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.
African-American Family and Heritage ThemeTracker
African-American Family and Heritage 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.