By Daniella Pozo, IV Form
Reflections on Coates’ Education in Between the World and Me
When one has never been exposed to the world at large, ignorance can be an easy trap to fall into. Ta-Nehisi Coates takes the difficult steps to awaken himself, learn about his place in the world, and overcome his ignorance. Samori Coates is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s son whom he had with Kenyatta Matthews, a girl he met at The Mecca. The Mecca is the coalition of brilliant black individuals at Howard University where Coates studied for a number of years. Here, Coates experienced three life-changing events: he had a son, he read as many books as he could get his hands on, and he interacted with black people who are different from him. In the memoir Between the World and Me, Coates embarks on a journey of self-growth with the help of Samori Coates and The Mecca showing him compassion and diversity within the black community, as well as forcing him to question his perception of the world. His reflection on this journey invites each reader to contemplate his/her own viewpoint.
Coates struggles to find a balance between teaching difficult life lessons and providing a loving childhood for his son. Since Samori is a young black man, Coates must spend his life answering the question of how to best protect and raise him. He confesses to Samori, “[n]ow at night, I held you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me. Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra— ‘Either I can beat him or the police’” (Coates 82). Growing up, Coates’ parents beat him for his own safety. As a father, he experiences the same fear and love that drove his own father to beat him. Samori’s existence means that Coates can not be reckless with himself or with his newfound family. Coates tells his son, “[t]he truth is that I owe you everything I have… I [am] grounded and domesticated by the plain fact that should I now go down, I would not go down alone” (66). Samori forces Coates to consider the consequences of his actions and how they impact the lives of others. As a parent, Coates wants to raise his son as best as he knows how. This includes showing him the affection that was not customary in his own house during his upbringing, “[y]our mother [teaches] me how to love you—how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feels like a ritual” (Coates 125). Performing this ritual coupled with writing an entire book for Samori demonstrates Coates’ compassion and love for his son.
While at The Mecca, Ta-Nehisi Coates is introduced to a magnitude of black people who mold his stance on the black community. Coates is extremely ignorant and holds prejudice when he initially enters Howard. He falls in love with a woman “raised by a Jewish mother in a small, nearly all-white town in Pennsylvania, and [later], at Howard ranged between women and men, asserted this not just with pride but as though it were normal, as though she were normal” (58). While at Howard, she lives with a husband and wife who are open with their sexuality. The only word Coates has for them is “f**got,” and he acts in a ruthless manner towards them. On the other hand, she continues to be herself and shows her kind nature when he falls ill and she takes care of him. This event forces Coates to see her humanity and expand his vocabulary for her to more than “f**got.” Exposure is one of the biggest themes that marks Coates’ time at The Mecca; he sees there that “we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself” (43). He realizes that people of color are not limited to the lifestyle that he has grown up in. Even the mundane occurrences of watching his classmates in the yard or interacting with them in and out of school show him how varied the black community is. While at the Mecca, Coates also takes full advantage of the school’s library in an effort to free himself from the Dream. He reads books obsessively and compounds all the ideas within them to challenge his reality. He had been going through this journey alone until he meets Ben. Ben is “a fellow traveler for life, and [Coates] discover[s] that there [is] something particular about journeying out with black people who [know] the length of the road because they [have] traveled it too” (49). It is then that he realizes that his experiences speak to all black people because living as a black person in America has universal themes.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book sheds light on the black experience and on his personal journey so that the reader may reflect on these two things themselves. To a younger audience, the idea that books can liberate one from her own confinement is an extremely appealing one. Ta-Nehisi Coates shares that Ben and he “[share] a healthy skepticism and a deep belief that [they can] somehow read [their] way out” (49). Books are accessible and have lifetimes of wisdom and knowledge to offer. The books Coates reads have lifetimes of insight to bestow upon the reader, much like Between the World and Me shares a lifetime of lessons, ideologies and failures. Coates repeatedly returns to the idea of struggle, but more importantly focuses on the worth of struggle. He urges his son, and the wider audience, to grapple with its own prejudices in order to find a new outlook on life. Coates feels at peace that “[i]f [his] life ended today, [he] would tell [his son] it was a happy life— that [he] drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which [he] now urge[s] you” (115). For Coates, the struggle involves constant questioning and reevaluating his perception of the world. He might not get answers, but his struggle opens him to new questions and refined theories to share with the reader.
In Between the World and Me, Coates reflects on the two major watersheds in his life: his time at The Mecca and his son. Both show him love towards others, illustrate variance in the black community, and challenge his perspectives. Once Ta-Nehisi Coates goes to the Mecca, he is forced to challenge everything he knows. He is introduced to black people that could not be more unlike him and finds a way to take in their perspectives and make them his companions. He also reads hundreds of books in search of the history and greatness of black people. While he is navigating his own thoughts and prejudices he becomes a father. Samori teaches him compassion and love of others in a way that Coates had not previously experienced. Coates’ self-awakening leads to the idea that every reader should strive for. The ability to analyze the black experience in America and question the verity of the people who planned that experience is immensely important. Coates’ book gives readers a new outlook, one to contemplate and discuss with others.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau. New York, NY. 2015. Print.
Daniella Pozo is a IV form boarding student from the Bronx, New York. She enjoys reading, watching horror movies, and drinking a cup of coffee in the morning.