Between the World and Me
The Influence of Malcolm X on Ta-Nehisi Coates
The entirety of Coates’ letter writing and consciousness in Between the World and Me shows the influence of the provocative writings and speeches of Malcolm X. After all, Malcolm X became Coates’ favorite writer. The image of a young Malcolm dressed in a sharp business suit, tie hanging askew with one hand parting a window shade and the other holding a rifle, communicated everything that the writer aspired to be: “controlled, intelligent, and beyond the fear.” The desire to overcome his sense of ever-present fear led the author to search for role models who appeared to have overcome theirs. The essential question of Coates’ memoir is “How do I live free in this black body?” He asks himself and other black people how they can live freely, without a constant presence of fear in America. On a deeper level, he also asks how he can transcend the fear and racism that he has experienced through his life and find a way to live peaceably in a world that does not appear to want him. According to Coates, fear was the motivating factor in his youth. He feared the violence of the streets every day–the street gangs who threatened him and his property, physical punishment at home by his parents–an immense amount of time just trying to avoid being targeted and hurt. As a result, he grew up with the expectation that violence would be an inevitable part of life, fearing for his own safety because of the color of his skin. Living in this constant sense of dread developed a heightened sense of awareness that followed him into adulthood, a similar sentiment that echoes Malcolm X: “If you’re born in America with a black skin, you’re born in prison and the masses of black people in America today are beginning to regard our plight or predicament in this society as one of a prison inmate.”
Coates first utilized poetry as a means of expressing his feelings and thoughts as a student at Howard University. He would absorb new ideas through literature and his experiences at the Mecca, then visit coffee houses throughout Washington D.C. for poetry readings. We can still see evidence of poetic influence in Coates’ writing through the use of words phrases and such as “the Mecca,” “the Dream,” and “those who believe themselves to be white.” Further, these words and phrases used throughout Between The World and Me echo those of Malcolm X. The book begins poetic lines by Sonia Sanchez preceding the chapters of the book is titled “Malcolm”: “Do not speak to me of martyrdom, of men who die to be remembered on some parish day. I don’t believe in dying though, I too shall die. And violets like castanets will echo me.” Sanchez wrote this eulogy for Malcolm X, following his assassination. Sanchez’ eulogy reveals how Malcolm X did not die for remembrance, he lived for a cause and change. The idea that Malcolm X was doomed, but armed, remaining self-possessed until the very end resonates in Coates’ writing.
Coates also explores racial reclamation in his work, pleading to return to one’s true self and home–a return he describes as Mecca. Coates even refers to Howard University, in particular, as Mecca, where several members of his family attended the school. He was admitted to the historically black college (although he later dropped out), where he was introduced to various different black experiences. Likewise, near the end of his memoir, Coates describes the sense of unity among those who gathered to celebrate Homecoming at Howard, as they left the university to pursue different lives and careers, yet were unified by the Mecca of Howard. Coates describes the “the birthmark of damnation” fading as he realized and felt the sense of oneness in their shared experiences at Howard. In his later trip to Paris, Coates was exposed to an entirely new world of new people, finding relief in the ability to walk around without that constant sense of fear. He came to the realization that the world is larger than he imagined, and perhaps peace and unity can exist between people of multiple cultures, including blacks and whites. Although this view was changed when he reminded himself he was a Black American, Coates’ initial experience is similar to Malcolm X’s journey to Mecca in 1964. When Malcolm X reached the Hajj, he observed and and experienced the true nature of Islam, which changed his views on racism and racial struggle that were so instilled in his psyche dramatically. Malcolm X regarded people of all color coexisting under Islam, and then abandoned his hard-lined anti-white views, developing one of universal empathy and means to end international struggle.
Influenced by Malcolm X, Coates encourages blacks to be “as free as Malcolm’s voice.” Malcolm, for his part, was free in the end because he did not succumb to the allure of false dreams. He faced the reality of race relations and the possibility of racial cooperation just as clearly as Coates faces the situation of American race relations today.
