Not long before Samori’s birth, Coates was pulled over by the Prince George’s County police. Coates is terrified, recalling the fact that the PG County police killed Elmer Clay Newman, shot Gary Hopkins, and brutally beat Freddie McCollum. The PG County police fire their guns more often than any other police department in the country; this leads to an FBI investigation, which results in the police chief receiving a raise. The month after Samori is born, Coates learns that the PG County police have killed Prince Jones. The story contains few details other than the fact that Prince had been driving to see his fiancée, and that there were no witnesses other than the officer who killed him, who claimed that Prince had tried to run him over with his car.
Coates begins the story of Prince Jones’ death with his own encounter with the PG County police, thereby emphasizing how easily it could have been Coates himself who was killed. Every aspect of the story confirms the fact that the American police and overall criminal justice system is decidedly unjust and set up to incriminate, incarcerate, and murder black people. The knowledge that Prince was a kind, generous, promising man in the beginning of his life makes no difference against the force of this structural injustice.
Coates and Kenyatta travel to Howard for Prince’s memorial, where people speak of Prince’s deep religiosity, and some ask for forgiveness for the officer who killed him. Coates feels alienated by this experience; he is not comforted by the “grieving rituals” of black Christians and feels that Prince was killed “by his country” rather than by an individual police officer. He feels that “police reform” efforts are a waste of time, because the very concept of the police is designed to brutally sacrifice the feared minority according to the (unjustified) fears of the majority. Coates meditates on the fact that the police have destroyed Prince’s body, and concludes that nobody should be forgiven for this.
Most of the time, Coates draws strength from the black communities around him, and uses this strength as antidote against the powerful forces of racist oppression. In this instance, however, he cannot be comforted by the community that has assembled to memorialize Prince at Howard. Coates feels that they are indulging in false myths about Prince, the officer who killed him, and the nature of death, and these myths make the fact that Prince has been killed even worse, not better.
Weeks pass, and it is revealed that the officer who killed Prince is known to be dishonest and incompetent, and that the man he was pursuing when he killed Prince looked nothing like him. Ultimately, the officer is not charged and returns to work. Coates imagines what would have happened if he had been in Prince’s place, envisioning being taken away from his family. He points out that Prince was the model of an upstanding, respectable person—a “good Christian” whose parents were professionals—but that this could not save him from his fate. He reflects on all the tiny details and experiences that comprised Prince’s life and the family members that are left behind in the wake of his death.
Coates contrasts the rich details of Prince’s life with the police officer’s blatant disregard for his existence. For Coates, it is important to demonstrate the value of each individual life outside of the context of a religious framework. Life isn’t sacred because it is designated as such by God, but rather because each person is a unique individual who is valuable in themselves, and valuable through all the people who love them.
The death of Prince Jones leads Coates to better understand why his own father, Paul, beat him as a child. He remarks that “black people love their children with a kind of obsession,” and live in a constant (and justified) state of fear that their children will be taken from them. Coates is filled with rage about Prince’s death, and expresses his feelings through writing, including writing about the history of the PG County police. He is told that the wealthy black people of PG County want to be kept safe from crime, and to some degree he understands this desire for safety, but points out that it was never available to him personally. He argues that “the lack of safety cannot help but constrain your sense of the galaxy,” suggesting that there are only very limited possibilities and futures available to you.
Here Coates identifies a major difference between the black people who live in PG County and those with whom Coates grew up in the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore. Again, Coates expresses a degree of sympathy for “the Dreamers,” because there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting safety, opportunities, and prosperity. However, Coates urges the reader not to forget that—in a country as unequal and racist as the US—the desire for these things can never be viewed as wholly innocent. Rather, it is inherently tied to violent acts such as the death of Prince Jones.
In 2001, Kenyatta gets a job in New York and the young family move there together. On September 11th, Coates watches the towers burn and feels “cold,” plagued by his own tragedies, including the death of Prince Jones. He feels “out of sync with the city,” reminded of the fact that the financial district of Manhattan was where slaves were once auctioned. Coates and his family are living in Brooklyn during this time, and struggling financially. Paul visits and gives his son a check for $120, and Coates expresses gratitude that even though he hasn’t always had money, “I always had people.”
