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In the book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coates works to explore the long spanning violence in the United States and progresses to provide advice on how victims can respond to it. In the form of a letter to his teenage son, author Ta-Nehisi Coates acts to inform about the risks, dangers, and social skews that follow being an African American in the United States. His message to his son conceives a belief supported by firsthand accounts, as well as current events involving police brutality, that being black in westernized (or western-ruled) hemispheres of society is a disability, a danger to a black individual’s wellbeing, and a prohibition to a black individual’s societal prosperity. This is nevertheless due to the root cause of overarching fear.
The violence he observes in his memoir relates to acts of aggression within the black community throughout the history of the United States, yet even more so the violence ensued on African Americans throughout the country’s lifespan. From the violence ensued on the slaves of America’s beginning days, to the police brutality and injustice that persists presently, Coates evokes the message to his son, and the reader, that violence is the core cause of America’s upbringing, and even more so its sole existence. Violence is America’s legs, its back and support. Coates supports that America, or more precisely, white America, built on the work of African slaves, is a proven product of man labor, and is still reliant on mistreatment of man in another form. This present reliance is the violence, brutality and murders of African Americans by national security. A security proving itself to be false. With this violence against innocent African Americans, white America’s presumed safety is kept active; its safety against the fear that power ensued by a false hierarchy could be vanquished.
In turn, these acts have, since the presence of African slaves and their mistreatment, brought forth an additional fear. This other fear is weighted on the backs of African Americans, and similarly causes violence within its own population. African Americans, out of fear of losing their own selves, have exhibited violence and aggression, threatening and fighting, through different communal and familial areas of their own population. Coates exhibits these points to his son throughout his book, providing examples in which he has been made aware of this fear-induced violence throughout his life.
As we explore his message to his son, we will textually exhibit the ways in which Coates alludes to this violence and fear, and ultimately how he advises his son (and presumably related readers) to exist in this world that blindly hates him. In Coates’s message to his son, he reminisces a claim made by Malcolm X, in which the Civil Rights leader stated, “If you’re black, you were born in jail.” Coates makes it clear that he shares this view, explaining that to be black in the United States, is to have lack of protection over your own body.
First off, Coates makes note of this fear and violence, having been ignited by the slavery of Africans, when he starts off his message. He depicts to his son a recent interview he was involved in, and within this interview profoundly states that the answer to why he believes that the United States is built on violence, noting that the reasoning is simplistic, and rather common sense. To Coates anyone could review history and see the way in which the United States has been built entirely on a violent hierarchy that has left black people worse off than white people. This is indicated by Coates when he exasperates the sadness he felt when asked why he thinks this way. Coates’s mannerly displays how simple it should be for all Americans, whether white or black, to see the reason. The enslavement of Africans is not uncommon sense, and has not gone untaught in academic institutions. Coates explains this, beginning, “the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me.” (Coates)
It is not made clear of the exact reasons for Coates’s feelings, until further within the section. Coates simply states, “The answer is American history,” yet subsequently makes aware of his reasons for explaining that white Americans have purposefully walked blindly of the obvious truth that America was built on the backs of African slaves. And while their democracy permits them to walk in the face of truth, their democracy has also granted them superiority for being white, and thus has allowed them to remain blind to this specific truth. Coates proclaims this explaining, “There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune.” (Coates)
While Coates’s writing is not distinct here, and it cannot be made evident that he is absolutely discussing slavery when he says “enslavement”, and white Americans when he says “Americans”, further analysis of instances in his writing will allow us to see this. Subsequently, Coates begins to explain the fear within white Americans; the fear they had of losing societal power and pride. This is the cause for the violence that attributed to the upbringing of America. Coates explains that the hierarchy ignited by the early Europeans was unnatural, and rather ensued out of a desire for power and pride. Europeans created a belief that white skin is superior to black skin, yet prior to this the only rational view/reaction to difference in color was indifference to difference in color; an oxymoron. Coates reminisces this oxymoron when explaining, that “the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” (Coates)
Coates further explains that the concept of being white is only a force to ensure power among American’s original inhabitants, explaining that there are rational subcategories to white. These rational subcategories were recognized as separate entities, without any affiliation to whiteness, prior to the deceitful hierarchy. Coates claims this when noting, “These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish…” For the first time in his text, Coates prominently makes clear that the enslavement that built America was specifically that of the Africans. He alludes to the imprisonment, mistreatment, rape, and murdering of African slaves, and the inferior outlook the white Americans had on them when explaining, “the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (Coates)
With the creation of white Americans, came African Americans, or black Americans. And with the abusive outlook on black Americans, came a fear within white Americans. Prior to this, of course, Africans were made into subcategories. This fear is based on the belief that white Americans (from their point of view), without the presence of African slaves to drive the country, and with the potential progress African Americans could make given a freedom from enslavement and unequal rights that eventually followed, white Americans would lose their status of superiority, their false identity. The identity of white Americans relies on their hierarchal status, not their true ethnicities (whether it be Jewish, Welsh, Catholic, or other). Which in turn, as Coates explained, was originally started with belittling the societal status of the original African slaves.
