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Coates says he measures the progress of his life by looking back on himself as a boy in Baltimore and believing that boy would be proud of him now. Though he never masters the streets or the schools, he has his family, and he is a successful writer. He has spent his life searching to understand the gap between the world and himself. He finds joy in the constant struggle, which has reshaped his thoughts several times in his life. He has learned to question everything. However, he clarifies that studying to understand this gap doesn’t classify as studying race. To explain, he describes apologizing for bumping into a Black man at an airport, and the man’s response—“You straight”—feels intimate because they are part of one “Black” world.
In Coates’ childhood, the Dream seems to be the top of American ambition. If he can just attain the life of the suburban white boys on TV, that will be enough. However, Samori’s mother knows there is more to the world and wants to experience it. When she is thirty, she travels to Paris. Coates has never considered leaving America and doesn’t understand why she would want to go. But when she returns, she shows him pictures of the city, and her curiosity infects Coates. He realizes that France is not just a separate world in his mind but an actual place with actual people. In retrospect, Coates sees that these bridges to other worlds are all around him.
Seven years later, Coates travels to Paris alone. He barely speaks French and is afraid as he tries to navigate French currency and trains. After getting settled, the city amazes him; it’s like New York because of the diversity of the people in the streets, but he doesn’t feel the ever-present fear for his body. While exploring, he feels a loneliness. Being so far removed from any American Dream, the weight of living in constant fear really hits him. Later, Coates and his family go back to Paris, along with Uncle Ben and Aunt Janai. Coates takes Samori there because he wants him to experience a life of his own, apart from the lens of fear and even apart from Coates himself. Even though France has never enslaved their ancestors, France has its own rules and history. Like America, it named its own group of people as “less than” (the Haitians, for example). That summer, Trayvon Martin’s killer is acquitted, and Coates realizes that he could never escape the truth of his world, not even in France.
This section focuses on how travel impacts Coates by showing him a new world in which the color of his skin does not immediately define him in the eyes of others. The fact that Coates never considered traveling is surprising. By reading and researching so much in college, he had traveled a long way in his mind. He was amazed by and in love with the diversity and exoticism of the students at Howard. He knew that the first girl he fell in love with, from Bangladesh, entranced him, in part, because she carried a heritage from some other world. He thinks of himself as an intellectual searcher, but not as a physical traveler.
Kenyatta’s trip to Paris is the beginning of a major change for Coates. He says she already knows more of the world than him and has always been compelled to see more of what the world has to offer. At the time that she travels to Paris, France is just a mental picture to Coates, like an exercise in imagination. When she returns and shows him pictures from Paris, he starts to see the city solidify and realizes that there are real people there, as real as people in his own life.
When Coates travels to Paris on his own, the trip presents a schema change. He still experiences fear as he flies partway around the world, figures out how to change money, and makes sure he gets on the right train. But after he settles into Paris, he notices a lack of the heavy fear that he has always felt about his safety. His loneliness is present but not negatively so. In this case, Coates is lonely because he is in a country he does not belong to. In his own country, he feels lonely in his constant fear for his body because he knows the history of America and that its traditions dictate that he, like all Black people, is the negative part of America’s equation. In the country in which he “belongs,” he doesn’t really belong. In Paris, in the midst of not belonging, Coates is freed from some of the mental chains that had bound him since childhood.
Due to his fears and harsh upbringing, Coates has built walls around himself to protect him and his loved ones at all costs. Even in Paris, it is hard for him to let his guard down. Consequently, he feels as though he has missed part of the experience of living by being on constant guard. While Coates wants Samori to experience a fearless life, he also needs Samori to know that being distanced from fear cannot erase the struggle he will go through. Samori still recognizes the permeating gap in America between Black and white, which he perceives strongly when Michael Brown’s killer is not indicted. Coates wants Samori to remember that America has always used Black bodies for self-interest.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Between the World and Me!