Coates often thinks of the family members who were left behind after Prince Jones’ death. Prince’s fiancée was pregnant, and his daughter thus grew up never knowing her father. One day Coates pays a visit to Prince’s mother, Dr. Mabel Jones, who lives “just outside of Philadelphia in a small gated community of affluent homes.” Coates describes Dr. Jones as “lovely, polite, brown,” and says that she smiles “through pained eyes.” She takes Coates into the living room, offers him tea, and explains that she is from Louisiana, where her ancestors lived as slaves. She recalls the first time she noticed the great distance between herself and wealthy people as a young girl.
Coates contrasts the affluent comfort of Dr. Jones’ home with the palpable absence of her son, and her memories of first becoming aware of racial inequality as a child. Although Dr. Jones has achieved professional success, a degree of wealth, and high social status, she is never able to escape the loss and trauma inevitably associated with being black in America. Dr. Jones’ calm manner suggests that she has long since resigned herself to this fact.
Coates reflects that awareness of racism reaches black children in different ways, but that none can ever escape it entirely. He observes that Dr. Jones has a reserved manner and is the epitome of “a lady,” but that she also possesses a fierce determination that allowed her to escape her humble origins and achieve great things. She tells Coates that she made a pact with another girl that they would both become doctors in the second grade. She experienced intense racism at school and gave Bible recitations at church. Coates notes that his father, Paul, and Kenyatta also found their “first intellectual adventures” in reciting Bible passages, and wonders if he has missed something through his distance from the church.
In many ways, Dr. Jones is defined by the paradoxes encapsulated within her. While she experienced adversity as a young person, she went on to have an impressive career. Although her manner is graceful and polite, she is also tough and fierce. And though she laughs with Coates, her life has been shaped by the deepest form of tragedy. Rather than artificially resolving these paradoxes, Coates depicts them as they are, showing that each of them is integral to Dr. Jones’ identity.
Dr. Jones attended Louisiana State University on full scholarship, served in the Navy, and became a radiologist. Coates mentions that she refuses to “acknowledge any discomfort” or admit that her story is “remarkable.” Coates asks about Prince’s childhood, and Dr. Jones tells him whimsical stories about things Prince did. Prince attended private schools throughout his life, but even though they were “filled with Dreamers” Prince had no problems making friends. He excelled in school, and Dr. Jones admitted that she wanted him to go to Harvard—“and if not Harvard, Princeton. And if not Princeton, Yale.” However, Prince was drawn to the chance to experience relief from representing his race, and thus chose to attend Howard. At Howard, rather than being a “symbol” of black achievement, Prince could just be “normal.”
Despite the extraordinary achievements of both herself and her son, Dr. Jones is emphatically humble. Similarly, she refuses to concede that she experienced any particular difficulty as a young black woman training to be a radiologist. To some extent, it is possible to interpret this humility as a kind of myth; whereas Coates believes in the importance of accurately describing the reality of life as a black person, Dr. Jones downplays this reality. However, rather than a dangerous myth, this seems to be a source of strength for Dr. Jones herself.
Coates compares Dr. Jones’ disposition to that of Civil Rights protestors depicted in photographs—both display a kind of “armor” that appears like a lack of emotion. Coates is struck by the intensity of Dr. Jones’ control over herself. When Prince died, she didn’t cry, because “composure was too important.” However, she tells Coates that she experienced intense physical pain and that all she felt able to do was pray. She admits that she expected Prince’s killer to be charged, and compares Prince’s fate to that of Solomon Northup, the free black man who was abducted and sold into slavery, and who chronicled this experience in 12 Years a Slave. Dr. Jones points out that all the materials and signifiers of social status that Prince enjoyed throughout his life were not enough to protect him from a violent death.
Dr. Jones’ display of supreme self-control is tragically ironic given the fact that there was ultimately absolutely nothing she could do to protect her son from death. This is reflected in her comments about Prince’s social status; as much as possible, she ensured that Prince was surrounded by the very best opportunities and resources, but ultimately these proved meaningless in the face of the immense force of racist violence. Furthermore, the comparison to Solomon Northup shows how little the country has progressed even from the time during which slavery was legal.
Coates leaves Dr. Jones’ house and reflects on his visit. He wonders if it is possible to “awaken the Dreamers” and, in doing so, raise the possibility of ending racist injustice. At the same time, Coates feels it is important not to orient one’s life around “the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness,” if only because life is too short. He thinks about the joy he experienced during his recent trip to Homecoming at Howard and recalls a “joyous moment, beyond the Dream” in which he is overwhelmed by the black power all around him. He notes that black people have created remarkable things in the midst of unimaginable suffering.
For Coates, the joy to be found in life is inherently tied to life’s shortness and the inevitability of death. While this may seem like a dark worldview, it also forms a powerful principle through which Coates finds the sense of purpose and guidance that others discover through religion. For Coates, life is precious because it is short, and it is through black people’s own power and resourcefulness (rather than through God) that they are able to achieve beauty and meaning in the midst of chaos.
Coates reflects that in the past, the power of the Dreamers was curtailed by the “limits of horsepower and wind.” However, as technology and capitalism have advanced, it has become harder and harder for the Dreamers to be restrained, and now they “plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.” Coates suggests that the result of this plunder—climate change—threatens to destroy the Dreamers and everyone else. He drives away from Dr. Jones’ house thinking about this threat and the struggle that lies before Samori. He encourages Samori to struggle for himself, his family, and his ancestors, but not for the Dreamers. Coates drives through the ghettoes of Chicago, and feels the same fear of his childhood returning.
The book does not end on a note of optimism, but rather of determination. True to form, Coates refuses to find any false consolation or hope, instead introducing another, even more existentially threatening problem—climate change. Similarly, he demonstrates that the haunting legacy of the past can never truly disappear, mentioning his old fear coming back as he drives through the Chicago ghettoes. On the other hand, Coates does provide words of encouragement and support to Samori, and thereby also encourages the reader.