physical self was always in dire danger. In the world of white suburbanites this was not the case.

Coates's essay is not structured around questions and answers—it is more sprawling and associative. His mind is still a questioning mind, and his need to find answers animates the text. He describes himself as a curious child. He asks about the purpose of school: "Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom?" Later, as he grows into a young man and becomes aware of his own ability to err, he asks if other humans, like himself, are subject to error as well. Are they operating under a "mix of motivation," and could this "affect the stories they tell? The cities they built?" Ultimately, this line of questioning leads him to the conclusion that other people—in particular, those Americans who consider themselves white—do indeed believe in stories that are not true, and this has led them to build civilizations based on basic untruths. He finds that questioning all stories is the only way to live free. First, he embarks on an "unceasing interrogation of the stories told to us by the schools," and later he interrogates the romanticized notions of Africa and the African American race in which he has begun to believe. This relentless questioning does not always yield answers and does not always bring happiness. However, facing the world without the blindness that comes from believing in something that doesn't exist is what allows him to exist in the chaos of the world.

Coates's questions are both in the realm of ideas and in the realm of personal experience. He tells his son, "The question of how one should live within a black body ... is the question of my life." This personal question—one that is deeply emotional—leads him to questions about the nature of society, the world, and human existence. The way Coates progresses from personal experience to broad and insightful cultural criticism provides the magic in the book, making Coates's observations and conclusions feel valid and thoughtful. Not all readers will agree with his conclusions, but his observations of the world spring from a genuine curiosity about his own experience and lead him to examine the forces that cause the various types of human experience—from privilege and mastery to oppression and slavery.

Distance between Coates's experience and his son's experience also frames and contextualizes the content of the text. As a letter addressed to 15-year-old Samori, the essay is an attempt to bridge the distance between father and son. Coates speaks in wonder that his son lives in a world in which an African American president leads the United States. In some ways, it is clear he both celebrates this change and worries that his son will not have the opportunity to learn the lessons he has learned. His letter is a way for him to transmit whatever wisdom he has gained from his admittedly harsher upbringing.

Father and son come closest to sharing a common experience when the news breaks that the man who killed Michael Brown would be set free. In 2014 an unarmed African American teen named Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. In November of that year the St. Louis County prosecutor made the announcement that the grand jury had decided not to indict the officer. This incident and Samori's distraught reaction to the prosecutor's announcement motivate Coates to ask an uncomfortable question: How much have things really changed in America? Despite the election of an African American president, it seems clear to him that something fundamental has not changed. His desire to help his son process this disillusioning information is part of the emotional force of the essay.

In general, this part of the essay unfolds as a series of moments from Coates's youth that triggered questions and insights, interrupted by associations and analysis as he looks back on them. He recounts these moments—seeing the young boy draw a gun in Baltimore, witnessing the wonderful diversity at Howard University, and falling in love with a bisexual woman. Each one broadens his understanding of the world and adds to his understanding of what he calls "the cold steel truths of life."

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