Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me Part 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Coates begins the book in the style of a letter addressed to his son Samori. He explains that he was recently on a talk show where the host asked him “what it meant to lose my body.” Coates feels that there is an enormous gulf between the host’s world “and the world for which I had been summoned to speak.” At the same time, he is used to being asked about his body, and understands that the woman is trying to understand why he thinks American progress—which, he clarifies actually refers to white American progress—has been made possible by “looting and violence.” This question tires him, because he feels that the only answer lies within the myth of American history itself.
Coates opens by recalling an instance in which he is “summoned” to educate the world of white people about his views on racism and American history. However, this is made difficult by the fact that there is such a huge gulf between the world of black people (including Coates himself) and the audience he is asked to address. He points out that evidence of this gulf lies in the fact that he is being asked to explain his views, when in his mind all the necessary evidence already lies within the white mythologization of American history.
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Coates argues that white Americans’ tendency to “deify” democracy causes them to forget that their country has historically violated democratic values through “torture, theft, [and] enslavement.” On the other hand, America is not unique in this violation, as many other democracies have committed the same crimes. When Abraham Lincoln declared that the United States would have a “government of the people” in 1863, the definition of “person” did not include black people. This leads to another problem within the US, which is the belief in the reality of race as a natural fact. Coates argues that this belief inevitably leads to racism and to the acceptance of racist atrocities as a natural (if tragic) part of life.
Coates is quick to point out instances in which people romanticize reality in a way that prevents them from acknowledging the truth. Often, this takes the form of telling stories that present the world in a more comforting light. The problem with this tendency is that it encourages people to turn a blind eye to injustice, thereby allowing injustice to continue. For example, if people willfully forget that the US did not always consider African Americans to be people, the dehumanization of African Americans will persist.
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Coates explains that the boundaries of what counts as “white” identity are fluid, and that Catholics, Jews, and the Welsh (among others) did not used to be considered white people. The creation of the idea of whiteness took place through the violent torture and oppression of black people; in other words, white identity was made by denying black people autonomy over their own bodies. Historically, there may have been groups other than white people who systematically subjected entire races to genocide and enslavement, but Coates does not know of any. Americans themselves like to claim they are exceptional, but perhaps what is truly exceptional about America is its legacy of systematic violence.
Here, Coates expands on the argument that racial categories are not natural facts, but rather systems of human invention. When he argues that only white people have oppressed entire races, he is not willfully ignoring the persecution of particular tribes, religions, and ethnicities by groups other than white people. Rather, he is clarifying that only white people have grouped together and persecuted a huge range of these subgroups under the umbrella of a single, invented racial category.
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At the time Coates is writing, his son Samori is fifteen, and has recently witnessed the violent, racist deaths of Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice. These killings make it obvious that police in America are “endowed with the authority to destroy” black bodies and that no matter what black people do, they will never be safe from this risk of violence. Coates argues that the language and academic tools we use to discuss racism encourage us to forget that racism is a “visceral,” bodily experience. He tries to explain this on the talk show, but the segment ends with a picture of a little black child hugging a white police officer and Coates realizes he had failed to convey his message.
As a black teenager, Samori has been forced to understand early on that America is a hostile environment for black people. Although he did not personally witness the killings Coates mentions, the evidence of racism in these cases is unavoidable, such that black children cannot be kept in a state of “innocent” obliviousness in the same way as a white children. Coates’ focus on the body conveys the idea of embodied knowledge, meaning a way of understanding the world through one’s physical experiences and senses.
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Leaving the TV studio, Coates walks around and observes white families going about their days. He feels sad, and realizes this is because they are living in “a gorgeous dream.” This Dream, which encompasses all the desirable aspects of American culture, such as “perfect houses” and “Memorial day cookouts,” has been built through the oppression of black people. It is tempting to avoid this reality and embrace the dream, but sadly not possible.
Here Coates explains why other people buy into the Dream, and also why he is not able to do so. On the surface, the Dream is not only appealing but seemingly harmless—however, once a person has been made aware of the connection between the Dream and the persecution of black people, it is impossible to forget that knowledge.
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That same weekend, Samori learns that the police officer who killed Mike Brown will not be punished, something that does not surprise Coates but does surprise Samori, who walks out of the room crying. Coates chooses not to comfort him, deciding it would be wrong to provide false hope that everything will be ok, because Coates does not believe it himself. Instead, Coates reminds his son that trying to understand how to live in the world as a black person is a question that “ultimately answers itself.”
