Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, illuminates the unending fear of living as a Black person in America. Instead of regurgitating old and modified policies that can supposedly remedy the devaluing of Black Americans, Coates uses pragmatism to reach his readers, refusing to pacify the truth of the historical cycle of Black oppression. Coates’ hardnose writing style is not unusual. In his 2008 Time’s article titled, “The Messiah Myth” he challenged the perception that President Barack Obama’s presidency was a symbol that African Americans could ascend to any social class in America.
Between the World and Me can be analyzed using a critical race theory lens to demonstrate that racism is sustained by white privilege, and embodies the characteristics of Sociologists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’, Conflict Theory. In addition, the way that Coates raises his son, Samori, serves as a blueprint on how Black Americans can achieve freedom in a country founded on racism.
Written in the form of a letter to his son, Samori, Coates establishes the face of white privilege by examining the audacity of a question posed by a White host while at an interview.
Coates is asked to justify his belief that White wealth is built off the exploitation of Blacks, a question which shows a glaring disconnect between America’s racist history and the ongoing privilege White’s possess. Furthermore, the question magnifies just how much work needs to be done for white privilege to be relinquished. The reporter’s inherent privilege has integrated so seamlessly into her being, she is unaware of how deeply racist her question is.
White privilege represents advantages that White people may not be aware they possess, as the host demonstrates. If the host is not willing to ask a White guest to justify America’s failure to provide reparations to descendants of slaves, then she is denying Black worth and embracing White Supremacy. It is this legacy of failing to acknowledge Black people that Coates rages against. As a result, he is keen to give readers historical glimpses of America’s racist history and its intent to preserve White supremacy through systems of oppression. Coates uses Abraham Lincoln’s famous line from his Gettysburg speech, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” to remind readers that the “people” Lincoln alluded to did not mean Blacks, as he tells Samori that people in 1863 “did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me.” Coates is steadfast in his belief that White supremacy is built on the “pillaging, of life, liberty, labor and land” and uses his book to remind readers that the narrative of the Civil War has never been one of conflict between slaveholders and those who aspired to live in a democratic society, but one of conflict between northern and southern states. Therefore, although slavery was abolished after the Civil War, the history is understated to preserve the “Dream of Living White.” The “Dreamer” is a metaphor for White Americans who live in denial of the injustices levied against Black Americans to maintain White supremacy.
Coates also illuminates White privilege by showing the righteousness of a woman who felt that it was appropriate to shove Samori when he was just five years old for moving slowly while at the theater. When Coates tries to defend Samori, a natural instinct of a father, a White male observer accosts him and yells, “I could have you arrested!” thus confirming that he and his body are mutually exclusive, for he can never fully protect it. Since Coates believes that there is “nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers,” for they are merely “enforcing the whims of our country,” he is suggesting that white privilege is the cornerstone of racism in America. His views directly reflect the thinking of Adrienne Harris whose article in the American Imago journal, The Perverse Pact: Racism and White Privilege, explores the role a lack of thoughtful reflection by White people plays in perpetuating racism. Harris believes that the ‘perverse pact’ is fostered by White people’s blind obsession with control. This obsession with control leads to “dissociation, amnesia, and disavowal” which degrades Black Americans because they are not seen as part of a shared humanity. Harris’ views can be directly linked to Coates’ interaction with the host who displayed unconscious white privilege. It is against this background that Harris believes that it is necessary for White people “to face the power of white privilege over conscious and unconscious thought and action” because it is unacceptable to “blank out” to the pervasive racial violence plaguing the country. Although Coates is less optimistic that White Americans will ever be willing to lose their identity found in power and control, it is clear that he and Harris believe that White privilege must be relinquished in order to end Black oppression. Harris believes that the journey to surrendering white privilege begins with White people’s willingness “to identify those aspects of character that do not simply tolerate the oppression of others but require and maintain it.” In the absence of confronting and doing the hard work of letting go of white privilege, the myths that Black bodies are to be feared, that they do not work hard, or that they make poor financial choices, will continue to foster a false sense of reality for Whites and maintain the “Dream of Living White.”
In addition to analyzing the power dynamics synonymous with Critical Race Theory, Between the World and Me can also be analyzed from a Conflict Theory perspective. Similar to Marxist criticism in literature that speaks to the way the working class is oppressed, Conflict Theory emphasizes that conflict will always prevail because of unequal distribution of resources between the bourgeoisie and proletariats. Coined by Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, Conflict theory is rooted in the belief that a capitalist country bestows power to the wealthy and offers illusionary hope to the poor. Marx and Engels believe that in such a state, a revolution is inevitable. Although a revolution never emerged in America, the perpetual oppression of Black Americans solidifies Marx and Engels theory. Perhaps one of the most compelling ways to examine the economic oppression of Blacks, is to examine Black progress since the abolition of slavery. The American dream that Coates describes of “perfect houses with nice lawns” and “tree houses and Cub Scouts” is a dream that can only be achieved through wealth, wealth Black Americans have been historically denied from acquiring. In 1962, two years before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act which sought to redress discrimination based on race, data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) estimated the racial gap in wealth to be seven times greater for White Americans than for Black families. More than half a century later, the disparity persists at the same rate (Jones). Although this may seem perplexing to many, it should not be surprising when one considers that slaveholder ideology and changing laws existed in tandem. Thus, once slavery was abolished, other forms of oppression emerged to preserve the “Dream of Living White,” including the economic oppression of Black Americans. These include racial profiling and complicity by law enforcement, predatory mortgage lending practices, gentrification, and tax deductions which favor the rich. Coates, aware of the systemic oppression of Blacks, is no longer lulled into the false hopes initially characterized by Marx and Engels’, Conflict Theory, as he tells Samori that the “Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies,” thus it is not an inclusive dream.