Coates finds it difficult to connect to the tragedy of 9/11 in the way that all Americans are supposed to. He feels alienated not only from New York City but from the US as a whole, inescapably reminded of the racism built into the foundations of the country. This lack of national feeling, however, is contrasted with the close ties between Coates and his friends and family. These ties give him the support he needs when times are tough.
When Coates takes Samori into Manhattan, he feels “ill at ease,” aware of the fact that he will not ever truly be able to protect Samori from the world around them. He thinks of the people who have told him that black children need to be “twice as good,” framing this in a way that implies it is a “noble” pursuit. However, Coates concludes that there is nothing noble about it. Coates is astonished by the variety of people in New York, although in his neighborhood in Harlem he encounters the same street culture as the one he grew up with in Baltimore.
Here Coates contradicts the widely-held view that “diverse” environments are automatically better places for black people to live. Although he has many positive feelings about the wide range of people and cultures in New York, he cannot help but be reminded of the fact that Samori will have to struggle to be valued to the same extent as non-black children are valued.
Coates recalls one incident in which he takes Samori to the movies on the Upper West Side. On the escalator, Samori is “moving at the dawdling speed of a small child”; a white woman pushes him and says “Come on!”. Coates is alarmed by this woman putting her hands on Samori’s body and horrified by her sense of entitlement. For a brief moment, Coates forgets that he is not in Flatbush or West Baltimore or The Mecca and speaks sharply to the woman. A white man approaches and tells Coates, “I could have you arrested!”. Later, Coates interprets this statement as a claim on his body. If Coates had made a single mistake, one of Samori’s first memories would have been seeing his father arrested.
This incident demonstrates the extent to which black people’s bodies are always at risk. Indeed, this risk is amplified in the places that are generally considered the most “safe,” such as a movie theatre on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This pervasive sense of risk explains why Coates reacts so strongly when the white woman touches Samori. His instinct is to distrust anyone who handles his son as if they have a claim over Samori’s body, as this is part of a continuum that often ends in violence and death.
Coates argues that the saying “It only takes one person to make a change” is a myth. He claims that African Americans have rarely achieved liberty purely through their own efforts, but rather that this always happens in conjunction with broader historical forces. Equally, it is meaningless for white people to declare that they are personally not racist, because racism is not about individuals so much as it is driven by broader, structural forces. Furthermore, racism is often the result of phenomena that appear innocent, which explains why racism is inherently connected to the Dream. In order for the Dream to function correctly, the people who buy into it must believe they are morally innocent.
Here, Coates explains that myths about oppression are problematic because they create the false impression that the choices and perspectives of individual people are what shape reality. While Coates places a lot of value on the lives of individual people, he is careful not to overestimate the impact that any individual can have on the world. The force of racism is so much more powerful than any individual that whether or not a particular person is individually racist becomes almost irrelevant.
Coates recalls a trip he took with ten-year-old Samori and his cousin to historical sites from the Civil War. Although the boys are young, Coates feels a responsibility to present them with challenging experiences that will help them to better understand the world. Coates is particularly fascinated by the Civil War because it is the historical moment at which the status of African Americans in the US shifted from that of commodities to human beings. He writes that during the war years, “the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body” was thrown into question.
Coates’ parenting style runs counter to the instincts of parents who wish to keep their children in a state of “innocence” for as long as possible. Unlike these parents, Coates feels obligated to expose Samori to the truth of the world as it really is, and avoid indulging in any myths about the history of America. Coates maintains that rather than damaging him, this lack of delusion will help Samori.
The narrative that has emerged out of the Civil War, however, emphasizes the compassion of those who ended slavery rather than the horror of the fact that slavery existed in the first place. Coates takes this as evidence that “historians conjured the Dream.” He wants Samori to be aware of the fact that it is “heritage” in America to “destroy the black body,” and encourages him to truly understand the industrial, monstrous violence of slavery. He quotes Southern mistresses writing about the punishments inflicted on slaves. Coates argues that the nightmarish treatment of slaves was “aspiration,” part of the longing for prosperity and high social status. He writes, paraphrasing the African-American historian Thavolia Glymph, that “a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.”
