Between the World and Me | Study Guide

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Between the World and Me | Quotes


But race is the child of racism, not the father.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

Coates suggests that the concept of race is artificial, not biological. However, the practice of racism—of putting one group down so that another can enjoy a higher status—requires race to exist. In this way, racism leads to, or "fathers," the belief in race.


But all our phrasing ... serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

Coates reminds his son that the reality of racism is not just conceptual. It has a very real, physical, and often violent manifestation in the world. Racism is not just an idea. It is the death and beating of people. It is abject poverty and lives filled with misery and fear.


The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

Coates believes that "the Dream" is a destructive force in American society. The Dream is made up of "perfect houses with nice lawns ... block associations, and driveways." This Dream necessitates an entire supporting narrative and the ignoring of certain facts. To believe in the Dream, people must believe that American society is just and moral. Therefore, people must look away from any evidence that contradicts this presupposition.

This means that to believe in the Dream, people must be blind to the systemic racism in America and the violence that undergirds the formation of American society.


All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

Coates does not spare his own family or community from criticism and analysis, although he considers the harsh treatment African American children endure from their parents as the product of fear. This fear along with the fierce love African American parents feel toward their children results in the parents' resorting to harsh discipline to make sure their children behave appropriately in the eyes of society.


I obsessed over the distance between that other sector of space and my own.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

As a child, Coates would see children on television living very different lives than his own. Children on television were not worried about dying or being beaten; rather, they worried about whether or not they would get a popular girlfriend or win the Little League game. He wondered about the difference between what he saw on television and what he lived. Even as he observed the differences between his own experience and "the Dream" experience he saw on television, he realized they were connected.


The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

Not only does Coates believe that belief in the Dream of an idealized America is harmful, but he believes it dampens an individual's capacity to create art, think clearly, and write honestly. He is constantly on guard against the temptation to create his own myth and believe in it.


I knew that we were ... on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

Coates grapples with the notion that race is not a biological category but a social one. He notes that although being white or African American is an artificial category based on criteria established by a group of people who use these categories to establish their own dominance, these categories known as "race" are still real and powerful. They involve shared experiences and a similar relationship to society.


You cannot forget how ... they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 1

Coates returns to America's history of enslaving African Americans, exploring how those who enslaved them viewed them in the same way they would view gold or any other commodity. The image of black bodies being transfigured into "sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold" illustrates this idea in concrete terms.


I believed, and still do ... that my spirit is my flesh.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 2

Throughout the essay, Coates explains that since he is not a religious person, he is not comforted by ideas of the spirit or the afterlife. To him, a human is merely a physical self. The spirit is the flesh, and the soul is the electrical impulse that powers the nervous system. The body is more valuable when it is all someone has.


This officer, given maximum power, bore minimum responsibility.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 2

When Coates's friend Prince Jones was killed, the officer who shot him was not punished. This shows the immorality of a system that privileges the powerful and allows them to bear the least responsibility for their actions while the powerless suffer for the errors of those in authority.


As terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 2

In New York City, Coates sees white parents chatting outside without a care in the world while their children take up the entire sidewalk with their bikes. The image stays with Coates as an illustration of the difference between white children in Manhattan and the African American children he grew up with in Baltimore. He sees that people's attitude toward the world is shaped by their earliest experiences.


People who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 2

Coates describes white people as "people who believe themselves to be white." This idea underscores his point that "race" is not a biological classification but a belief. When a person believes he or she is classified as white, the facts of slavery, systemic racism, and racial inequality threaten their view of themselves as a good person. Therefore, those who see themselves as white constantly try to show that they personally are not responsible for the suffering of African American people.


I am convinced that the Dreamers ... of today, would rather live white than live free.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 3

Coates calls those who are invested in the Dream of the idealized version of America "Dreamers." He details their impulse to look away from the ugliness of the country's past and forget the evidence of its ongoing atrocities. He suggests that their belief in their own "whiteness" is more important to them than actual freedom, which can come from only facing the truth.


They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 3

Coates marvels at the beauty, passion, joy, and humanity that African American people have created out of their oppression. Their culture was stolen from them, so they made their own. They were defined and classified as a "race" for the purposes of subjugation, but they made themselves into a "people."


The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything ... really is.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chapter 3

At the end of the essay, Coates exhorts his son to keep struggling for wisdom and truth. Only then will he have the true power that comes from understanding just how fragile the world and its people really are.

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