Between the World and Me | Study Guide

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Between the World and Me | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Grieving Prince Jones

Ta-Nehisi Coates begins Chapter 2 of his letter by describing how, just before Samori was born, he had been pulled over by the police of Prince George's County, who had a reputation for violence against African Americans. Accounts of their killings, beatings, far-fetched excuses, and exonerations were constantly in the news. Therefore, when he was pulled over, Coates feared for his life, knowing they could do whatever they wanted to him and get away with it. They let him go without incident, but soon afterward he saw in the newspaper that the police had killed a Howard University student—a young man he'd been friends with and had admired named Prince Jones. Prince was driving to see his fiancée when he was shot by an officer who said Prince was trying to run him over with his car. Coates knew the officer's story would be believed.

At Prince's funeral, Coates recalls that some people prayed for forgiveness for his killer. However, Coates knew it was not the act of just one individual that had killed his friend. It was "his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth." After a half-hearted investigation, the officer was neither charged nor punished; he simply returned to his job.

Coates mourns not just the death of his friend but the death of all the hope, hard work, and love that went into raising Prince Jones. Prince's body had been "shattered ... and all ... that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth." After Prince's death Coates says he held Samori's small body in his arms and felt great love for and great fear for his son. This fear turned into a blazing rage. In response he turned to writing.

Lessons on Injustice

Coates explains that just before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he and Kenyatta moved to New York City with Samori. He remembers feeling disconnected from the city's grief on that fateful day. His heart was already filled with his own sadness, such as for the death of Prince Jones. He could not get away from the thought that southern Manhattan was where slaves had once been auctioned off, right where the financial district now stands. Their first months in New York were difficult. Money was tight, and Coates had to borrow money from family to make ends meet. He assures Samori that even though they didn't have much, they always had people who loved them and were willing to help.

New York gave Coates insight into the world inhabited by those who had money and privilege. He saw white people drunkenly stumble out of bars or push strollers down the street with seemingly not a care in the world. He worried that his son, growing up among those with privilege, might start to believe that the ideas and facts he was communicating in his letter are from "a distant past that need not be discussed." He knew that his son would live in the world that killed Prince Jones—a world in which African American children were told to "be twice as good" so as to be taken seriously and avoid confrontations with police. He realized to "be twice as good" really meant to "accept half as much."

One day Coates and Kenyatta took four-year-old Samori to visit a preschool. Samori joined in the play, and Coates stifled the impulse to tell him to be more reserved. Then he recalled the white parents watching as their children took up the entire sidewalk with their tricycles, and he felt ashamed that he had this impulse.

Coates recalls a time when he and his son went to see Howl's Moving Castle on the Upper West Side. A white woman had pushed little Samori out of the way because he was moving slowly as children do. Coates spoke harshly to the woman who had put her hands on his son. The man with her looked at Coates and said, "I could have you arrested!" Afterward Coates realized he had put himself and his child in danger by making an error: "I am ashamed that I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more."

Coates considers the way that the Dream depends on people believing it is fair. They must believe that one can achieve safety and comfort through persistence and by acting appropriately. This perspective, however, deliberately looks away from the reality that the Dream began in violence and continues to perpetuate violence against African Americans. He explains to his son that when the Civil War (1861–65) began, the black bodies that had been enslaved were worth more than American industry, railroads, workshops, and factories combined because these "stolen bodies" produced cotton—America's main export. After the war ended, the fact that it was fought over the issue of slavery was not emphasized. The South was seen as simply trying to fight for its rights, and it was viewed by some as noble. Even nobler were those who wanted to put an end to slavery. Both the romanticizing of the South in the Civil War and the idea that some white people worked to end slavery are part of the narrative upholding the Dream.

Coates reminds his son that America was built by stealing black bodies: "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage." Coates is hopeful that by looking at these truths straight on, his son will have greater freedom than those who are limited by their need to uphold the Dream narrative. The truth of life is that all people are vulnerable, but those who have the privilege to believe the Dream are ignorant of this fact.

Coates describes being in Chicago, reporting on how government policy created segregation there. He witnessed an African American family being evicted from their home, walked through the vacant lots and humble neighborhoods of the African American community, and spoke with the elderly survivors of the "killing fields" of the Chicago ghettos. These ghettos were created by "redlining"—the practice of denying mortgages and insurance to African Americans while approving white people of similar or lower incomes—and are evidence of the systematic devaluating of black bodies.

Are the Rules Enough?

Coates describes taking his son, then 13, to work with him. He interviewed the mother of an African American boy who had been killed by a white man for playing his music too loud. After the killing, the man had gone to a hotel with his girlfriend, had drinks and pizza, and spent the night. The next day, "at his leisure," the man turned himself in, claiming he had seen a shotgun in the boy's car. A shotgun was never found, but the man was not found guilty of the boy's murder. The mother wondered "if the rules she'd imparted had been enough" and if this might have been avoided if the boy had just turned his music down and not talked back to the man. The mother remembered the unique and wonderful life of her son. She took comfort in her Christian faith and renewed her commitment to activism and working for a better society. As the interview came to an end, the mother told Samori, "You exist. You matter. You have value ... You have every right to be you." Coates again felt the difference between those who practice a religion and himself, an atheist, but he recognized that all African American people, whether Muslim, Christian, or atheist, live in fear.