Here Coates demonstrates how different being a black parent can be from the way that white parents are expected to behave. Although he is deeply affected by Samori’s sadness, he reasons that it would be unforgiveable to lie to his son. To Coates, false optimism is always worse than dealing with reality, however grim that reality may be.
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Avoiding false optimism and tidy resolutions puts Coates at odds with the “‘goal-oriented’ era” in which he lives. He explains that he inherited this suspicion of “magic” from his parents, who rejected both American exceptionalism and religion. Coates believes it is necessary to reject these myths in order to achieve personal freedom. He argues that although Americans like to think of their country as “God’s handiwork,” the treatment of black bodies in the US disproves this idea. Coates has sought answers for the question of how to live as a black person in the US through conversations with his family, his friends, and his partner Kenyatta, through reading and writing, and through music. Although the question is “unanswerable,” the quest for answers is itself a form of freedom.
Here Coates illuminates a paradox within American national identity. The American dream is associated with freedom; yet Coates believes that people can only truly be free if they cease to believe in the comforting myths of the Dream, American exceptionalism, and religion. This belief raises the question of just what it means to be free. Does freedom lie in comfort and prosperity, or in autonomy and knowledge? While the latter version is more difficult and painful, Coates argues that this is the real meaning of freedom.
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The freedom of this questioning makes Coates less afraid of “disembodiment,” but he still remains fearful. He recalls that when he was Samori’s age—fifteen—everyone he knew was black, and all of them were afraid. The narrative jumps back in time to this era, and Coates describes the “extravagant boys of my neighborhood,” who disguise their fear through their cool, tough outfits and “customs of war.” Coates recalls watching a street fight between two boys when he was five years old, and observes that these fights demonstrate “the vulnerability of black teenage bodies.”
Throughout the book, Coates explores different ways that black people deal with the risks and fear associated with being in a black body in America. In this instance, the boys in his neighborhood disguise their vulnerability with performances of toughness; wearing clothes like “armor” and engaging in fights with elaborate rules. Such behavior distracts from the threat posed to them by white America.
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Coates also recognizes the fear in the music he listens to, which is full of ostentatious boasts, and in the toughness of the girls he knows. He sees the same fear when he visits his grandmother and recalls the fact that many of his family members have died “unnatural” deaths. Coates also recognizes it in his own father, Paul, who gave him money to help raise Samori and who also beat Coates as a child—beat him with a severity that showed he was worried “someone might steal me away.” Coates explains that this was reasonable because it happened all the time, with black youth being lost to violence, drugs, or prison. He recalls his father saying: “Either I can beat him, or the police.”
By juxtaposing Paul’s history of beating his son alongside his generosity when Samori was born, Coates shows that for many black parents, hitting their children is not an act of vindication or even of justice, but a desperate attempt to protect their children from the dangers of the world around them. However, as the deaths in Coates’ family make clear, there is nowhere truly safe from these dangers. Coates’ father’s words emphasize that even children are not safe from anti-black police violence.
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Coates understands the reasoning behind black parents subjecting their children to harsh physical punishments, but he is not sure if it is effective in keeping them out of trouble. Children learn to joke about it, but in reality they are “afraid of those who loved us most.” In the Baltimore of Coates’ childhood, he and other young people were deliberately exposed to the dangers of the world through policies designed to keep black people in a constant state of fear. The law did not protect black children from these dangers, and was in fact another source of violence itself.
Coates explains that beating their children doesn’t necessarily mean that black parents love them any less, but that the children nevertheless end up unjustly afraid of their parents. He emphasizes that all the sources of authority that are supposed to protect children and make them feel safe are in fact threatening to black children. As a result, black children are imprisoned by the danger that surrounds them and by their own fear.
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Coates recalls a particular time at age eleven, watching a group of older boys yell at a kid his age. The boys are stylishly dressed in ski jackets, and as Coates is watching one of them pulls out a gun. Coates has been hearing about murder all over the news, but the topic doesn’t feel real until this moment. The boy’s friends pull him back and he puts the gun away; Coates goes home and does not tell his parents or teachers about the episode. He feels amazed at the ease with which “death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon,” and thinks of another world where this is not the case—a world where children are safe, families are prosperous, and people’s worries are minor. Although this feels like another planet, it is in fact just the world of white people and the Dream.