Poverty, Ethnicity, and Policy in Contemporary America: Ta Nehisi Coates and J.D. Vance Comparison and Analysis
The two authors Ta-Nehesi Coates and J.D. Vance have very similar viewpoints within their own racial perspectives. Coates speaks for the poor black Americans and essentially the overwhelming sentiments of most African Americans. Vance on the other hand speaks for the Trump supporters, particularly the constantly ignored working class whites of America. Although the two speakers are on two radically different spectrums, their viewpoints and goals for helping their communities are quite similar and could possibly be simultaneously addressed in public policy.
Ta-Nehesi Coates’ view in his book-length account Between the World and Me is clear: low-income African Americans are suffering from their current conditions because of systemic racism. Coates goes into great depth about the institutions that hold black people back, such as “the police departments [that] have been endowed with the authority to destroy [their] body,” (9). As a result of the constant violence towards black bodies, Africans Americans, particularly those in harsher environments, are in a constant state of fear. They are then taught by older generations to defend themselves, but the thin line between “being too violent” and “not being violent enough” could still cost them the same: their body (28). Low-income blacks are not the only ones who struggle from systemic racism. Even financially well-off African Americans continue to suffer from the micro-aggressions of ignorant white Americans and must continue to work harder than their white peers regardless of their economic status (90). Later in the novel Coates describes a frightening experience with his son, the novel for whom the book was written for. Even though he was no longer in the ‘battleground’ known as West Baltimore he was still a witness to a threat to “invoke [the] right over the body of [his] son,” (94). Overall, Coates is not only a speaker for poor blacks struggling from harsh economic troubles but also the entire black community as they all face the same issues stemming from cultural and systemic racism.
J.D. Vance presents similar but varying arguments compared to Coates in his interview article, ‘Trump: Tribune of Poor White People.’ With the rise of “factories shipping jobs overseas,” many jobs that working class Americans had previously filled were no longer available in the American job market. It was this basis that Trump capitalized on to recruit white working class votes as “his apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.” Similarly, to some of the issues faced in the black community, most children in the poor white community “will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a ‘stepdad’ only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally…watch family and friends get arrested, and on and on.” What separates these experiences from the extreme similarities faced by African Americans is the way whites cope with their struggles. When white Americans lack so much economic resources, the main and only thing they’ve been able to cling on to is their “heritage and culture.” As Vance notes that Trump’s supporters great southern American pride, he explains that “A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well.” Furthermore, he claims that “southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate,” that they are extremely proud of their service, and are continually humiliated by the failures of American foreign policy.
While their sentiments appear similar in theory, these groups face very different realities. The white working class’ perspective accurately falls in line with Bonilla-Silva’s frames of color-blind racism while the experiences of poor and general African Americans challenges their accuracy. Poor white Americans utilize cultural racism to explain the misfortunes of America’s disproportionate distribution of wealth. Their xenophobic feelings towards immigrants ‘stealing American jobs’ can easily be derailed by capitalism’s big businesses choosing cheap and abundant labor over the wellbeing of the American economy and its citizens. The experiences of African Americans on the other hand, challenges the notions of naturalization and cultural racism. The cycle of poverty has statistically been proven to be almost impossible to escape, therefore blacks living in poor ‘ghettos’ are essentially stuck. Furthermore, white flight occurred long before many of the issues of modern day Baltimore came to surface, so there is a reason why African Americans are segregated from other races, and not just because they ‘like living together,’ (Badger). Coates’ point of being violent in order to protect the black body and survive in a society built against them also disproves the cultural racism frame.
Since poor African Americans and poor white Americans have different experiences, it is difficult to pinpoint a policy that can help both disadvantaged groups without ignoring the values and beliefs of one group. Redistributive and material policies that can reallocate resources from the wealthy to the poor and create better living circumstances in low-income areas may seem to be the best solution for both groups. However, the conservative leaning white working class may oppose to these government handout-like policies. In the ‘Peter’s Choice,’ reading, the white minimum wage workers at Walmart sympathized with the company’s struggle against labor unions because “they realize that businesses [are about] making money,” despite the fact that they are the ones getting mistreated by their big company employer. In other words, getting poor whites to see the benefits of these policies to improve their own state would be a difficult task, and until they can realize their importance, finding a public policy solution that can make both groups happy about their conditions might just be impossible.
