Between the World and Me portrays Coates’s struggle through life in his black body. He presents this journey in the form of a deeply emotional memoir to his son. Coates begs the teenager to not excuse America for the atrocities it has committed against black bodies and to remain both vulnerable and sceptical of white America as he endeavours on his own journey in his black body. The deep-rooted fear that Coates feels not only for his own body and for his sons, but also for all the black bodies in America radiates from the text:
“Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream…”(Coates, 2015, p29).
We have all heard of the American Dream. It is a national ethos of the United States promoting the idea that hard work and perseverance will bring all Americans the freedom to be successful. Coates is directly debunking this dream as myth and replaces it with the White Dream: a fantasy that enables white Americans to believe that they are living in a post-racist world. Coates describes the Dream as “perfect houses with nice lawns” (Coates, 2015, p11) and as being a world that he wishes he could escape to. But the Dream does not have a place for the black body even though it was black bodies that made the Dream possible for white people. This constructed Dream removes any negative feelings of white guilt or responsibility; Consequently, it complacently allows the continuation of the destruction of the black body.
What triggered Coates to produce a narrative of protest when he did? At the time he was writing there were several violent assaults on African Americans at the hands of those who ironically, are employed to protect them (Williams, 2016, 151). Coates exposes the American police force by listing examples of police brutality on the black body. He begins with Eric Garner, then Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and finishes with Marlene Pinnock. Coates then warns his son that “the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body… The destroyers will rarely be held accountable” (Coates, 2015, p9). His defiant criticism of the Dream which ignores police brutality and protects white supremacy is unapologetic. Simultaneously, Coates exhibits a detailed history of the atrocities of the slave trade leading Abramoqitsch (2017, p464) to note that “Between the World is a kind of mixtape of violence”. I interpret this placement to force a comparison between slave owners, traders, and catchers with 21st – century American police officers. Both were given the power to harm or destroy the black body as they please. Coates is reminding his audience that the horrors of the past are very much still lingering in the present. Violence against the black body is an established part of American society (Williams, 2016, p151).
Between the World and Me does not provide the resolute ending that the reader naively hopes for. Coates does not answer the critical questions on black lives which he asks throughout the book and he does not offer a solution to the systemic racism that engulfs America (Williams, 2016, p181). In the closing lines of the memoir, Coates’s tone is despairing as he speaks directly to his son: ‘I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves’ (Coates, 2015, p151). This tone mirrors Coates’s expression of feeling disheartened and hopeless at the beginning of the book when describing his conversation with a white television host. The host’s response to his attempt to explain the history of American institutionalised racism causes him to feel “an old and indistinct sadness” (Coates, 2015, p6). He realises that all of his attempts to make white America empathise with the black body are at a loss. Ultimately, although Between the World and Me is primarily directed to his son, Abramoqitsch (2017, p456) agrees that the secondary audience is white Americans living in the Dream. As Williams (2016, p182) notes “Black people know the horrors being narrated. Therefore, as a public text the default reader beyond young Samori is white people”. Coates is making a final appeal to white America to remove themselves from the Dream and to look directly at the reality of the abuse of the black body. The only hope of a positive change is in the hands of those who caused the destruction in the first place.
Coates looks back to the Civil Rights Movement with disappointment at the lack of progress that has been made since then. Looking forwards from the publishing of Between the World and Me, I struggle to not imagine the pain and helplessness that Coates must be feeling as violent attacks on the black body resume. The murder of George Floyd by the white police officer, Derek Chauvin, triggered a series of national protests around America. Floyd was killed for using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. This unjust killing is now grouped with others such as Eric Garner who Coates informs was “choked to death for selling cigarettes” (Coates, 2015, p9). The formation of the Black Lives Matter movement which has an international reception appears to be a step in the right direction to remove systemic anti-black racism from America. However, as Pierce (2020, p261) notes “Somewhat predictably… it [the movement] provoked a reactionary response, insisting on the alternative slogan “all lives matter”’. This indicates that the white Dream is still prevalent with ‘All lives matter’ supporters fundamentally denying the existence of oppression of the black body.
Coates, T. (2015) Between the World and Me, London: The Text Publishing Company.
Abramowitsch, S. (2017) ‘Addressing blackness, dreaming whiteness: negotiating 21st-century race and readership in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me’, CLA Journal, 60(4), pp. 464-456 [Online]. Available at: https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=109b5bd9-e883-4114-9694-6e58c809bd99%40sdc-v-sessmgr02 (Accessed: 20th September 2020).
Pierce, Andrew J. (2020) ‘Whose Lives Matter? The Black Lives Matter Movement and the Contested Legacy of Philosophical Humanism ‘, Journal of Social Philosophy, 51(2), pp. 261 [Online]. Available at: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/doi/full/10.1111/josp.12305 (Accessed: 20th October 2020).
Williams, D. A. (2016) ‘Everybody’s protest narrative: ‘Between the World and Me’ and the limits of genre’, African American Review, 49(3), pp. 151-182 [Online]. Available at: https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=5ee2e7e9-e549-42f0-8dba-b06530b2d833%40sessionmgr103 (Accessed: 20th October 2020).