| SUMMARY |
As society has experienced the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner through media coverage, it has begun a dialogue regarding the treatment of young men of color and the attitude of law enforcement and lawmakers in regards to the safety and security of the urban black population. Between the World and Me is a letter Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his teenage son, one that describes the tragedy and truth of the black experience and focuses on what it means to be a child and parent in the black community and how lives are impacted by the inherent racism and societally engrained perspective held by those in power.
Coates begins his narrative addressing the lack of prosecution of the killer of Michael Brown, a young man who was killed by a police officer. After hearing that the killer of Brown would go free, Coates’ son Samori leaves the room and is later heard crying. At fifteen his father sees that he is torn, frightened, angry, and frustrated by the realities of life as a black male in America and speaks to him directly, trying to explain and articulate his own experiences and beliefs on the topic.
He also restates and re-defines many of the existing ideas about race, including that race is the child of racism, not the origin, and that much of what is accepted about identity can be questioned and reevaluated. He points out that “white” is as much a construct as “black” and that before white people were white, they also had other identities that referred to religion, or culture, or country of origin. Confronting the idea of “law enforcement” he states that those in uniform have unofficial and unspoken license to kill people of color without consequence, and validates his son’s feelings of fear and agitation on this issue. However, he goes on to say that this is not the fault or the motive of the individual, but rather the result of the natural progression of history, politics, fear, and the relationship between the individual and the perception of his body. The question of how to be free in a black body is one that Coates tries to answer through his own story, imparting the value of his experiences to his son.
Beginning with his own inner-city childhood in Philadelphia, Coates is able to contextualize the black experience within the social, cultural, and legal realities. His childhood was full of fear, violence, and an extreme sensation of perpetual vulnerability. He discusses the beating of children by their own parents within the black community and why this occurs. He explains that the realities of a future for any African American is going to involve violence and confrontation, and that the only hope a parent might have of protecting their child is to familiarize them with the pain, desensitize them to it, while also increasing the possibility of behavior that will keep the child out of trouble, away from law enforcement, and compliance with authority. The perpetual fear that he perceived in himself and those around him, demonstrated through bravado and language, actions and retaliation, is widely discussed.
As a young man, before college, Coates embraces the notion that education will equal freedom from oppression and fear for him and those like him, and begins a journey of research and investment in higher education and critical thought. He begins by visiting a library and taking out three books at a time, notating and interacting with the text to create a higher level of understanding of the history of African Americans. To his distress he finds a complete lack of a cohesive narrative and many contradicting ideas, philosophies, and points of contention. He then goes onto college, attending Howard University, which he renames “The Mecca” where he finds kindness, community, and acceptance that he had not known previously. He meets a “girl with long dreads” to whom he is very attracted, but more than that she is good to him and selfless in a way that he’s never known. This girl loves Prince Jones, a young man that becomes a consistent tragic focus for Coates as he becomes a father and continues his question of freedom for black men.