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Coates remembers taking Samori and his cousin Christopher to visit the Civil War battlefields of Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and the Wilderness. He recalls a video on the fall of the Confederacy, and how the end seems sad instead of jubilant. Everyone there admires the weapons, but nobody seems to think about their real and violent purpose. He tells Samori that the Civil War was about slavery and the robbery of Black bodies, the “greatest material interest of the world.” At that time, the slaves in America were worth about four billion dollars, and cotton was America’s primary export. The family learns about Abraham Brian and his family fleeing their farm in Gettysburg to escape George Pickett. America portrays the conflict as a narrative in which both sides fight with courage and valor, obscuring the mass enslavement and murder perpetrated in the South. The Dream consists of this dishonest innocence, furthered by historians and Hollywood.
Coates wants Samori to know that America’s tradition is to destroy the Black body. As Coates pictures the Confederates charging the Brian farm, he sees them running toward their birthright—the right to destroy Black bodies. The labor isn’t “borrowed,” it is violently forced. Coates launches into a chilling description of the physical atrocities committed against slaves. He quotes Senator John C. Calhoun, who says that the great divide in America is not between the rich and poor but between Black and white.
While writing an article in Chicago, Coates shadows police officers as they evict a family from their home. He thinks about the weight of humiliation that the father must have borne, and watches it translate into anger toward the police. During that time, he also visits some Black members of the community who are over 100 years old. He knows they are the success stories, and for every one of them, there are hundreds of others who have never made it out of the ghetto. He explains how ghettos are just as much killing grounds as the ground on which Prince Jones was killed.
Coates asks Samori if he remembers accompanying Coates to work when he was thirteen. Coates had gone to interview a Black mother whose boy had been shot because he wouldn’t turn his music down. The killer claimed he saw a gun on the boy, though none was ever found. The man was not convicted of murder, only of firing repeatedly. The mother said that God had turned her anger into activism, and in this way, she was able to compose herself. She spoke directly to Samori and told him that he mattered, that he had a right to be himself. Coates hopes he has relayed the same message to Samori and confesses that he is still afraid. However, the constant threat of disembodiment alters everything he knows, from the violence of boys on the streets, to having to be twice as good, to having to have perfect manners in public so as not to raise suspicion.
One significant aspect of this section is how Coates emphasizes the sheer violence against slaves and how remnants of that violence are still present today. He takes Samori and his cousin to the battlefields because he wants them to understand, from an early age, that the Civil War was unapologetically fought over slaves, their own people. Despite whatever the boys will learn in school, their ancestors are viewed as nothing more than an industry to make money, and Civil War era white Americans believed it was their right to steal Black bodies. To accomplish this, violence had to be involved, as it is not easy to get a living person to submit to a lifetime of torture. Coates doesn’t sugarcoat this truth for Samori. Owning people involved hitting, whipping, bashing their heads, raping their women, and burning them like cattle.
For so long after slaves were “freed” and no longer monetized, the “right” of white Americans to put Black Americans in their place through violence and murder persisted unchecked and encouraged. Even still, the violence continues in the streets of housing projects and through police killings. Even where there is not violence, systems that categorize Black people as lower members of society abound through mass incarceration, the usage of derogatory terms, and underrepresentation in higher education, legal systems, and politics. Coates tries to explain to Samori the weight of living as a Black person in America. Even as a young boy watching white America on TV, Coates felt the gap between his world and theirs, and the weight from that realization of that separation. This is nowhere more evident than on Civil War battlefield grounds. America has eulogized its Civil War as a conflict between states in which both sides were noble and brave, neglecting the reality that Confederates were fighting to keep Black bodies enslaved. Coates takes Samori to these historic places in the hope that Samori does not fall into his own dream but becomes a conscious citizen of the beautiful and terrible world.
Coates’ experiences of witnessing an eviction and bringing Samori to work while he interviews a woman whose child was killed for playing music too loud are two more examples of how systems in America work against Black people. The eviction itself isn’t necessarily racist, but it is built on a racist foundation. Coates describes this system that keeps families on the edge of financial ruin in the projects and ghettos as “elegant racism.” White government plans neighborhoods full of public housing, and Black people are steered toward these neighborhoods in the form of denied bank loans and realtors who make sure more desirable neighborhoods remain white. Next, the violence previously described within the ghettos make these neighborhoods dangerous, and on top of that, there is great shame associated with living in these neighborhoods. The anger that the evicted man has toward the police comes out of feeling powerless and ashamed. Thus, the main message communicated by the existence of ghettos is the inhumanity of Black people. It is for this reason Coates believes they are just as much of a killing ground as the actual killing grounds of Prince Jones and the woman’s son who was murdered for loud music.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Between the World and Me!