Between the World and Me

Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs

Violence

Violence is present throughout Between the World and Me. One of Coates’ main points in his letter is to impress upon Samori how white America has systematically destroyed black bodies in a violent way. In the past, slavery was the means of oppression, and today, violence is most present in police brutality and mass incarceration. He explains how the violence against black people in the past led to violence in the streets today, calling the streets “killing grounds.” He also describes his childhood as being violent, both with other people in the streets and within his own family. He speaks about violence during the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Nonviolence does not make as much sense to him as the views of Malcom X or the Black Panthers. He also speaks specifically about violence in the death of his friend Prince Jones, who was a victim of racist police violence. Ultimately, Coates asserts that no black person has ever or will ever be safe from the consistent threat of violence in the United States.

Dreamers

After initially describing what “Dreamers” are, Coates uses the term to describe white America as a whole, due to the white obsession with the American Dream. Because Coates has spent his life trying to understand the gap between himself as a black person and the people who ignore slavery and see America as great and noble, the concept of the American Dream and the Dreamers recurs often. He tells Samori it is not his responsibility to convert the Dreamers and make them see their errors. While at first Coates himself desired the American Dream, the more he studies, the more he realizes that he wants to understand the United States as it truly is, even if that makes him a realist who is wide awake, rather than a Dreamer.

Fear

Fear is arguably the most prevalent motif in Between the World and Me, and this prevalence underscores the ways that fear permeates all of black society. Coates describes how fears centered in past oppression and the current lack of security over one’s body drives fear into the streets, and that fear drives further violence. He was always afraid as a child because he knew he could be killed at any time. He experiences constant fear for Samori because he knows that, as a black man, Samori will have a higher risk of being beaten or killed. Coates is afraid of the police, which he mentions directly when he is stopped by a cop. As a parent, he also comes to understand his own parents’ fear for their child’s safety. The only place Coates doesn’t feel the same fear is in Paris, because the French don’t have the same tradition of violence against black people. Though fear remains manifest in the black experience, Coates has provided Samori with a life filled with significantly more security than his own.