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.