Even as an eleven-year-old boy, Coates must already face the most sinister aspects of the world. For him, the Dream is inaccessible not only because his family isn’t rich and he doesn’t live in a white suburb, but also because he cannot unlearn the knowledge he has gained about the realities of crime, poverty, racism, violence, and death. From this perspective, it is clear that the Dream is far-fetched and ridiculous—not so much for what it contains than for what it ignores, namely, the experience of Coates and other black children like him.
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Coates observes that Samori’s life is very different from his own. During Samori’s youth, the president is black, social media is everywhere, and black women proudly walk around with natural hair. On the other hand, Samori’s anger at the trial over the death of Mike Brown is the same feeling that Coates himself experienced at that age. Coates recalls striving to survive as a child and teenager, and says he understands why some people become addicted to the risk inherent within the streets. On the other hand, the claim to “own” or “run” the streets is inherently fictitious, because the “game” is not designed or controlled by black people.
Once again, Coates is sympathetic to multiple perspectives, but ultimately emphasizes the danger of myth. In this instance, myth refers to the idea that black people can gain ultimate control over the dangerous environments in which they live if only they play the “game” right. Although Coates understands that it is tempting to believe such things, he stresses that it is impossible to ignore the fact that there are always larger forces at play sustaining black people’s oppression.
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People who turn their fear into violent rage pose the biggest threat, and Coates recalls that he learned to avoid certain places and individuals in order to keep himself safe. He also learned to speak in gestures, to recognize “fighting weather,” and other codes and practices of the streets. He remembers these rules better than the basic education taught in elementary school because “they were essential to the security of my body.” Samori, on the other hand, does not have to spend as much time obsessively learning and enacting these rules. Coates sees this as a good thing, and does not wish to force Samori to become “tougher.” At the same time, as a young black man, Samori will never be completely safe from violence.
Note that even as he emphasizes the centrality of the streets to his childhood, Coates refuses to glamorize this way of life. He understands why young black people engage in posturing and fighting, but maintains that it is better not to be so tough and to devote one’s mind to other matters if possible. Indeed, life in the neighborhoods in which Coates grew up is perhaps more banal than anything, as it involves devoting inordinate time to thinking and behaving in a safe, correct way, rather than pursuing other things.
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Coates argues that “if the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left”; however, Coates feels more resentful of the schools. While the rules of the streets were “practical,” the schools were designed to discipline black children rather than give them a chance to grow. It was absurd, for example, that Coates and other black children learned French when it was likely none would ever go to France. Coates argues that, as a child, he felt “drugged” by the “false morality” taught in school. Education was not an opportunity for learning and development, but simply the more preferable institution to prison.
Over the course of the book, Coates argues that education can be empowering, but that it also often has a sinister side. In this case, the mission lying at the heart of the public education system in Baltimore is to control and suppress black children. School thus becomes a kind of metaphorical prison; although it is better than being literally incarcerated, it nonetheless suffocates people with myths and pointless discipline.
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Coates did not imagine he or anyone he knew would escape this oppressive environment. Some of the tougher kids thought they would escape by asserting dominance on the streets, but this ultimately led nowhere. Coates felt he was in an impossible bind in which either being too violent or not violent enough could result in his death. Succeeding in school required absolute obedience to arbitrary rules and expectations. Meanwhile, he wasn’t able to find solace in “the church and its mysteries,” because his parents rejected what they saw as the myth of religion. Fear was omnipresent in Coates’ life, and he knew that this fear was connected to the carefree lives of those living in the Dream.
The fact that the reader is holding Coates’ book in their hands—and likely knows something about his life and career—proves that Coates was able to escape the dangers and dead ends that lay before him as a child in Baltimore. However, by emphasizing his certainty that he would not be able to escape, Coates reminds us how restrictive and threatening life is for most black children in America, and that supposed opportunities for social mobility often appear more like instruments of discipline and control.
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As a child, Coates is curious about the way in which racism simultaneously sustains the Dream and perpetuates the oppression of black people like himself. However, there are no opportunities to understand how this works, as neither the streets, his school, nor religion provide any answers. On the other hand, his mother Cheryl had taught him to read at age four, and she makes him write reflective assignments when he got into trouble at school. These writing exercises allow Coates to develop a better understanding of himself, which in turn helps him understand other people and the world around him.
Because of Coates’ emphatic rejection of “magic” and dogma, there is no one institution or authority that will provide answers to the questions troubling him. However, writing helps him because it is not an instructive activity, but rather a way of asking questions and deepening one’s understanding of the world as it really is.
