Given that Between the World and Me is addressed to Coates’ 15-year-old son, Samori, it is unsurprising that much of the book focuses on the theme of youth, education, and growth. Rather than represent only the positive aspects of this topic, however, Coates conveys that it is an intensely charged issue, both for himself and African Americans at large. Indeed, one of the book’s major arguments is that black people are not afforded the same experience of childhood and youth as white Americans. Whereas young white people are imagined as innocent and in need of encouragement, resources, and protection, very often black youth are demonized and neglected by the racist forces within American society. This was particularly true for Coates, whose own childhood took place in the shadow of the crack epidemic in Baltimore. He writes: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Coates also shows how the education he received up until college was designed less to inspire him and the other children, and more to “discipline” them. “I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see, so that we did not ask: Why––for us and only us––is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies?” As this quotation shows, schools are often part of the overall racist structure of American society that oppresses, imprisons, and terrorizes black people.
Similarly, Coates provides a critical examination of the way in which the concept of (white) youthful innocence is deeply embedded in the Dream, the cherished American ideology that powers the racist structure of American society. Coates’ description of the Dream explains that phenomena such as the Cub Scouts, strawberry shortcake, and the suburbs—all symbols of an idyllic American childhood—are not only systematically denied to black children, but used to justify racist phenomena such as segregation and policing in the name of keeping “innocent” (white) children safe.
On the other hand, Coates’ portrayal of youth and education is by no means entirely bleak. His memories of growing up in Baltimore show both the struggle and the joy to be found within the black youth culture of the time. And although he disdains the education he received as part of the Baltimore public school system, he contrasts this with the personal growth he gained through reading (particularly noting the influence of Malcolm X) and his extraordinary experience at Howard University. Coates states emphatically that “my only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University.” Coates is transformed not only by the formal education he receives at Howard, but arguably more so by the chance to be surrounded by a huge variety of other young black people in an environment in which they are safe to explore, grow, and be themselves.
Although Coates leaves Howard before graduating, he makes clear that education is a lifelong engagement, and that his learning continues far beyond the confines of the college classroom. “Godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.” Coates treats education as a sacred endeavor for two main reasons: firstly, it allows him to gain knowledge of African-American history and draw inspiration from black people who have lived and struggled against injustice in the past. Secondly, he believes that true knowledge of the world dispels the myths upon which racism and injustice are built. Understanding how these myths originated and how they operate paves the way for them to be undone.
Youth, Education, and Growth ThemeTracker
Youth, Education, and Growth 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.
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.
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.
The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.
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.
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.
I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of “race”––“race" itself is just a re-statement and retrenchment of the problem.
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.
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.