Between the World and Me demonstrates how the American Dream is built on the enslavement of the African people and their oppression by violent means. Coates first mentions the Dream when he says that the television news host asks him to “awaken her from the most gorgeous dream” by inquiring about his body. He describes the Dream as cookouts, nice lawns, Cub Scouts, and strawberry shortcake, amongst other things. Coates first realized that there was a painfully obvious gap between himself and his counterparts in the white suburbs when he first saw young white boys living the American Dream on television.
Coates speaks about how white Americans deify democracy and think there is some preordained glory about America, as if it is the greatest and noblest country because of its democratic and justice systems. However, Coates purports that this white concept of American democracy is a lie because the slaves were disregarded and not counted as people. He says that the country has swept slavery under the rug, touting hard-working Americans as the key to a successful nation. As Coates shows Samori at the Civil War battlefields, slaves and their labor in the cotton industry is what truly gave America its foundation. The legacy of the war was then turned into Westerns, reenactments, and displays of weaponry. Thus, it is very difficult for white Americans today, removed from the actions of slave owners, to admit that America is not innocent and is in fact built on atrocities committed against other humans. The very foundation of the American Dream is shaken when considered through black eyes.
Racism toward black people is centered on forcibly taking away physical control of the black person’s body. This began with slavery, as Coates describes in visceral detail on more than one occasion. He emphasizes that it is easy to view slavery as a mass of black people in cotton fields, but he urges Samori to consider each individual slave as a person, and then to realize that that person was physically tortured into labor. This abuse continued into the Civil Rights Movement, with lynchings and tear gas and water hoses used as an assault on black bodies.
Coates explains throughout the book how the destruction of the black body is still prevalent today. While this destruction is readily evident to a black person, it is often much less obvious to a white person, especially the “Dreamers” who are not experiencing persistent racism. Coates describes growing up in the ghettos of Baltimore and how those sorts of neighborhoods across the country are meant to be filled with black people. Segregation is not legal, but government policy ensures it happens anyway. Coates’ neighborhood was very violent, and he (and everyone else) was in constant fear for his body because it could be taken from him at any time. He first truly understands this when a boy pulls out a gun on him for no reason. He never had real security over his body. Another clear example of the destruction of the black body is the regularity of police brutality and how often it ends in murder, without any consequence for the police officer responsible. Coates references many black persons killed by police, including his friend Prince Jones, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin.
While emotionally exhausting, struggling to honestly understand oneself in the larger context of race is more valuable than living in ignorance. Coates tells Samori that his entire life has been dedicated to wondering how he can live freely in America with his black body, knowing the brutalities that America has committed against black people. Then Coates says that “the question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile,” and that his constant grappling with this question has helped him to cope with the fear of having his body taken from him. In fact, he tells Samori that the “Struggle” is all Coates has to give him.
Coates classifies himself as a searcher and begins reading at age four. He reads his father’s books about Africana throughout his childhood. At Howard University, he reads copious amounts of books to research African history and viewpoints, which he finds all contradict one another. He describes all this searching as a struggle that weighs him down, but he cannot stop. By the end of his time at Howard, Coates realizes that the point of his education is to leave him in discomfort, allowing him to see the world in its truth.