Between the World and Me

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African-American Family and Heritage Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
African-American Family and Heritage Theme Icon
Black Bodies Theme Icon
Captivity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Youth, Education, and Growth Theme Icon
Myth vs. Reality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Between the World and Me, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
African-American Family and Heritage Theme Icon

Between the World and Me is dedicated to Coates’ son, Samori. The book is written in the second person, directly addressing Samori and referring to his family members as “your mother,” “your grandfather,” and so on. This format of an extended letter from father to son centers the theme of family and inheritance, creating the impression that the larger readership is secondary to the more immediate conversation between father and son. This framing also fits within a larger African-American tradition of intergenerational storytelling as a way to preserve African-American history, culture, and heritage.

The passage of culture and wisdom between generations was critically important for Coates himself. He emphasizes how his parents were hugely influential in developing his own understanding of the world—far more influential than his experience of formal education, at least until he enrolled at Howard University. Even at Howard, Coates suggests that the experience of learning from his peers—the people who were to become Samori’s aunts and uncles—was also more formative and influential than what took place in the classroom.

When Coates speaks of family, though, he doesn’t merely mean his immediate relatives. Rather, Coates creates an expansive notion of “family.” In the African-American tradition, Samori’s “aunts and uncles” are not necessarily related to him by blood, and much of Between the World and Me illuminates the notion that all black people in the US (and perhaps even around the world) are connected as an extended, symbolic family. Coates also expresses a bond to historical African-American heroes, activists, and revolutionaries who inspire his own struggle against racism and injustice: “Perhaps I too might wield the same old power that animated the ancestors, that lived in Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Nanny, Cudjoe, Malcolm X.”

Similarly, Coates is inspired by the existence of his son, and views fatherhood and family life as a metaphorically sacred state of being: “There was before you, and then there was after, and in this after, you were the God I’d never had.” Throughout the book, Coates points to moments in which black people have no one to rely on but each other, and develop intense familial and communal bonds. African-American family and heritage is thus a powerful force and site of resistance against oppression and brutality.

At the same time, Coates also explores the darker, more fearful side of black family life in the US. He notes the many people he knows (including his wife, Kenyatta) who grew up without a father, and illuminates the tragic fate of his classmate Prince Jones’ fiancée, daughter, and mother who are left behind when Prince is killed by the police. In the final passage of the book, he portrays the loss experienced by Prince’s mother, Dr. Mabel Jones, mournfully illuminating the plight of the disproportionate number of black parents who lose children to violence and incarceration. In many ways, the black family is characterized by a tragic sense of absence: “I knew that my father's father was dead and that my uncle Oscar was dead and that my uncle David was dead and that each of these instances was unnatural.” Coates argues that because of this phenomenon, black parents are forced to live in a climate of fear. In Coates’ case, this compels him to strive to protect and empower his son as much as possible. However, he notes that for many black parents, the fear that they will lose their child to state violence or the violence of the streets leads them to punish their children particularly harshly. Coates observes that his own father, Paul—like many other African-American parents—established strict rules and beat him for breaking them, something Coates himself refuses to do to his own son.

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African-American Family and Heritage ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of African-American Family and Heritage appears in each Chapter of Between the World and Me. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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African-American Family and Heritage Quotes in Between the World and Me

Below you will find the important quotes in Between the World and Me related to the theme of African-American Family and Heritage.
Part 1 Quotes

Son,
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

The opening makes it clear that the book will take the form of an extended letter from Coates to his son, Samori. Coates’ account of his experience speaking on the news shows introduces many of the themes that will be of central importance within the narrative. Firstly, he writes that the host of the news show asks him to explain “what it meant to lose my body.” This unusual phrasing immediately establishes the significance of the black body within the book, and also emphasizes the fact that the host is asking Coates a deeply personal question (even if she is perhaps not aware that she is doing so).