Coates’ graphic descriptions of the horrors of slavery convey how desperately he wants Samori to understand the full, brutal extent of the truth of American history. Again, this runs counter to mainstream trends in parenting and education, which tend to sugar-coat horrible facts so they are more palatable to children. Instead, Coates employs the opposite tactic, taking social phenomena that are generally seen to be harmless and innocent and exposing the brutality at their heart.
Coates argues that without the right to “break” black bodies, white people might “tumble out of the Dream.” Only if this happens will it be possible to build a country that is truly equal and just. However, the Dreamers instead choose to indulge a delusional worldview that blames black people for their own oppression. Coates apologizes to Samori because he “cannot make it okay,” but adds that he is “not that sorry.” Although it is difficult to be black in a country built on the oppression of black people, Coates wonders if this state of vulnerability is part of what makes life meaningful. Such vulnerability also means it is impossible to ignore the reality of the world, something Coates considers a gift (albeit a painful one).
This is the closest Coates get to any form of redemption from the chaos and cruelty of the world. By suggesting that vulnerability helps people access the meaning of life, Coates is not suggesting that this justifies or even soothes any of the violence and oppression to which black people are subjected. Rather, he indicates that those who buy into the Dream end up distancing themselves from life’s meaning by denying reality and choosing to live in a state of delusion.
Coates recalls a day in which he was following officers of the county sheriff in Chicago as part of his research for an article on the history of segregation. He witnesses a black couple and their two children lose their home. The wife is shocked and the husband is ashamed, and Coates reflects on the man’s seeming powerlessness. During this period of reporting, Coates visits black people in their 90s who tell him stories of their struggles in the past. He is struck by the notion that he is only “encountering the survivors.” He concludes that policy and rhetoric can be every bit as violent as deliberate physical acts, and that they are all part of the same system of racist bodily destruction.
Coates continues his quest for truth, this time turning to the evidence of lived experience for answers. Indeed, Coates spends much of the book conveying knowledge and sentiments that can only be known through lived experience. Traditionally, this form of experiential knowledge has been dismissed as less rigorous than knowledge gained through scientific methods such as data. However, Coates suggests that there are some things that can only be known through the body.
Coates tells Samori that he wanted his son to “grow into consciousness,” and recalls when he first took Samori to work with him when he was 13. They visit the mother of a child who’d had an argument with a white man and ended up killed. The white man turned himself in the next day, claiming that he acted in self-dense; he was not convicted of murder, but of shooting at the boy’s friends afterward. The dead boy’s mother expresses confusion over whether she failed her son by not preparing him for the world sufficiently. Coates tells her that the verdict made him angry, and she replies that she is calm, as God has pointed her “away from revenge and toward redemption.”
Again, Coates is unafraid to expose Samori to the traumatic reality of black life in America, seeing this as an important part of his son’s development. However, their experiences do not always confirm Coates’ own view of the world. The mother of the dead boy chooses to process her son’s loss in a manner that coheres with the African-American Christian tradition, finding redemption and forgiveness through her faith. As Coates mentions earlier in the book, such a reaction feels alien to him personally.
The boy’s mother tells Samori: “You exist. You matter. You have value,” and Coates is glad she says it. He expresses a kind of envy at the woman’s faith; without faith himself, Coates is left afraid. He claims that “disembodiment is a kind of terrorism” that drastically impacts the way black people live their lives. Black people sense that there is someone benefiting from this terrorism, and Coates concludes that this suspicion is correct.
Here Coates reveals a sense of loss over the fact that, unlike so many others around him, he cannot turn to religion for comfort or guidance. Indeed, one useful thing about religion is its ability to give a sense of direction. As the passage about disembodiment indicates, racist violence robs black people of this direction.
Coates is writing at 40 years old, and he admits that, overall, his childhood self would be pleased to see what has become of his life. His struggle to understand the world has repeatedly “ruptured and remade” him, and this kind of rebirth is only possible when one rejects the Dream. Coates admits that Kenyatta let go of the Dream earlier than he did, perhaps because she was more familiar with it (having grown up in a majority white neighborhood). By rejecting the dream, Kenyatta was able to expand her sense of what was possible, and when she was 30 she went on a trip to Paris, something that puzzled Coates at the time.
