Between the World and Me


Part I, pages 39-57

Summary Part I, pages 39-57

Summary: Part I, pages 39-57

Coates talks about his alma mater, Howard University, which he calls his Mecca. Howard is a historically black college in Washington, D.C. There, Coates sees a beautiful, diverse assembly of black people from exotic places and different backgrounds. He calls it “the crossroads of the black diaspora.” He feels all of black history walking through the campus. Howard is a place where black history feels important, whereas the important historical figures he learned about in school were all white. Furthermore, Howard is located in a place of political power, and he walks in the footsteps of his heroes. He begins to think about black history as a thing of its own, rooted in Africa, complete with powerful scientists and cultural heroes. 

Coates spends much time in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where his father once worked. It contains an incredible amount of writings by and about black people. Coates requests three books in the morning and spends the day reading and then writing his thoughts. He yearns to learn all he can about black history and thinks that if he can just read enough, he will discover a unified story. However, he finds that histories are presented differently, and authors often contradict each other. He is drawn to the library rather than the classroom because he can pursue his own curiosities freely. 

Coates meets other people searching for answers, among them Samori’s Uncle Ben, whom Coates becomes close friends with. Coates writes poetry and performs it at open mic nights, and there he meets older poets who introduce him to more poetry and make him question his own writing and thinking. Coates begins to admire poetry in the same way he admires Malcolm X. Poetry can say much about something without ever stating anything outright. He spends nights arguing and debating with these poets. Because of these interactions and so much reading, Coates wants to learn to write. He recognizes writing as a method to confront his own innocence and rationalizations. Coates realizes that the point of his education is to learn to live in a constant state of mental chaos and questioning, designed to leave him in discomfort by breaking all myths about The Dream and simply laying out the terribleness of the world. 

Coates assures Samori that being black doesn’t make one immune to doing bad things and warns him to be careful not to get sucked into any nation’s dream. In Prince George county, black police who have been sucked into the white dream turn into the same plunderers who perpetuate violence under the guise of the law. Coates’ history teachers challenge him to rethink his ideas about black nobility and not confuse political propaganda with hard study. He rethinks his idea about having a black “trophy case” of solely black intellectuals, as if they are better because they have not fallen prey to the Dream and are in control of their own bodies. Upon taking a class about Europe, Coates sees how “white” Irish people are treated in a similar way to those who lose their bodies to slavery, and he wonders if being “black” actually has nothing to do with losing his body, but whether the term just means his race is at the bottom of the totem pole. He is certainly part of a tribe, but perhaps that tribe does not possess the romanticism that he once believed.

Analysis: Part I, pages 39-57

This section represents the largest bloom of Coates’ intellectual investigation. He finally makes it off the streets, out of childhood, and away from the schools that don’t care about his curiosity. Howard University is a place where he can devote all the time he wants to learning and satiating his questions. He starts the description of the university by calling Howard his Mecca. He assumes that the reader knows the meaning of Mecca, which is a place that draws people to itself, and, when capitalized, refers to the birthplace of Muhammed, the holiest city for Muslims. Knowing this definition helps clarify what Howard means to Coates. Coates has already stated he does not believe in God, but he does believe in constantly pursuing knowledge and an understanding about himself as a black person in America. Therefore, Howard is his personal Mecca, the holiest place in his search for answers. In “the black diaspora,” he sees people from his personal heritage who have dispersed and populated different parts of the world. After seeing gangs in the projects and learning only about white leaders, he finally meets black individuals who pursue all sorts of intellectual subjects and come from different states and countries. He also walks in the footsteps, literally and metaphorically, of his black heroes.

At Howard, Coates grows to define himself as a searcher and a struggler. His days in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center are critical to his growth as a person because he inhales ideas and opinions from myriad authors and then analyzes his thoughts about them. When he describes seeing the diversity of people on the campus, he experiences a reflection of what he has read in the library. Even as they are all black in his eyes, they have different backgrounds and opinions. When he begins writing poetry, it is not for the sake of performance but for investigation. Through all these days spent in the library, he recognizes that writing is the best form of personal investigation; writing insists that you figure out what you really mean and why you mean it. Writing affords Coates the opportunity to meet other poets, all of whom are, like him, searching for where they fit in the world. These poets and his teachers challenge him and lead him to read even more. They force him to be specific and critical about his own work and thoughts.

Coates experiences two significant paradigm shifts in this section. He initially wants to understand just how the African people are separated from their roots. As he reads about people of power and significance in Africa, he sees that his race has its own scientists, musicians, writers, and engineers. He develops a mental trophy case of his African heroes and, after a time, begins to think of black people as nobility. They are all kings in exile from their native lands, forcibly severed from their roots. During this period when he looks out on the Yard, he sees beautiful kings and queens with precious black bodies. But as time progresses and he speaks with the poets and his teachers, he realizes he is falling into a Dream of his own making. He has romanticized Africa and his heritage, just as he accuses Americans of romanticizing theirs.