This was originally a formal paper but has been modified into a blog post.
Everyone dreams, but one individual’s dream may be another’s nightmare. Ta-Nehisi Coates references a “Dream” with this duality in his 2015 memoir Between the World and Me. The memoir is an extended letter to his adolescent son Samori about growing up black in America today. Coates’s Dream is essentially his notion of race relations in America, but it is not a static idea because it evolves as Coates grows up in the ghetto of Baltimore. The Dream is imperative for Samori to understand because it is the reason for his inherent struggle as a black boy in America. Coates does not protect him from this struggle though, because he believes it will bring him closer to the “meaning of life.” Coates’s Dream is elucidated by the conventional American Dream because the early notion of the Dream was a mirror image of it, but soon became a façade of the racial dynamic in America just as the American Dream was realized to be founded in white privilege. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’ “I Have a Dream” speech complicates Coates’s Dream because King’s dream is optimistic while Coates’s is pessimistic. Although the Dream in Between the World and Me proved to be a dynamic notion of race in contemporary American society that evolves as Coates grows up, he came to realize the racial divisions are not likely to change and that his son must be aware of the inherent struggle he will face, as a black man, if he hopes to live a meaningful life.
Ta-Nehisi Coates spent his early years believing that America was a haven for blacks and whites alike. When Coates was a boy, the Dream embodied the stability and hope of the traditional American Dream.
“The Dream seemed to be the pinnacle, then- to grow rich and live in one of those disconnected houses out in the country, in one of those small communities, in one of those cul-de-sacs with its gently curving ways…” (116).
Coates’s perception of race was undeveloped and he attributed the instability of his childhood to where he lived, not to race. American suburbia epitomized Coates’s early Dream because it appeared exponentially better than the Baltimore ghetto. He saw race relations in America as much more stable than they were. At this young age, Coates was naïve and he believed he had full control over his future. He was not yet aware that race would be a limiting factor to his success. However, his perception of racial relations changed as he matured and encountered the ramifications of being black in a racially driven America.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s coming of age exposed him to the prevalent racial inequality in American society he had been ignorant of as a child. As he grew up, Coates became disillusioned with his Dream because fear took the place of hope. Although he felt inklings of this fear as a child in Baltimore, he didn’t yet understand it.
“I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between the other world and me” (21).
His Dream was still there, but it had started to change. When Coates was a sixth-grader, a young boy pulled a gun on him and stole his innocence. He could no longer ignore the violence and fear which encompassed his life. Hope was stolen from Coates’s Dream. He realized that “fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets” (29). Violence and fear are connected to Coates’s Dream because slavery, the foundation of race relations in America, was characterized by white violence and black fear. Coates’s had to acknowledge black bodies are still physically and mentally suffering from white oppression, even though it isn’t as apparent as it was in the past. Coates condemns white America for impeding the success of black people by asserting equality and opportunity for everyone by law, but blatantly ignoring the systemic racism which handicaps blacks and has kept them fearful and subordinate to whites. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination, the racist attitudes which permeated society at the time did not disappear. Racism became less blatant, but continued to effect black lives negatively. Instead of being a term to describe hope for the future of race relations, the Dream describes white America’s propensity for oppression through ignorance.
As he grew older, Coates realized that his Dream, once representative of what every American, regardless of race, wants, now denotes the power of inequality in contemporary American society. One facet of race relations Coates is discontent with is the intrinsic right to success awarded only to white people, an idea commonly referred to as white privilege. The foundation of his Dream, or his notion of racial dynamics in America, is directly related to the idea of white privilege.
“This is the foundation of the Dream- its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the result of grit, honor, and good works” (98).
Coates’s perception of the Dream implies that white people in America truly believe that racism is a thing of the past and black people are awarded the same opportunities to succeed in relation to white people. Today, at least some whites ignore the privilege awarded to them for being white. This foundation of the Dream is important because it reveals that there is nothing malicious in the white perception of American society. However, it is the ignorance of white people to the existence of white privilege which makes it more dangerous than ever because it can be proliferated more easily since no one rejects it. America would rather ignore its ugly truths than confront them, which is why there continues to be racial discrimination today. American society must recognize Coates’s Dream as important because unless people address the underlying racism, it will continue to be propagated through society by the common ignorance of people. Coates’s tone throughout Between the World and Me is cynical about race relations, as seen in his descriptions of Samori’s struggle and the Dreamers’ future, but he believes the figure of the Dream is also important because the struggle against its foundation, white privilege, gives black life meaning.
The notion of the Dream passed down in writing from Ta- Nehisi Coates to his son Samori provides Samori with a particular lens through which he can observe racial relations in America. The racial dynamic of modern society favors white people, as it has throughout recorded history. Coates wants his son to be conscious of the inherent struggle that comes with being black because he believes this knowledge will give Samori strength and add meaning to his life. Although he loves Samori and wants the best for him, Coates wants his son to struggle against the Dream.
“I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you- but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it” (107).