For Coates, part of the problem with false myths is that they constrict the world by misrepresenting it. The Dream, for example, encourages people to aspire to have the exact same version of a “successful” life—a suburban house, a nuclear family, and lots of money. This is troubling not only because such things are out of reach for most people, but also because it prevents people from aiming for a wider variety of goals.
When Kenyatta returns, she is in a state of excitement about “all the possibilities out there,” and for the first time, France feels like a real place to Coates. At this stage in life, Coates’ own world is expanding, and he is meeting more people “with ties to different worlds.” This in turn makes him more aware of his membership in his own world, the world of black people. Such awareness increases his certainty that race is a social construction that divides people arbitrarily. At the same time, it was necessary for Coates to confirm his sense of belonging in a world before he was able to travel and make connections to other worlds.
Here Coates touches on an aspect of the African-American experience that is less widely discussed than some of the other subjects on which the book focuses. As native citizens of a country that is decidedly hostile to them, African Americans can end up feeling homeless, and this sense of homelessness makes Coates less inclined to explore the world at large. Once he has a more secure sense of his own community and identity, he feels ready to venture outward.
At age 37, Coates receives his first adult passport; before leaving the US, he admits to Kenyatta that he is afraid. He feels this same fear when he arrives in Geneva, able to speak only a little French. However, as he reads a list of departures at the train station, the fear transforms into a sense of terrified joy that Coates describes as “an erotic thrill” that makes him feel truly alive. Having arrived in Paris, Coates wanders around, fascinating by the daily lives of the people there. He feels confident and ecstatic, buoyed by the anonymity of not having a place in the French social “equation.” Although this is a form of disconnection and loneliness, Coates is sad he has not experienced it earlier in his life.
The thrill Coates experiences in Europe originates in the feeling of anonymity. In America, Coates is not only a part of the country’s history and “equation,” but he is perceived in a negative way by the racist mindset that governs the country. As a result, Coates is not only not anonymous but not safe, perpetually at risk due to the negative stereotypes imposed on black people and the violent structures of prisons and the police. His foreignness in France thus becomes a form of freedom.
That summer, Coates and Kenyatta take Samori to Paris, in the hope that they will give their son a life “apart from fear.” Coates regrets not being “softer” with his son by letting go of his own fears. To make up for this, he shows Samori all the people on the streets of Paris who go about their days seemingly free from fear. Coates concedes that “France built its own dream” through colonization, but that the legacy of this dream plays out differently in France than it does in America—particularly in the context of being an African-American visitor in the country. However, it is also true that French and American histories of racism are deeply interconnected, and the family is reminded of the US when they encounter a man in Paris protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Some reviewers of “Between the World of Me” have criticized what they perceive to be Coates’ glamorization of France, and particular his diminishing of the racism that exists in Paris (as well as the rest of the country). These critics point out that Paris is a deeply segregated city, and the site of structural as well as personal xenophobia and racism particularly directed at African migrants and Muslims. However, Coates does acknowledge this history, and the sense of freedom he feels in Paris is arguably more founded in his own personal trajectory than the city itself.
Coates reflects on the fact that he survived his youth, proving that “there was another way beyond the schools and the streets.” He remarks that Samori must find a different path, and notes that Samori enjoys “an abnormal amount of security” in his body. This unusual security might be why Samori is so upset when he finds out that Mike Brown’s killer will not go to prison. Although it may have taken this one incident to make Samori realize the true nature of the country he lives in, the reality is that the crimes of “the Dreamers” are expansive and relentless, stretching beyond Ferguson (where Mike Brown was killed), across the US, and across the world. Even as black lives are treated as disposable and “cheap,” the Dream is still funded by the commodification of black bodies in the prison system and beyond.
Despite Coates’ determination to show his son the true nature of the world, Samori has still grown up in a state of greater innocence than his father was able to. Coates feels that it’s inevitable that this cannot last, even though he does not regret the unusual level of safety Samori has been afforded. In discussing the commodification of black bodies, Coates points out that black people are still treated as things whose value lies within their ability to make white people rich. This is true in the prison system, which incarcerates black people at a highly disproportionate rate in order to benefit whites.