Badger, Emily. “‘White flight’ began a lot earlier than we think.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Mar. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/17/white-flight-began-a-lot-earlier-than-we-think/?utm_term=.c2c6cbadc7a1. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi, and Klaus Amann. Between the world and me. Ditzingen, Reclam, Philipp, 2017.
Hargreaves, Steve. “New reports shows 70% of those born poor stay poor.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 13 Nov. 2013, economy.money.cnn.com/2013/11/13/making-it-into-the-middle-class. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.
Perlstein, Rick. “I asked my student why he voted for Trump. The answer was thoughtful, smart, and terrifying.” Mother Jones, 23 June 2017, www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/donald-trump-2016-election-oklahoma-working-class/#testa. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
Rod Dreher • July 22, 2016, 10:58 AM. “Trump: Tribune Of Poor White People.” The American Conservative, 22 July 2016, www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/trump-us-politics-poor-whites. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
The Black Body and Cautious Optimism: Analyzing Between the World and Me
Racism and the strife towards a non-oppressive society has been a task attempted by many, ranging from extreme activists, to educators, to the proactive civilian. Such prejudice serves as a confine to those impacted, filtering out opportunities of this alleged “free nation” for minorities. While many individuals go to great lengths to avoid this sensitive subject, it is crucial that the dialogue and discussion persist so solutions and ways to resolve this systematic oppression are discovered and explored. In Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the topic of racism for African Americans is explored. The book goes into details of how America intentionally “destroys the Black body,” and refuses to acknowledge their oppressive habits that puts institutions in the hands of the White folks. How can a father truly protect his own son from a nation so violent and so hateful? Only through education and encouraging a a mindset of empathy and compassion is how Coates found fitting to prevent a highly plausible reality of his son succumbing to the words of the oppressors.
The first theme that Coates explore is the nation’s intentional ways to oppress the black body, recounting his own experiences of his younger years, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body––it is heritage.” Coates does this in attempt to relay to his son the dangers of being black in American, having evidence of how exactly the world is out to get the African American demographic. Destroying the black body is America’s way to firmly establish a power move with white people on top. “…so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must begin with his or her error, real or imagined…”By just having a darker complexion, by just merely existing, can African Americans fear for their lives for having done nothing wrong but just exist as an individual with melanin in their blood. “The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.” This painful truth makes it an arduous task for African Americans to stand against this brutality, yet it is absolutely necessary as seen through Coates deciding to even write this. If he felt it were useless to try to suede his son towards a more knowledgeable future, he would not dedicate the time to write this book to him. In the text, Coates reflects on his own desire to leave the burdens and achieve what he then considered the “American Dream.” “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.” The concept of the American dream is flawed since it depends on the subjugation and oppression of African Americans, the only way that this “American Dream” can flourish is through the beat down of African Americans. This is not a dream, but a flaw. Why does America constantly reiterate this idea of the “self made man” when it does not take into account the endless obstacles that perpetuates African Americans lack of ability to efficiently climb up the social ladder unlike the white predecessors. Literature can be an outlet for one’s desire, dreams, ambitions, etc. However, in regards to this situation, Coates utilizes this medium to speak an important message of overcoming racial barriers for his son. This book, Coates’ usage of personal anecdotes, grand metaphors, and a cautionary yet empowering diction that allows his message to shine through. “But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Coates’ attempt to enlighten his son of the dangers and woes that comes with being Black in American reflects a tragic, deeper truth of the African American demographic. There is an unerasable burden that is thrust upon them, finding that balance of advocating for racial justice. However, remaining aware that through the institutional sectors that aid in oppressing African Americans, their words of justice and seeking what is right can easily be silenced. There is something chilling, reading the cautionary words said to his own son, “They had worked two and three jobs, put children through high