Coates’ exploration of black existence in America is inescapably haunted by legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and of the current reality of mass incarceration and police violence. Early in the book, he notes that he began writing in the wake of the racist killings of Eric Garner, Renisha McBridge, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and others. Later, he reveals a much more personal example in the form of his friend from Howard, Prince Jones, who was fatally shot by police at the age of 25. By citing both well-known and personal examples of lives lost to racist police violence, Coates emphasizes the scale of the problem and stresses the urgency of racial justice.
Somewhat unsurprisingly given this context, Between the World and Me is characterized by a deep distrust in the state and in mainstream methods for reforming the police, prisons, and other institutions that perpetrate violence against black people. Coates recalls that in high school, his teachers would focus on the nonviolent methods of protest used during the Civil Rights era as the correct model for activism. This strikes him as absurd: “How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?” Although he admits that he himself is a decidedly nonviolent person, the violence black people are forced to live with is so extreme that, he believes, expecting black activists to respond passively is nonsensical and unjust.
Coates also emphasizes the fact that, no matter how much professional success or class privilege black people gain, no black person in the US is ever safe from the constant threat of violence. This thought is echoed during his conversation with Dr. Mabel Jones, Prince Jones’ mother, who compares her experience to the story of Solomon Northup portrayed in the book (and film adaptation) 12 Years a Slave. Both Dr. Jones and Northup were highly educated, respected, reasonably powerful people who “played by the rules” and were the image of respectability. However, it only takes “one racist act”—one act of violence—for all this to be undone. Coates argues that the ever-present threat of violence against black people becomes suffocating, a kind of metaphorical imprisonment that black people must suffer through every minute of every day, in addition to the disproportionate captivity of black people within the prison system.
Captivity, Violence, and Death ThemeTracker
Captivity, Violence, and Death 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 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.
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.
Today, when 8 percent of the world's prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.
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.