Coates found himself a father at twenty-four years old. He named his son after Samori Touré, a man who fought against French colonial rule in West Africa. After dropping out of Howard, he moved to Prince George’s (PG) County in Maryland. PG County was (and still is) notoriously dangerous. The police officers were known to use excessive force, and despite many FBI investigations, the violent were rarely reprimanded and almost never brought to justice. One night, Coates was pulled over by a patrolman who asked for his ID; though the officer let him go, that didn’t always alleviate the fear Coates felt.
PG County policemen were unstoppable and could kill him at any moment. That September, Coates read an article in The Washington Post about yet another police shooting: a friend of his, Prince Jones, was shot dead by an officer who claimed that Jones had tried to run him off the road—but Jones had done no such thing.
Earlier that day, the police officer had been tasked with finding a five foot four, 250-pound African American drug dealer. Six foot three and 211 pounds, Jones didn’t fit the description in the slightest; yet the officer followed him all the way from PG County to Northern Virginia and shot Jones just yards from his girlfriend’s home. This devastated Coates. He began researching the history of police brutality in PG County. He grew angrier and angrier. Finally, he moved his family to New York City just two months before September 11, 2001.
In New York City, Coates slowly established himself as a writer. He worked as a freelancer, earning very little money, gradually building up a portfolio while his wife supported the family. One day, at a screening of Howl’s Moving Castle, a New Yorker became impatient and pushed Coates’s son, rushing to get by. Coates nearly got into a physical fight defending his son. This was dangerous, and a white man even threatened to call the cops on Coates. From this, Coates learned that New York City, despite all its diversity, was still a white man’s town. Harlem was being gentrified. White people lived the Dream, pushing black families out of their neighborhoods. Around that same time, Coates became obsessed with the Civil War. He took his son to see Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and other Civil War sites. He understood that the South, like America itself, was built on the backs of slaves who picked cotton and fueled the economy. He saw the lasting effects of this injustice in everything: in his childhood in Baltimore, on his son’s face when Eric Garner was killed, and in the anger and shame of a man being evicted from his home in Chicago. Coates shadowed the sheriff’s officers as they conducted the eviction. He saw the devastation himself and understood that the same force that killed Prince Jones was demarcating and policing the ghetto: it was the Dream and the Dreamers maintaining their illusion of perfection by keeping black people down.
Inspired by his wife’s photos of Paris, Coates and his family traveled to France, where he found that the Dream didn’t apply France didn’t have the same dark history as the United States (though it did, of course, engage in the slave trade). In Paris, Coates didn’t feel the pressure of being a black man in danger, a victim of the Dream.
In the final section of the letter, Coates recounts his visit to Dr. Mable Jones, Prince’s mother, a kind, reserved woman who rose up out of poverty and gave her children everything: fancy cars, family vacations to Europe, excellent educations. She told Coates that Prince went to private schools his entire life; he made friends wherever he went and could probably have gotten into an Ivy League school. He chose Howard against her wishes. Coates writes, ‘I thought of the loneliness that sent [Prince] to The Mecca, and how The Mecca, how we, could not save him, how we ultimately cannot save ourselves.’
The Dream is still strong, and it has empowered the Dreamers to plunder not just black bodies but the earth itself. Coates ends the letter with twin offerings, one of hope and one of fear: the hope that one day Dreamers will wake up and become aware of the destruction they have caused, and the old fear of the ghettos that reminds Coates of how vulnerable his black body is. He writes all of this to his son in the hope that it will help Samori grow into a man who understands the world around him.