Coates contextualizes the illusive nature of the “Dream” by highlighting law enforcement complicity in destroying black bodies such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. Moreover, Coates illuminates white morality in justifying the destruction of black bodies as he states:
The story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined—with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words (“You are gonna die tonight”), with Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd, with me standing too close to the smalleyed boy pulling out.
Similarly, the recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African America who was killed while jogging in his neighborhood, Brunswick, Florida, reflects a narrative of Arbery’s own undoing. The media and law enforcement are suggesting that Arbery was a trespasser although he was merely stopping at a property under construction along his jogging route. Therefore, the cycle that Coates’ highlight of a lack of responsibility by the gatekeepers of white supremacy, continues to this day. Coates uses these heinous killings of African American men to show that their freedom rests at the mercy of white supremacists who at any point could destroy the black body. It does not matter whether the Black person is educated, rich or poor, or innocent or guilty of a crime, the black body is fragile because it does not fully belong to the person inhabiting it. Notwithstanding, Coates contextualizes the Black experience, drawing on several experiences of his youth. He recalls when he first feels not in control of his body when as an 11-year-old, he witnesses a White boy openly brandishing a gun shortly after school. Coates looks at “the boy with small eyes” standing across from him holding his “entire body in his small hands” and in the moment realizes that “death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon.” He shares with Samori that at his age, 14 years old, the streets owned his body through the myriad of questions he would encounter on a daily basis which could get him killed at any point by law enforcement or the brazenness of a boy with a gun. Consequently, Coates is keen to remind Samori that he does not “have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” In so doing, Coates suggests that the “dream” as pedaled by White America is not one Black America can participate in. Therefore, the “dream” must be redefined in order for Black Americans to find their place in society.
Although Coates matter-of-fact writing style in Between the World and Me may be disturbing to many because it does not follow the traditional Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey arc, it is nonetheless a story of triumph for Black Americans. Coates intentionally does not write to pander to the fancies of White Americans, and it is from there he suggests that Black power must emerge; a willingness to speak truth to lies. At the end of the interview with the White host, she flashes a “widely shared picture of a 12-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer” and ask Coates about “hope” for the future, a question which makes him well up with sadness. Although he was initially perplexed by the stirring of his emotions, he realizes that his sadness is the by product of White people’s need to disconnect from the truth of the lived experience of African Americans. He shares that it was as if the host “was asking [him] to awaken her from her most gorgeous dream,” to show how tempting it is to escape into the dream of oneness. However, given the pervasiveness of Black marginalization, as tempting as it is to want to “fold [his] country over [his] head like a blanket,” Coates believes that he would be part of the problem rather than the solution to deny that the “Dream of Living White” is interwoven with the destruction of African Americans. Therefore, Coates writing is a protest against Black oppression and suggests that it is necessary for African Americans to be a student of history and outspoken when modern day atrocities are consistent with America’s racist history.
In addition to speaking truth to lies, Coates suggests that community is essential in the Black person’s pursuit of freedom. He believes that racism is a social construct which led to the birth of race. This is represented in his hallow hope that one day the “people who believe themselves to be white renounce this demon religion and begin to think of themselves as human.” However, although Coates admonishes racism, he believes it has given African Americans a community and in it lies their greatest weapon in the fight against racism. He shares with Samori that while White Americans made [Black people] into a race. [They] made [Themselves] into a people.” He suggests that when a Black person dies at the hands of the gatekeepers of white supremacy, the community must rise with them and reminds Samori to “always remember that Trayvon Martin was a boy, that Tamir Rice was a particular boy, that Jordan Davis was a boy, like you.” In so doing, he is telling Samori and all Black Americans that they are no more privileged to survive the onslaught of police brutality and must establish communal solidarity within each other’s sufferings.
Recognizing the challenge of disassociation from the illusive “dream” given to African Americans, Coates leaves African Americans seeking freedom with compelling advice. He laments the necessity to contrast the brutality of the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and others, with the dream given by White Americans because it is from that place that African Americans will see that for as long as they do not have ownership of their bodies, the “dream” is a fallacy. Coates recalls his personal struggle with letting go of the dream and believes that “[his] great error was not that [he] had accepted someone else’s dream but that [he] had accepted the fact of dreams.” As a result, Coates suggests that Black liberation is inextricably linked to owning the struggle of living in the black body. He tells Samori that “[he] [is] called to struggle, not because it assures [him] victory but because it assures [him] an honorable and sane life.” Therefore, to be free is to claim the struggle, never deny one’s history, stand in solidarity with the black community in their suffering and be brave in the fight to end racism.
Coates Between the World and Me does some wonderful and important things. He writes Black men snatched by the jaws of racial profiling into his story in a way that is liberating. Ahmaud Arbery’s recent death at the hands of white men keen to carry on the Dream of Living is evidence that Coates literary protest is necessary and that the struggle is a part of the Black experience in America. In analyzing his work through a critical race theory lens, readers get to see how white privilege perpetuates racism and why relinquishing those privileges is necessary for equality to emerge. In framing his book as a letter to his son, Samori, Coates offers a blueprint to fathers and sons on how to survive in the black body, including understanding history, surviving the streets, and owning the fragility of the black body they inhibit. As African Americans continue to fight for their rights, Coates piercingly honest reflection of history is needed for progress to come forth.