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Coates describes living in Brooklyn when Samori is young. They are very poor, but they live near Uncle Ben and his wife, Aunt Janai. Coates wants to impress upon Samori that Samori has not always had nice things, but he has always had family and friends to support him. Coates describes seeing all the white people and abundance of money in Manhattan. He especially observes how they walk, laugh, and dance without fear. He reflects on the differences with which Black and white children are raised. White parents can walk their children fearless and lighthearted. Black parents tell their children to be “twice as good,” as it is the only way they can rise above the struggles and constraints that bind them. Coates imagines white parents telling their children to “take twice as much.”
When Samori is four, his parents take him to a preschool. Samori rushes off to play with a diverse group of children. Coates’ first instinct is to stop him because Samori doesn’t know anyone. But Coates feels ashamed upon realizing he is proposing that his young child should be watchful and shrewd. Samori has never been afraid of rejection, and Coates admires him for this. When he takes Samori for walks, Coates instinctually always looks out of the corner of his eye, ready to defend. He always had to change his body for others—to prepare himself for attack, to have people take him seriously, to not give the police a reason to hurt him.
Coates describes a time when he took five-year-old Samori to see a movie. Afterwards, a white woman pushes Samori because he is moving slowly, and Coates yells at her. When a man defends the woman, Coates pushes the man, who threatens to have him arrested. The incident shakes Coates because he realizes that in attempting to protect Samori, he actually endangered him. He resorted back to the fear-inspired violence of his youth to protect his son’s body. Had Coates been arrested, one of Samori’s first memories would have been his father being assaulted by the same police who had assaulted so many other Black bodies. Coates knows that he made a mistake, and the mistakes of Black men always cost them double.
Coates points out that, in his experience, people who believe they are white are obsessed with exonerating themselves from any suspicion of racism. Nobody will ever admit that they are a racist or personally know any racists, even while acting clearly racist. It is far easier for Americans to think it is their own hard work that has earned them the American Dream. While acknowledging the bad days of the past, those who believe they are white are raised to believe that those unfortunate days are over despite the evidence of the prison systems, ghettos, and police brutality. Few Americans have the courage to truly acknowledge these horrors and the fact that the country was built on the backs of slaves.
This section highlights the differences between Black and white parents, which are rooted in lived experience, fear, and willful blindness to the past. As an adult living in New York City, Coates has more of an opportunity to explore beyond his neighborhood. He discovers the gap between himself and the white population, and that there exists a clear association between money, race, and fear. Simply by going from his home in Brooklyn to Manhattan, the difference in income astounds him. Most of the people spending money at restaurants are white people. White people dance without insecurity, even when they aren’t good at it. White people take up the whole sidewalk walking their children, whereas Coates’ mother held his hand so tightly. These white people walk and laugh with an ease of spirit. Because of both their race and their money, white parents are able to give their children the opportunity to grow up with significantly less fear. This is what Coates wants for Samori, and it is clear at the time of writing the letter that he has gone a long way to accomplishing it. But when Samori is little, Coates still finds himself walking the neighborhood with the same trepidation as when he was a child, except now he is also in charge of another human life.
Even as a parent, Coates has to constantly pay strict attention to his body language so as to convey that he is not a threat but that he is worth being taken seriously. When he lashes out at the woman at the theater who pushes Samori, his error isn’t moral, but instead, lies in forgetting that he can be arrested simply by appearing threatening. This constant, indirect control over his body by white people essentially requires him to prove over and over that he ought to be counted as a person. This is the essence of needing to be “twice as good.” Coates does not imagine that white children grow up having to prove their own worth and disprove suspicion. “Twice as good” is not something he wants Samori to experience, though he knows Samori will still have to understand the gap between Black and white.
Everywhere he looks, Coates sees America perpetuating the Dream. He calls the reader to action by stating that people who believe they are white seem chiefly concerned with convincing themselves of their innocence, or at least making sure they appear innocent to others. As a human, it is difficult to come to grips with the knowledge that something you were raised believing is seriously flawed. Everyone learns about slaves in history books, but many people remain in denial that racism still exists, especially those who believe the mantra that America is always number one. Coates believes that Americans spring automatically to pride and making themselves look good. But simply believing that color shouldn’t determine social hierarchy leaves out the more important truth: those who believe they are white still profit from the racist actions of their ancestors. Like the trap of an abusive relationship, until all Americans understand and admit that America has a truly dark and evil history and that all Americans are tied to that legacy, racism cannot be fixed.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Between the World and Me!