Between the World and Me | Study Guide

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Between the World and Me | Main Ideas


The Dream Is a Devastating Myth

Ta-Nehisi Coates asks a fundamental question in this essay: Why is my experience of America so different from the experiences of others living in the same country? When he was a child in Baltimore, Coates would watch television shows about suburban families. He noticed the children in those television shows had a much different set of worries than his own. While he was in constant fear of being physically harmed, the children on television worried about Little League games and the effects of poison oak. As he grew up, he realized this separation of experience was linked to the history of African American people in the United States. The country's economic growth was made possible by the forced labor of generations of African Americans. Not only was the history of the country rooted in slavery, but the ongoing state of the country was one in which African American lives were still not seen as valuable as white lives.

As Coates probes this great divide in the American experience, he realizes several factors make the problem of racial equality impossible to solve. The main culprit is "the Dream," an appealing myth people mistake for being a reality. An important part of the Dream is the belief in race as a natural and biological phenomenon. Coates emphasizes that being white is a matter of belief, not fact: this is an artificial category created by those who believe themselves to be "white" to maintain their group's superiority, wealth, and privilege. This is done by categorizing other people as African American according to criteria loosely based on a set of physical attributes. Hence, whiteness and the belief in white superiority throughout America's history depend on there being such a thing as "race."

The problem of racism in America doesn't improve if it continues to be ignored. However, ignoring this very real problem is what keeps the Dream alive. Believing in the Dream means believing in an idealized and mythical America, one founded on the conviction that every individual should have a voice and basic freedoms governed by the rule of law. In this mythical America, if people work hard and make good choices, they will thrive and succeed. Coates shows that this mythical America never existed and does not exist today. Government policy and the criminal justice system have codified systemic racial discrimination. Therefore, since the Dream is a narrative that requires both past and present realities to be ignored, it is a destructive Dream, blinding people to violence and oppression and thus ensuring these conditions will continue.

Life in a Black Body

In the essay, Coates explains that not believing in the Dream or a myth of his own invention gives him the freedom to ask: "How do I live free in this black body?" The question is not a simple one because the very nature of being an African American in America is to live with limited freedom. Throughout the essay Coates returns repeatedly to the idea that the institution of slavery on which America was built commodified "black bodies," converting the raw material of their labor into sugar, cotton, and other products. He notes that although slavery ended, there are ways in which this commodification continues into the present. He points out that the mass incarceration of African Americans in prisons provides jobs and profitable investment opportunities for so-called white people. This commodification of the black body has also led to the devaluing of African American lives. Interactions between African Americans and law enforcement display the power those in authority have over African Americans. The lack of consequences for those who hurt or kill African Americans further emphasizes that African Americans do not have the right to their own bodies. In a thousand small ways, those who live in black bodies are told that their lives are not as valuable and worthy of protection as those who live in white bodies.

For Coates, a nonreligious person, the value of the body is of particular importance. He sees the body as the vessel in which all of a person's potential, love, and selfhood reside. It is the vessel into which loved ones pour their love, energy, and effort in hope that it will survive and experience joy and freedom. Thus, when a young African American man is shot and his killer is exonerated because of some dubious excuse, Coates grieves the loss of the individual as well as all the love and attention his family bestowed on him.

Fear Leaves a Legacy

From Coates's earliest childhood memories on, he experienced fear. The danger of violence on the streets of Baltimore was a constant physical threat, and he says that it took up to 30 percent of his mental energy to stay alive. This included not provoking those who could do him harm and remembering which streets to avoid and which people not to cross. He describes these fears viscerally, and he also recognizes that his peers in that part of his life were driven by their own fears. Sometimes the fear was expressed in overconfidence, music, and clothing that seemed angry or rebellious, but it was based in a primal fear brought on by living in a society in which one's body can be beaten or destroyed at any time. The legacy of fear perpetuates itself through the culture and across the generations.

Coates also explores the legacy of this primal fear on family relationships, describing how his parents—and the parents of everyone he knew—were strict about discipline. The slightest mistake in behavior would warrant a beating. This discipline was intended to make certain that the behavior of an African American child would be so perfect it would not draw the ire of teachers, police officers, or others who might use a mistake or lapse in politeness as justification for physical harm.

The legacy of fear is, ultimately, the limitation of one's ability to live freely. In one anecdote, Coates describes going out for dinner in France with a new friend and thinking the whole time whether the wonderful dinner—the wine, the plates of food—was simply some way to "get an angle" on him. When dinner was over and the two walked through the streets of Paris, Coates expected his friend to lure him into an alleyway and rob or harm him. He says he could not fully enjoy the dinner "because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear." Fear also affects the ability to love freely. In one passage Coates tells his son, "Your mother had to teach me how to love you."

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