school and college, and become pillars of their community. I admired them, but I knew the whole time that I was merely encountering the survivors…” This structure parallels the racial hierarchy that has been established and continuously reiterated throughout history. The passion and pain that is read throughout Between the World and Me elevates Coates’ impact, giving the opportunity to let his words marinate in the minds of the reader. While Coates’ encourages his son to acknowledge these components that play into being African American, he does not, however, encourage resentment and hostility. Rather he pushes his son towards conducting himself in a manner that is not so easily accomplished, compassion and understanding towards the oppressors. “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?” One cannot truly understand the weight that must be carried unless had experienced themselves.Yet, it is easy to call out the different incidents and experiences that contribute to the mess that is America. However, to not seek answers in the conglomerate of injustices and aggressions is not the path that one should take according to the text of Coates, “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country. It breaks too much of what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us. The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness.” To reach full fledged liberation from the racial oppression, Coates’ stresses for a transformed dialogue, not filled with hate and desire to supersede the white folk of America. While Coates’ writings may just be one of many African American literature, his choice to write a piece that requires an amazing amount of vulnerability comes to show the dedication to acknowledging and overcoming racial barriers that many African Americans must commit to. “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” As readers, we are able to catch a glimpse of Coates’ perspectives his fears, hopes, and desires for his son. The entire concept of whiteness comes hand in hand with being extremely privileged, benefitting from the exploitation of African Americans. The exploitation of African Americans is derived from the disadvantageous institutions to African Americans, the amount of foreign industries that set their ways to utilize Africa’s dependency in the fiscal hemisphere, and the historical defacing of the demographic’s humanity. With Ta-Nehisi and his words, one can only hope there is movement upwards towards an equal society. The nation should not be complacent in mediocrity but rather should strive for a society where no exploitation takes place, no institutional benefit towards a dominant group but rather all demographics benefitting from services that are meant to assist all individuals. Through Between the World and Me, there lies the possibility of a future not riddled with fear and anxiety but rather purity and the strife towards a more compassionate future.
African American History in the Present: Cultural Liberation in Coates’s Writing
There is no doubt that America is a racially divided nation, evidenced by the roots of slavery, the de jure segregation of the Civil Rights era, and even the de facto segregation of the modern school system and neighborhoods. The journey of the black man in America has been long and arduous and still continues today, despite the common belief that racial oppression is dead. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a modern black activist, attempts to uncover this white veil of ignorance in his 2015 account Between the World and Me. Through his analysis of the black struggle, Coates asserts that the history of race and blackness in America suppresses the African American people while simultaneously providing a means of cultural liberation and black identity.
In order to understand the profound effect that the past has on the present, one must first understand the history of the African American struggle. Throughout history, the black body has been consistently enslaved by white power; Coates contends that “sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining)” (Coates, p. 42). Whether the power is enforced directly though slavery and public beatings or insidiously through prejudiced literacy tests, the white man remains the clear victor. One cannot study American history without witnessing heinous crimes against the black race. In his youth, Coates attempts to find a history in which African Americans can pride themselves as the victors, attempting to find glory in his own black Tolstoy. He claims, “they [white people] had their champions, and somewhere we must find ours” (p. 45). Coates becomes frustrated in his search as the narratives of black history are much more mangled than he had imagined. Instead of a clear story of black liberation and power Coates discovers that even the well-educated, respected black activists do no agree on history. He states, “I had come looking for a parade, a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead, I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other” (Coates, p. 48). To young Coates, black Americans have no clear historical identity to pride themselves in. The only history is that of oppression, lynching, and enslavement.