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Coates finds further answers in the books supplied by his father, Paul, who works as a research librarian at Howard University. Paul “had been a local captain of the Black Panther Party” and Coates is fascinated by the BPP newspapers and books. He views the Panthers as much more reasonable than the Civil Rights heroes he learns about in school, who appear to “love” the violence inflicted on them so much that they refuse to engage in violent resistance. Coates is suspicious of the extent to which the schools glorify nonviolence, perceiving it to be a way to maintain the oppression of black people. Encouraging nonviolence seems especially strange given the amount of violence that surrounds Coates and other black children every day.
One of Coates’ main aims in the book is to show how racial oppression operates in covert ways in addition to more obvious forms, such as police violence and the prison system. Teaching children about Civil Rights leaders is clearly not an obvious strategy of racial oppression. However, through critical analysis, Coates is able to show that there is a sinister ideological reason behind the decision to focus on nonviolent black activists—it encourages the children to accept the violence in their lives while rejecting the possibility of violent resistance.
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Coates ends up viewing the streets and schools as “arms of the same beast.” Both exert control over the population through fear and violence, and “failing” within either means risking imprisonment or death. He emphasizes that “intentions” are irrelevant, because most Americans do not advocate racist violence directly but do support the Dream, which indirectly oppresses black people. Coates brings his concerns to his parents. Paul rarely gives an answer but instead advises him to read more books, which do not provide answers, but help Coates to “refine” his questions.
In contrast to other narratives, Coates’ intellectual development and political awakening is not a pleasant experience, but rather a frustrating and often painful struggle. He is aware of the kind of knowledge he hopes to gain, and is beginning to understand that he is surrounded by myths and other false views of reality, but feels fairly lost as to the best way to move forward.
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Coates remarks that he is not alone on this journey toward political consciousness. The work of Malcolm X is being taken up within the developing hip hop community, just at the point when Coates is emerging into young adulthood. Coates idolizes Malcolm, inspired by his message that black bodies are sacred and “precious,” and that black people have the right to defend violations to their bodies. Unlike the schools and Dreamers, “Malcolm never lied.” Coates identifies with Malcolm’s life story, and begins to feel hopeful that he might “live free” after all. He develops ambitions as a writer and feels that he is finally beginning to have answers to the questions that have troubled him throughout his life.
Malcolm X’s writing inspires and reassures Coates not because it is particularly comforting, but because it refuses to indulge the myths that are found almost everywhere else in American society. Whereas another person might read Malcolm’s work and feel despondent about the prospect of achieving personal freedom, for Coates the opposite is true. This is because Coates associates freedom with honesty and the rejection of false narratives and moralizing.
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Coates listens to hip hop and takes inspiration from the Black Power movement. He begins to wonder if black people should “return to ourselves,” concluding perhaps it’s time they returned to Mecca. Coates goes on to explain that his only Mecca is Howard University. Coates’ father, Paul, worked there, many of Samori’s aunts and uncles attended, and it is where Coates and his wife Kenyatta met. Coates draws a distinction between Howard as an academic institution and “The Mecca” that shaped him, however. Because of Howard’s unique history, it has exceptionally illustrious alumni, a heritage that powers the “dark energy” of its community in the present day.
Although Coates does not say so explicitly, there is a reason why the introduction of Howard follows the passage about Malcolm X. The actual Mecca is a city in Saudi Arabia in which the Prophet Muhammad was born. As a Muslim, Malcolm prayed to Mecca at least five times a day and made Hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims—in 1964. Coates suggests that Howard provides the same source of community and strength to him as Mecca does to Muslims.
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Coates describes the students who pass through the Yard at Howard; students of different national origin, religions, styles of dress, talents, and tastes. He explains that “the vastness of black people across space-time… could be experienced in a twenty-minute walk across campus.” To Coates, every student is “hot and incredible.” His encounter with this black community makes clear the extent to which white people seek to repress and control black people’s bodies. It also reveals the arbitrary nature of racial categories, which were invented by white people and imposed on everyone else.
Perhaps paradoxically, Coates’ experience of attending a black university confirms his suspicion that race is an arbitrary social construct, rather than a factual, biological reality. He comes to this realization because of the enormous variation between the students at Howard, which feels like a whole world in and of itself. Although they are connected by the experience of being black, every black person is different.