By being aware of the racial dynamic in America, Samori will be more vulnerable to disappointment and unhappiness because he will understand America is a slave to the institutional racism prevalent in all aspects of society. However, Coates asserts consciousness, even though it may seem depressing, will bring Samori closer to the “meaning of life”. Coates does not explicitly state what makes life meaningful, though he asserts that believing oneself to be white divides one from a life of meaning. Perhaps he means by believing oneself to be white, one simplifies their entire personhood to one physical characteristic. “The quest to believe oneself white” is the pursuit of white privilege and the societal privileges history has told white people they deserve simply because of their skin color. If one rejects this quest, they are closer to the meaning of life because they find their own meaning, rather than accepting the meaning society deems suitable. Therefore, the notion of the Dream is important because it justifies the black struggle against an American society which prides itself on being white.
Coates’s figure of the Dream throughout Between the World and Me calls to mind the concept of the American Dream. These echoes are particularly evident in the way he describes his Dream from boyhood.
“It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and Cub Scouts” (11).
However, the association of the Dream and the American Dream does more than clarify what young Coates believed the Dream to be. More so, it elucidates the reason for Coates’s disillusionment with society. Since the American Dream originated in the early 20th century when segregation was legal and blacks were still the lowest class in America, the idea of equal opportunity for all was restricted to all white men. A child is the epitome of innocence and impressionability, so as a boy, Coates logically believed in the existence of the American Dream and the idea of genuine equal opportunity. He was too young to comprehend the complexity and unfairness of the American Dream and society in general. Contemporary American society points to modern legislation such as the Equal Opportunity Act, which condemns discrimination based features including race, sex, and religion, to contend that racism is no longer a problem in America. However, a law does not change cultural norms or societal beliefs. As a consequence, the American Dream appears golden but upon further investigation reveals itself to be gilded. As Coates grew up in the ghetto of Baltimore and then left home to attend Howard University, his Dream of a peaceful and equal racial dynamic became an embodiment of the white privilege which black people must struggle against.
While the origin of the American Dream and how it has continued to inspire Americans elucidates why Coates’s notion of his Dream changed, associating it with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech complicates the concept.
It is clear in Between the World and Me how critical Coates is of the ways mainstream American society’s uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream: “The Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong” (131). The objective of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was to call for a nonviolent end to legal segregation as a means of ending racism in the United States. Today, this speech is brought up each Black History month and is regarded as a pivotal turning point: the moment when blacks’ woes began to be heard and recognized by the government and by contemporary American society. However, this is as far as white America goes into the speech. Whites tend to disregard the fact that the speech did not result in equal rights for blacks and whites, and nor did it bring an end to racism. Associating Coates’s Dream with King’s dream also complicates the idea because the two approach American society in different ways. Coates made assertions by dividing American society into broad groups of people. He essentially cast white people as the “Dreamers” that black people have to struggle against, whereas Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a more united society and warned against divisions of the races in his speech.
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny” (King).
Coates supports King’s dream of legalized racial equality, but not the reinterpreted legacy of it as a watershed in the history of America. King’s dream proposes that racial equality is plausible and able to be fought for, but Coates’s Dream is much more pessimistic in this regard because he does not foresee an America in which black people need not fear inequality and the inherent advantage of white people.
James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” a 1963 publication in which Baldwin offered his nephew advice about “how to navigate the world he had been born into with black skin” (Alexander 2), inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Coates wrote the memoir to expose both his son and the reader to the underlying problems related to race within contemporary America. While the Dream proved to evolve throughout Coates’s life and to be of great importance to the rest of society, the associations drawn between the concept and the American Dream and “I Have a Dream Speech” contribute to deeper understandings of the notion itself and the history behind it. Although the memoir was well accepted by readers, one common critique of Coates’s Between the World and Me is that Coates is overly critical of the nature of race relations in America, and of American society as a whole. The passage in the novel when he refused to comfort his son when the killer of Michael Brown was not convicted exemplifies his cynicism. Rather than showing compassion, Coates turned the horror into a lesson for his son to learn to deal with these treacheries as a man. The sorting of the people in America into groups by color also demonstrates that he no longer sees Americans as having their own identities; instead, they are all part of the greater system which Coates condemns throughout his novel through the notion of the Dream and those who inspire the divisions between the races, the Dreamers. While there is discernible worth and merit to Coates’s central argument that his son must learn to struggle against the Dream, Coates may have had a stronger argument had he been less pessimistic. By denouncing the Dream and the Dreamers throughout the memoir, Coates loses support because his white readers are likely to feel attacked by quotes, such as…
“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” (151).
Coates’s cynicism may weaken his argument; however, the figure of the Dream is still a powerful notion of American racial dynamics which aligns with the novel’s message of discontentment with modern society’s treatment of race.
Alexander, Michelle. “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me.'” Rev. of Between the World and Me. New York Times [New York] 17 Aug. 2015: n.pag. Print.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Penguin Random, 2015. Print.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream”. Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., 28 Aug. 1963. Address.