Today, with the social progress of African Americans at a greater chance of becoming a common phenomenon, white Americans, specifically part of national security, have worked to find any cause to murder black Americans. Coates makes note of this when explaining to his son how American police are heavily exhibiting such strategy. Coates alludes to several unjustifiable cases involving police brutality and innocent African Americans, them being murders of innocents Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and Marlene Pinnock. He writes, “I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” Coates make the claim here that police have been given the authority to willfully profile black Americans, and kill them on their own misguided discernment.
This long spanning violence against black Americans has in turn created an additional fear, specifically within the black American population. It is rational for fear to be the response to learning that your essence and citizenship (exhibited as “body” by Coates) are instantly endangered the moment you are born. This concept has been apparent within the black community, and displayed via Coates’s own experiences. Coates explains to his son that growing up he experienced parental aggression, and communal tension. Within his community, parents would express violence via threatening their children. Black children experienced beatings by their parents simply for making nonsensical mistakes. The source of this beating, Coates notes, is the fear the parents felt over the possibility of losing their children to the engulfing police brutality. The beating was done to keep black youths disciplined from delving too far from the safety and presence of their parents. From participating in activities that would make the vulnerable to the sight of the racists system. Coates makes this known when writing to his son, “My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us.” (Coates)
Coates further displays this violence has left such strong fear throughout the African American population, and in turn followed through with a fear within youth individuals. This complementary fear was present in the ways in which black youths presented themselves. Coates emphasizes that black youths posed themselves with aggressive personality as a way to protect their vulnerable bodies. This in turn, extended to a violent culture within black communities, a culture that would be dismissed by privileged white American onlookers as the fault of those involved. This violent culture ensued by youths’ fear of losing their bodies involved an aggressive persona, captivated in persistent attitudes of anger, constant fighting with each other, proving who “owned the streets” they lived on, displaying who was the more powerful force over the others around them.
All of these things are symptoms of the fear of white America, that it may lose the power and pride it gained simply from its false belief system. A false belief system that has successfully been disseminated nearly worldwide. A greed for power, in a world where the concept of self-image has been blown out of proportion. Coates depicts this when he tells his son, “The violence that undergirded the country, so flagrantly on display during Black History Month, and the intimate violence of ‘Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?’ were not unrelated. And this violence was not magical, but was of a piece and by design.” (Coates)
In response, Coates explains that his son’s only choice and possible way of life, is to bear the burden of fear. With police brutality increasing, it becomes only rational for his son, and other black youths, to bear the fear and precision of being targeted. There is no other option, but to bear it, and upon doing so the African Americans, early slaves and later citizens who struggled generations earlier, will be valued for having struggled themselves. Coates explains, “I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.” (Coates) Coates proceeds to note that the struggle is not to please or abide by the white American belief system for white Americans, but rather for the generations of black Americans who have struggled in the same manner. Rather, respond to the racism ensued by white Americans by praying and hoping that they’ll change and voluntarily think rationally instead of hiding from the truth. In order for this to happen, white Americans will have to struggle themselves, come to harsh terms that they’re given identity has been a lie, humble themselves, and forfeit the value they place on self-image, power, and pride.
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