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Coates senses that whites oppress black people because they are intimidated by black people’s power. He quotes the Canadian-American author Saul Bellow, who once asked: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”. The question troubles Coates because it implies major intellectual and historical figures must be white in order to qualify as important. He feels that this denial of the significance and beauty of black culture is intimately tied to the “destruction of black bodies” that occurs through racist violence. As a result, black people are desperate to find a “new history,” and thus risk manufacturing their own Dream in the form of a narrative of a super-powerful, majestic “black race.”
Coates’ logic here is complex, and can thus be difficult to follow. On one hand, he rejects the kind of racist thought that asserts that black people have not made significant contributions to human history and culture. On the other hand, he warns against reacting to this racism by creating a new myth of black achievement that is not based in reality. Black people have accomplished incredible things, and thus there is no need to embellish the truth.
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Having made this warning, Coates admits that he himself held the view that black people were “kings in exile” when he first arrived at Howard. At the university library, he enthusiastically devours books, making pages of notes about black history and culture. He is astonished by the extent to which the books contradict one another, overwhelmed by the “brawl of ancestors” each with their own view. Nonetheless, Coates admits that “the pursuit of knowing was freedom to me,” and feels more comfortable learning independently in the library than he does being taught in the classroom.
As a young person, Coates had been under the false impression that African-American intellectual heritage would contain a “grand theory” that would answer his questions and make sense of the world. However, in this part of the book he learns that this heritage is in fact messy, contradictory, and full of conflict. Completing his own research allows Coates to acknowledge this conflict, rather than be taught a false sense of unity and agreement.
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Coates gradually gains a more solid sense of himself, guided by the things he is learning and the precedent of Malcolm X. He is accompanied on this journey of self-discovery by his friend Ben, whom he refers to as Samori’s uncle and “a fellow traveler for life.” Coates continues to write “bad poetry” and read it at open mics in Washington DC. He reflects on what it means to lose one’s body, and concludes that “The Dream is the enemy of all art.” Coates is inspired by black artists whose work embraces the “void” beyond the myth-making of the Dream. He argues with other poets after readings, discussing everything from politics to boxing.
Whereas Coates had previously found the process of learning to be a frustrating and often painful struggle, in this passage his journey of personal and intellectual growth is depicted in a much more positive light. Equipped with independence, determination, and the right resources, Coates is able to place himself in dialogue with other black intellectuals and artists, who both inspire and challenge his developing understanding of the world.
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Coates describes a neighborhood in DC called Prince George’s County, which has a wealthy black population. Although the residents of Prince George’s County elect “their own politicians,” they still have a brutal police force, a fact that proves to Coates that black people are capable of reproducing the same oppressive structures as whites. Coates expresses gratitude to the history department at Howard, where the faculty assure him that his search for new myths to replace the Dream will not end well. One of Coates’ professors helps illuminate the fact that some black figures in history were oppressive to their own or other groups of people. In another class, Coates sees depictions of black people from the 19th century that are realistic, rather than racist caricatures.
Coates is tempted to believe that there is something noble or superior within black people that prevents them from inflicting the same violence and oppression on others as white people have done to them. However, he comes to understand that the whole concept of a black race with essential qualities (such as nobility) is part of the same racial thinking that is inherently linked to racism. In order to reject racist logic completely, Coates must also let go of the assumption that black people all share certain qualities (even positive ones).
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Coates admits that this process of learning is “physically painful and exhausting,” even as it is also rewarding. He also comes across an answer to Saul Bellow’s question about Tolstoy by the African-American journalist Ralph Wiley: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” Yet while Coates comes to accept the fact that race is not “written in DNA,” he also acknowledges that there is something that creates unity between black people across time and place—“on the one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.” The community at Howard reinforces this view, particularly the powerful social connection between the students.
Again, Coates’ distinction between the false claim that race is “written in DNA” and his assertion that the connection between black people is “real” can be hard to understand. This is especially true given that we are taught to think of race as based on skin color and other physical features that are written into DNA. However, as Coates explains, the idea of race is only “real” because of the communities formed by the false science of racialization.
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Coates describes the first woman he falls in love with at Howard, a half-Indian girl from California whose multiracial identity Coates at first does not understand. He then falls in love with another girl who is bisexual and who lives with two Howard professors (one male, one female) who are in an open, bisexual marriage. Coates is astonished, as he is unfamiliar with the idea that black people can be anything other than heterosexual. He is thus made aware of his own prejudice, and the fact that he has behaved in an oppressive way to others (for example, by using the word “faggot”). The bisexual woman inspires Coates to “love in a new way,” which is more nurturing and less disciplinary than the love he received from his parents.