This bleak history continues to shape modern black life in America. Through the lens of suppression African Americans have been taught to live in fear, not only of whites but of each other and their destinies as well. Living in the ghettos of Baltimore, Coates feels destined towards a life of failure, “everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns” (Coates, p. 16). The cards are stacked against the inner-city youth and this destiny feels impossible to escape. This fear permeates the culture and translates into violence; young people use violence as a way to make a name for themselves, threatening innocent people as a way to establish power and dominance. Parents, on the other hand, use this fear and violence as a way to protect their children from the world. Coates’ father states, “‘either I can beat him, or the police’” (Coates, p. 16). This fear of reality causes one to feel as if they are not in control of their past, present, or future. Instead of being able to ponder intellectual thought or self-reflect, one must instead spend their time strategizing how to survive on the violent streets. Black Americans, such as Coates, have been robbed of the privileges of youth.
This theme of fear and violence, derived from history, is evident in the school system as well. Coates describes the school system in Baltimore as being concerned primarily with discipline and compliance, valuing this over education and success. The black community does not view schooling as a place of education but merely as a tool to hopefully escape their seemingly pre-prescribed destiny of a life of imprisonment. Coates demonstrates this when he describes the attitude of African Americans towards the school system, “When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing” (Coates, p. 26). Failure in school becomes the equivalent of choosing a lifetime of drug use, prison, and, essentially, mortality. Coates, however, later discovers how even education and apparent assimilation into white society cannot save the black man. His classmate from Howard, Prince Jones, had seemingly overcome his pre-prescribed destiny through his pursuit of education, but is senselessly murdered by a police officer because of his race anyway. This is proof of the history of oppression living on today, “Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth” (Coates, p. 78). The officer alone is not the bigot but it is the nation founded on fear and enslavement.
The black history of oppression cannot survive without a history of white supremacy. Coates consistently analyzes ‘the Dream’ in which white people pride themselves on. The Dream consists of white picket fences, neatly trimmed lawns, and afternoon barbeques. This dream is what people who think they are white strive for, a symbol of white life in America. The Dream, however, is based off of an invented past and is ultimately intangible. It is built off of ignoring white privilege and black suppression. There is no place for African Americans in this dream; it cannot be accomplished and frankly does not exist in their universe. Coates criticizes the Dream itself but instructs the black community to avoid struggling for the Dreamers. He states, “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field of their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all” (Coates, p. 151).
The burden of responsibility to demolish the Dream is on the people who believe themselves to be white, the Dreamers themselves, not on the black community. This point of view that the responsibility lies in the oppressors and not the oppressed is similar to the point of view of James Baldwin, who claims, “we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (Baldwin, p.10). White Americans must first realize the fault in their Dream by recognizing that it is built upon a false narrative before African Americans can make progress.
While the apparent history of social, political, and economic oppression of African Americans has suppressed the African American people in modern society, it has also provided a means for African Americans to develop a rich culture and shared black identity. This is evident in Coates’s experiences at Howard University, where black students of diverse backgrounds have come together in a greater pursuit of education and growth. The culture is also evidenced in music, in the powerful words of Dr. Dre’s poetry and Aretha Franklin’s songs. As much as the tumultuous history is polarizing for the nation, it is empowering for African Americans. Coates asserts, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people” (Coates, p. 149). Despite constant oppression and discrimination, African Americans have thrown out “the identities imposed on [them] by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible” (Coates, p. 42) and created a new legacy and culture.
Through Between the World and Me, Coates proves that the history of race and blackness in American culture continues to suppress the African American people, causing them to live in fear, while simultaneously providing a means of cultural liberation and black identity. The violence of the Baltimore ghettos, the lack of control over one’s own body and destiny, the police discrimination, and the education system all represent “A society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you [African Americans] with the club of criminal justice” (Coates, p. 17-18). Society has a long way to go in terms of breaking down the racial-divide in the nation but Coates offers a beacon of hope for the future. When driving home from Prince Jones’s mother’s house, Mable Jones, Coates describes the desolate state of blackness in America, “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” (Coates, p. 152). However, he addresses a brighter future when he continues, “through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets” (Coates, p. 152). In literature, water is symbolic of rebirth; by describing the rain washing over his car Coates alludes to a better, equal tomorrow.