This quotation also contains a reference to the book’s title when Coates mentions the “gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak.” The host’s world is what Coates will come to describe as the Dream—the world of whiteness, prosperity, security, and a false, mythologized understanding of American history. The world on behalf of which Coates has been asked to speak is the world of black people, and arguably also the violent truth of America beneath the myth of the Dream. Although these two worlds exist side by side—Coates illustrates their proximity through the metaphor of the satellite—the gulf between them consists of a block in communication, experience, and understanding.

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For so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Related Symbols: The Dream
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has introduced the concept of the Dream, which is his interpretation of the American Dream, emphasizing the extent to which this idea is a willful delusion. Rather than being a morally admirable—or even morally innocent—quest for success and prosperity, the Dream is inherently built out of the exploitation and oppression of African Americans. In this passage, Coates explains that he does not resent the Dream outright, and has even longed to believe in it.

All “those families” he mentions are mostly white families who are able to go about their lives within the delusion of the Dream, never questioning its ethical validity or consequences. Yet even as Coates at times envies those who believe in the delusion, fundamentally he pities them—this is because, as Coates emphasizes throughout the book, no one can ever be free unless they see the world as it really is, rather than buying into myths. The Dream only exists by “warring with the known world,” and thus those who pursue the Dream cannot fully engage or be at peace with the world around them.

Some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live––specifically, how do I live free in this black body?

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Paul Coates, Cheryl Waters
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has explained that he rejects the Dream, meaning that he refuses to accept a mythical account of American society in order to pursue his own path to success and ignore the inequality and suffering around him. Coates’ suspicion of the Dream is in large part based on its disconnection from reality, and in this passage he explains that this rejection of myth began in his childhood, when his parents raised him as an atheist.

Whereas religion is often considered a source of strength and optimism, particularly in the black community, in this passage Coates reverses this idea. He argues that only by embracing “the chaos of history and the fact of my total end” is it possible to feel satisfied by the choices he makes. Rather than hoping that he will receive redemption in the afterlife, Coates approaches the matter of injustice with a sense of absolute urgency. For Coates, life must be guided by honesty and curiosity in order for there to be any hope of true freedom.

What did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, Pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me? I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas. We spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Paul Coates, Cheryl Waters
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has explained that as a child, he felt restricted by the violence and pressure of the neighborhoods he lived in. At the same time, his experience in school was hardly better; the education he received was overly disciplinarian and often irrelevant to his day-to-day experience. In this passage, he draws a comparison between the rules of the streets and the rules of school, and points out that the church—another potential avenue of escape—was not also not an option for him.

By making a connection between the streets, school, and the church, Coates highlights the authoritarianism that characterizes all three. Each of these three social structures requires Coates to surrender his own autonomy in order to obey a higher law, whether this is the law of “handshakes” or of God. Following the example set by his parents, Coates refuses to accept this authority for the same reason that he refuses to accept the Dream—because it would mean sacrificing his own dignity, honesty, and freedom.

Perhaps I too might live free. Perhaps I too might wield the same old power that animated the ancestors, that lived in Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Nanny, Cudjoe, Malcolm X, and speak––no, act––as though my body were my own.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Malcolm X
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has recalled that, as a teenager, he was a huge admirer of Malcolm X. Malcolm’s words felt like an antidote to the messages Coates received at school and in the wider world, which discouraged resistance to racist injustice and left Coates feeling powerless. In this passage, Coates explains that he was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of African-American leaders and activists who came before him. Although at times it can feel as if Coates is alone facing the impossible pressures of police brutality, street violence, inequality of opportunity, and the dishonesty of the Dream, he is also connected to the rich heritage of black resistance. Through the precedent set by those who came before, Coates is able to imagine the possibility of having and feeling control over his own body.

