One of the central principles Coates lays out in Between the World and Me is that the popular view of American history is a dangerous myth that obscures the racist reality of the country’s past and present. Part of this myth is the false belief in the reality of race itself. Coates argues: “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism… inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.” It is important to note that Coates is not advocating that we deny the reality of race in a “colorblind” sense, by pretending we don’t notice racial difference. Rather, Coates advocates acknowledging the fact that racial categorization was invented as a way of assigning some groups of people more value than others. This does not mean that race and racism are not “real,” but that they are something that people have invented, rather than being a natural fact. For this reason, throughout the book Coates refers to white people as “those who believe they are white.” This turn of phrase emphasizes both the social construction of race and the idea that whiteness is something people buy into, rather than simply having the identity thrust upon them.
Indeed, Coates’ conception of whiteness is deeply intertwined with what he calls the Dream. This idea plays on the concept of the American dream, emphasizing the way in which the conventional understanding of the American Dream obscures the fact that the socioeconomic opportunities available in the US were and are made possible through the exploitation and suppression of black people. The Dream that Coates describes is thus an inescapably racialized project, rather than simply the belief in building a better life in the US. “I have seen that dream my whole life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the cub scouts.” While Coates is not implying that there is anything inherently bad with any of these things, their existence as part of the Dream creates a false impression of the US that blinds people to the reality of immense racial injustice and suffering.
Coates makes clear that rather than simply being a single component of the US, the Dream is built into the very fabric of the nation; American history and identity are thus built on a (dangerous) myth and denial of reality. He demonstrates this in a variety of ways, arguing that aspects of the US such as democracy, the justice system, and the notion of equal opportunity are more like wishes or lies than real facts.
However, Coates is not only concerned with white American myths and the way that they obscure and deny reality. He is also wary of myths that exist within the African-American community, and that are similarly constitutive of African-American identity. The most major example is religion. An atheist, Coates is made uncomfortable by religion, an inclination that he inherited from his parents (“My parents rejected all dogmas”). As a result, Coates cannot find the solace that others do in religion, and is disturbed by the extent to which religion is embedded within reactions to racist violence. At Prince Jones’ funeral, he notes that he feels like a “heretic,” adding: “I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people, and I must have felt it powerfully then.”
Similarly, Coates argues against the temptation to mythologize blackness and black people in the same way that racist ideologies mythologize whiteness. He warns that it is dangerous to argue that black people are an inherently “royal” race or deny that black people have ever perpetrated structural violence and oppression (such as the slave systems within Africa that pre-existed European colonization). Note that Coates is not arguing that there is a direct equivalence between intra-African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, and he makes clear the fact that black people have never committed widespread genocide or enslavement against white people. However, he suggests that clinging to an overly romanticized, historically inaccurate understanding of blackness is not a helpful path toward racial justice. Instead, people must acknowledge and understand the world as it really is, and act from this place of knowledge and honesty.
Myth vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Myth vs. Reality Quotes in Between the World and Me
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.
Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism––the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them-––inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.
All our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy––serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
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.
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?
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.
The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality.
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.
The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.
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.
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.
The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body––it is heritage.
I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of “race”––“race" itself is just a re-statement and retrenchment of the problem.
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.
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.
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.