During the process of falling in love for the first few times, Coates develops intimate relationships with people who are unlike himself—and in doing so, comes to learn about his own false beliefs and prejudices. The implication of this passage is that in order to be open-minded and dispel the oppressive, false myths that cause people to behave in a discriminatory way to one another, it is important to be exposed to people who are different. Without such exposure, prejudice can easily develop.
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Coates sometimes goes to local clubs where, although he is too scared to dance personally, he loves to watch other black people dance “as though their bodies could do anything.” He strives to write in the same way as black people dance and begins writing for the local alternative newspaper, where his white editors are “afraid neither for me nor of me.” Journalism allows Coates to investigate the world around him and understand how this has been shaped by history. The practice of writing continues to provide answers to the questions that have always troubled him.
This is something of a climactic moment in the story of Coates’ development as a young person, in which his struggles for truth and freedom begin to bear fruit. His encounter with the white editors—while hardly disproving Coates’ existing impression of white people as a whole—shows that it is possible for white people and black people to engage in a constructive, fair way.
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The bisexual woman Coates mentions above was previously in a relationship with a boy who Coates admits he thinks about every day, “and about whom I expect to think every day for the rest of my life.” This boy is Prince Jones and, because he is killed young, he comes to feel like an “invention” rather than a real person. Coates says that Prince lived up to his name. He was a born-again Christian, warm and generous, and although Coates never gets to know him very well, he loves him and feels that Prince’s place in his heart is now like a “wound.”
Coates admits that when people die young, it is almost impossible to avoid mythologizing them. Indeed, the case of Prince Jones is perhaps one instance where Coates is less resistant to mythologizing. Coates presents Prince as a truly exceptional person who exerted an entirely positive influence on the world. Although we don’t yet know how he dies, we know it will be tragic.
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The last time Coates falls in love at Howard is with Kenyatta, Samori’s mother. Kenyatta does not know her father, which is true of most people Coates knows. She and Coates are both 24 when she accidentally becomes pregnant with Samori; others pressure them to get married, but they choose not to. Kenyatta’s mother visits them while Kenyatta is pregnant, and Coates imagines her horror at the fact that they are living on very little money, with “almost no furniture.” She urges Coates to take care of Kenyatta, and Coates feels this is a pivotal moment in his growth and understanding of the world.
Coates observes that the people he and Kenyatta know imply that marriage will save them from the risks of having a child when they are young and poor. However, he rejects this idea as another false myth. On the other hand, the encounter with Kenyatta’s mother has a major impact on Coates. In this moment, he comes to understand his own responsibility as a partner and father, and vows to “survive” on behalf of his family.
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When the baby is born, Coates and Kenyatta call him Samori, after Samori Touré, the Guinean Muslim cleric who fought French colonizers in the 19th century. Coates reflects on the wisdom of the streets that he gained in his youth, and remarks that Samori’s name signifies the fact that “the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” He encourages Samori to remember that slavery is not “an indefinable mass of flesh” but rather the individual thoughts, experiences, and hopes of unique people. He emphasizes the notion that for these individuals, enslavement was “damnation,” and that they did not find redemption in the afterlife. This was true for 250 years, the majority of American history.
Coates’ reflection on slavery and the life of Samori Touré shows the extent to which the history of persecution is bound up in every moment of black people’s lives, including the joyous occasion of birth. Coates describes the feeling of wanting to give his son every opportunity alongside his hope that Samori has a deep and realistic understanding of history. This juxtaposition emphasizes that, to Coates, giving Samori access to the truth is more important than any material gift.
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Coates encourages Samori to view American history realistically and to resist seeing enslaved people as “chapters in your redemptive history.” Nothing that Samori achieves—no matter how great—can make up for the reality of slavery. At the same time, Coates urges Samori not to feel responsible for creating a better world, because as a black boy, he is already disproportionately responsible for keeping his body safe. Coates tells Samori, “I love you, and I love the world,” and promises his son that one day he will “have to make your peace with the chaos” of the world.
Coates is already aware of the pressure that Samori will be under as a young black person, and thus his dreams for Samori’s future are inherently tainted by fears and concerns about what the world will demand of his son. At the same time, the fact that Coates encourages Samori to love the world is one of the most optimistic moments in the book. Samori’s birth is associated with hope and the desire to survive and flourish.
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