I was admitted to Howard University but formed and shaped by The Mecca. These institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education, concerned with the LSAT, magna cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa. The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Related Symbols: Howard University/The Mecca
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has explained that his “only Mecca” is Howard University, the historically black institution where he attended college. By claiming that Howard is his “Mecca,” Coates is referencing the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad was born; Muslims face towards Mecca when they pray, and are obligated to make at least one pilgrimage there (called Hajj) during their lifetimes. Coates’ choice of his own Mecca reflects his atheism as well as his commitment to the search for knowledge and to black people.

As Coates points out in this passage, there is a distinction between Howard as an academic institution and what he thinks of as “The Mecca.” The former view of Howard emphasizes the ways in which it resembles any other institution of higher education in the US. The latter, however, focuses on what is unique about Howard—particularly the fact that it has historically “enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.” As a result, Howard has been a rare site within which black people have been able to learn, grow, experiment, socialize, and love one another safe from the oppressive reach of the Dream and the racist violence that is pervasive in the rest of the country. For this reason, Howard takes on a metaphorically sacred status within Coates’ imagination.

She said to me, “You take care of my daughter.” When she got out of the car, my world had shifted. I felt that I had crossed some threshold, out of the foyer of my life and into the living room. Everything that was the past seemed to be another life. There was before you, and then there was after, and in this after, you were the God I’d never had. I submitted before your needs, and I knew then that I must survive for something more than survival’s sake. I must survive for you.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates , Kenyatta Matthews
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

While Kenyatta is pregnant, her mother comes to visit Kenyatta and Coates in their barely furnished apartment in Delaware. At the end of her visit, Kenyatta’s mother urges Coates to “take care of my daughter,” and it is at this moment that Coates feels he is transformed from a man into a father. He describes this transformation as being akin to a religious awakening. Whereas before he had lacked the sense of guidance and purpose provided by religion, Samori becomes a God figure to him—not in the authoritarian or divine sense, but rather by giving Coates a reason to “survive.” Whereas Coates is not able to live with what he perceives to be the false dogma of religion, this connection to Samori is undeniably real, and thus forms a powerful shift in Coates’ attitude toward life.

Part 2 Quotes

I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people, and I must have felt it powerfully then. The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me, because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Prince Jones
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates and Kenyatta have traveled to DC to attend the memorial service for Prince Jones at Howard. During the service, Coates feels uncomfortable when those around him invoke religion and speak of forgiving the officer who killed Prince. This is one of the few—and certainly the most significant—moments in which Coates describes a sense of alienation from other black people. Although he can understand the importance of the church to the African-American community on an intellectual level, he cannot fathom how other black people are able to put their faith in an institution he perceives to be characterized by “dogma” and myth. By invoking the idea that Prince was killed “by his country,” Coates draws a subtle connection between the myth of the Dream and the myth of religion.

The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has been reflecting on the history of racism in America, and has noted that the Dreamers are committed to ignoring the reality of racist injustice even when the evidence stares them in the face. He then tells Samori that the American narrative “argues against the truth of who you are.” This is a deliberately abstract sentence, and thus could be interpreted in a number of ways. Coates is perhaps referring to the fact that, as he mentions earlier in the book, America was founded within the context of a system that dehumanized black people. Samori’s humanity itself is thus at odds with the historical narrative of the country in which he was born.

At the same time, Coates could also be referring to Samori’s youth. Many scholars of race have demonstrated that black children are routinely treated as adults, and that white people frequently overestimate the age of black children when interacting with them. On a more general level, black children are not afforded the same associations with “innocence” as white children (or even white adults) and are not protected from violence and injustice. The “truth,” of course, is that as a black boy Samori is innocent, even if he cannot (and should not) remain within the delusional innocence of the Dream.

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body––it is heritage.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has been discussing the police murders of Eric Garner and others, and has explained to Samori that it does not matter whether the officer who murdered Garner intended to kill him or not. The officer’s individual intentions are irrelevant, because violence against black bodies is “traditional” within America, and this tradition does not consist of the acts of any one individual but instead of a much broader, more powerful legacy.