Respite in France

Coates tells his son he is writing this at age 40, and that he is satisfied with how he's lived his life. He has struggled, but he has a family, work, and the ability to study and learn. He focuses again on his lifelong drive to understand the distance between himself and the world he lives in. He urges his son to take on the same struggle to which he has devoted his life—to give up the Dream so he can no longer be lied to. He notes that Kenyatta lost her belief in the Dream earlier than he did, and this propelled her to explore other possibilities and travel abroad. She went to Paris when she was 30, and when she returned, she was excited about the possibilities of life. The photos she took of Paris showed Coates that "France was ... an actual place filled with actual people whose ... lives really were different." His expanded sense of reality was furthered by his friendships with people who were from "other worlds," such as Jews, New Yorkers, southerners, gay men, Californians, Native Americans, and combinations of all these groups and others.

Seven years later Coates received his first passport and went to Geneva, Switzerland, where he caught a train to Paris. He was terrified, knowing only a little French, but he also found the experience thrilling. The streets of Paris, with their cafés and crowds of people, seemed amazing and magical. He ate in crowded restaurants, went to museums, and sat in a public garden. Still, he also experienced the fear of his past life when he had dinner with a friend but feared the man would lure him into an alley to be robbed or beaten. He felt the loneliness of being an alien in a country in which he was "so far outside of someone else's dream," not part of the "equation" of French society.

Coates brought the whole family to Paris that summer, partially because he wanted Samori to have a life "apart from fear"—to see people who lived by different rules altogether, so he could understand those other rules were possible. Still, he does not want Samori to lose sight of the struggle. France has its own ugly history, but Coates and his son are not part of that ugly history—they are African Americans, "the children of trans-Atlantic rape."

Coates closes this part of his letter by stressing that even though Samori has had more security in his body than many African Americans, including his father, he must not forget that black bodies are considered expendable even as they are treated as generators of wealth for Dreamers through the mass incarceration of African American men in the very lucrative prison system.

Analysis

Coates begins this section of the letter by describing two contrasting incidents. In one incident an African American man is pulled over for no real reason, experiences a few moments of fear, but is let go. In another incident an African American man encounters police from the same department, is shot and killed, and his killer goes free. This beginning serves to illustrate the idea that African Americans in America are always one step away from being killed. The fear Coates felt when he was a child in West Baltimore might be alleviated somewhat by being in a different environment, but it is never truly absent.

These contrasting events take place right around the birth of Samori, so this section of the letter predictably explores some of the challenges fatherhood posed for Coates. While the memories of his West Baltimore childhood in Chapter 1 focused on his own fear, this section is driven by the fact that now Coates fears for not only his own life but also for that of his son. There is a sense of grief that his son has to live in this fearful world and a feeling of frustration that he can't do much to change that.

As Coates describes the early years of being a father, the emotional core of the letter comes into focus. His role is not just that of an African American male in American society; it is also that of the father of an African American male in American society. He mines his own memories for wisdom to impart to his son even as he sees how his own upbringing has made him into a less-than-perfect parent.

Being a father makes Coates rethink the expectations African American parents place on their children. He takes issue with some of the teachings African American parents lived by when he was young. He recalls hearing people telling their "black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good,' which is to say 'accept half as much.'" As he observes white parents in New York, he knows they would never tell their children to be "twice as good." Instead, by their actions, they seemed to be telling their children, "Take twice as much." This train of thought reflects some of the same ideas Coates pursued in Chapter 1. There he makes clear that the privilege of white people depends on another group not having privilege. He describes the world as one in which one group takes from another group. The very nature of having privilege means someone else does not.

As Coates considers how African American parents raise their children, he concludes that they have participated in and upheld this same flawed system by complying with it. Their intentions were good. They saw that the world was a hard place and tried to push their children to be better, more polite, more well behaved, and more careful to avoid trouble. Still, Coates says, "It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder." This sense of complicity with a system that elevates some and pushes others down is the source of his periodic feelings of shame as he navigates fatherhood.

Coates includes several examples of how his own parenting instincts threaten to "redouble the plunder." One is the visit to the preschool where he had the impulse to tell his son to be more careful—not to join in so easily with the other children. He felt ashamed because his impulse had been to ask "that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd." He caught himself perpetuating the practices that would deny his son freedom. Another time, when he berated the impatient woman who pushed Samori, he also walked away from the situation feeling ashamed of how he reacted. Coates says, "I came home shook. It was a mix of shame" and rage "for having gone back to the law of the streets." He'd been reacting according to rules he did not decide on or agree to, and his helplessness in the face of this sparked rage.

This sense of shame comes to a head in France. Coates describes not being able to fully enjoy a simple dinner and walk with a new friend because he was visited by fears that the man was going to rob him or lure him into an alley to be beaten. He tells Samori that he is wounded by a childhood of "old codes" that preserved his life but then became a limitation as he became an adult and a father. He is not wholly free of the hard life he endured as a child, and his first impulses are still based on those old fears.

These explorations of the lasting impact of a fear-infused childhood, enclosed in a letter to his nearly adult son, feel a little like an apology. Coates is offering an explanation for his actions as a father and the parenting choices he has made. He admits the struggles he still faces and wounds he still bears. He does not want to pass those on, but he also doesn't want his son to be unaware of the harsh reality that his own country was founded on violence against black bodies and that this legacy is still ongoing.

Ultimately, Coates wants two things that seem contradictory: to know the truth of what it is to be an African American in America and to be free. The freedom of seeing the truth rather than believing a lie is how he has come to terms with this in his own life—although he admits he is still not truly free of the old wounds. Coates is still hopeful that by looking at these truths straight on, his son will experience greater freedom than those who are limited by their need to uphold the Dream narrative. He is choosing to tell his son these hard truths so that he will be free, not so he will feel free.

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