Within this sentence, two forms of “heritage” are at play. One on level, Coates discusses the “heritage” of anti-black violence that has existed for even longer than America itself. By adding the phrase “here’s what I would like for you to know,” however, Coates highlights another, oppositional form of heritage—the love and knowledge passed down from himself to his son, which directly contradicts the racist heritage of America.

It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world––the ease between your mother and me, the miracle at The Mecca, the way I feel myself disappear on the streets of Harlem. To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds, fashioned by our ancestors, to the plunderer. We made that feeling, though it was forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied, we made it all the same.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Kenyatta Matthews
Related Symbols: Howard University/The Mecca
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has discussed an exchange he had with another black man; having accidentally bumped into the man, Coates remarked, “My bad,” and the man replied “You straight.” Although fleetingly brief, the exchange makes Coates aware that he is part of a “world”—a world with its own language, values, and codes of behavior. Coates makes two subtle clarifications about the nature of this world that can at first seem confusing, but that are in fact fundamental to his theory of race, kinship, and culture.

Firstly, Coates denies that the black world and its features are a natural, essential fact, meaning he refutes that they are built into the way black people are just because they are black. Rather, Coates points out that they are a social construction, “forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied.” However, Coates also clarifies that it is not the perpetrators of this violence that forged black culture and identity, but black people themselves who—in the midst of horror—created their own world.

Part 3 Quotes

Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Dream
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Having left Dr. Mabel Jones’ house, Coates sits outside in his car and reflects on the state of black people in America—stuck in a country within which they are perpetually at risk, and unable to change things on their own. He wonders if “the hope of the movement” is that the Dreamers will come to understand that their desire to be right has caused so much damage, even as he also acknowledges the importance of not orienting one’s life around the Dreamers.

Here Coates underlines the notion that simply the desire to “think that they are white” is behind white people’s capacity to cause unimaginable amounts of suffering to black people. Such a claim emphasizes the idea that it does not matter whether or not individual white people have racist or malicious intentions, and that racist injustice and violence is the result of phenomena that seem perfectly harmless on the surface.

This passage can also be interpreted as a reflection on the nature of the book itself. Some critics have argued that Between the World and Me seems to be addressing white people (even while it superficially takes the form of a letter to Samori). To a certain extent, this passage could be taken as evidence of this fact. On the other hand, Coates does warn against living in hope that white people will be brought “into consciousness,” thus perhaps suggesting that the book is equally written for two audiences—one made up of people who are caught up in the Dream, and another of those for whom the Dream was never a possibility.

Black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers––lost in their great reverie––feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. We have made something down here.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Dream
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Coates has described the moment of joy and vitality he felt when attending Homecoming at Howard. He reflects on the remarkable power of black creativity, which is such a strong force that even “Dreamers”—who refuse to fully acknowledge black people’s humanity—subconsciously understand the beauty of black power. This is a moving and surprisingly optimistic interpretation of a well-known phenomenon—the fact that many people who don’t respect and value black lives still love and consume black art. While this paradox is often cited as evidence of racist people’s hypocritical and exploitative nature, Coates suggests that it may also indicate the possibility of the eventual end of the Dream.

Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos––the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing––and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

Having left Dr. Mabel Jones’ house, Coates drives home through the ghettoes of Chicago. He has been thinking of Samori and has urged him to “struggle” on behalf of his friends, family, and the memory of his ancestors. However, the final lines of the book return to a less optimistic, more haunted note. Having reflected on the beauty and power of black culture, Coates is then once more reminded of the injustice, suffering, and powerlessness that black people are forced to face. The return of his “old fear” highlights the relentless power of the past to return and haunt the present. In contrast to the view that black people should “get over” past injustices and move on, Coates suggests that the past never truly disappears. The rain signals ambiguity and uncertainty over whether progress will come in the future, and ends the book on a note of dark but lyrical uneasiness.