Summary: Part II, pages 75-88
Part II of Between the World and Me opens with Coates describing an instance where he is stopped by PG (Prince George) County police on the side of the road. As he waits for the officer, he is terrified. Even though the police force is mostly black, they have a reputation for police brutality. Sitting in the car, Coates thinks of all the violent incidences he has heard of in PG County. Despite FBI investigations into the force, officers largely go unpunished and are sent back out onto the streets. That night, the officer leaves without offering a reason for the stop, and this reminds Coates how easily he might lose his body for nothing.
Later, Coates reads that PG police have killed Prince Jones, his friend from Howard. Over the next weeks, Coates discovers that the police were supposed to have been following a man of significantly differing physical description, and instead they tracked Prince through three states to Virginia, where he was driving to visit his fiancée. There were no witnesses, and the cop claimed self-defense and shot him. There was no evidence to support a self-defense claim and virtually no investigation into the officer, who was not punished. Coates and his wife go to Prince’s funeral on Howard’s campus. Coates feels distanced from all the other mourners. Prince was a born-again Christian, and the pastor prays for forgiveness for the shooter. But that does not move Coates because he does not believe there is a God and cannot participate in prayer. He also feels that forgiving the single officer is futile, because the officer alone is not the murderer. The entire country and its systems are also responsible because the killer only expresses his country’s beliefs.
Prince’s death increases Coates’ fears for Samori. Prince had successfully escaped the ghettos which consumed so many, moved on to higher education, and actively lived out his Christian faith, but none of this saved him from getting killed. Coates urges Samori to think about all the effort, investment, and love that Prince’s family poured into him over the years. Coates begins to write about Prince’s death, investigating the PG County police through the new tool of the internet. Politicians tell Coates that the community prefers “safety” and the preservation of order, and they are unlikely to complain about police brutality. After Prince’s death, Coates has one dream about him. In the dream, Coates wants to warn Prince about the plunderers, but Prince shakes his head and turns away.
Coates has never considered living anywhere other than Baltimore after school, simply because he cannot imagine it for himself. However, he comes to realize that other people look farther out into the world searching for meaning, such as Kenyatta and Uncle Ben. Through culture and TV, Samori’s mother falls in love with New York, so the Coates family moves there when she gets a job in the city. At the time, Coates makes almost no money as a freelance writer. On September 11, 2001, Coates looks out at the destruction and is unable to sympathize with America or even the police officers and firefighters who lose their lives. The demonstrations of flags and American pride seem ridiculous to him because he cannot see a difference between the police officers at Ground Zero and the police officer who killed Prince. They do not seem human to Coates, only dangerous forces of nature that can steal his body.
Analysis: Part II, pages 75-88
This section comprises the darkest part of the letter and Coates’ thoughts. Prince’s death gives birth to a burning rage. Coates knows firsthand how difficult it is for a black person to get off the streets and break the cycle of poverty. Though he doesn’t know Prince’s precise background, it is clear from his attendance at Howard that Prince had a community of support and that people had invested in him. He or his family had escaped the streets, and he had mastered the schools. He had a fiancée and by all accounts was a kind and warm Christian person. He was, as black parents told their children to be, “twice as good.” If a man such as Prince can still be murdered and forgotten, then so can Coates and so can Samori. Prince’s death leads Coates to an insight into his own parents’ fear. He suddenly understands how his father had been so fearful that he beat his own son and why his mother held his hand so tightly when they crossed the street. They understood that their only child and legacy could be taken in a moment. Furthermore, nobody would be held accountable, and a black person’s death would be ascribed to “race,” not human fault.
Coates urges Samori to consider how it was not only Prince’s body that was plundered but also all the effort and love that had been poured into him. This reveals much about how Coates views the black body. By considering all the lost effort and love when Prince dies, Coates does not think of a body as just flesh and blood, but instead as a vessel for that person’s family, their ancestors, and all the history contained therein. This is why Coates views the black body as so precious. He realizes that his own parents view him as their legacy, and he sees Samori that way as well. Especially given that Coates does not believe in God or an afterlife and cannot connect with the idea that Prince is with Jesus during his funeral, it makes sense that the physical body is of the highest importance because it is the ultimate vessel and connection to the rest of the world.
Coates’ anger over Prince’s death pushes him to a painful point on September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. He describes his heart as being cold, and he cannot feel sympathy for the first responders in his new city. This may seem contradictory at first, given that Coates has told Samori to look at groups of victims in a very individual, detailed way instead of as a racially-defined group. After all, Prince had been shot by a black cop in a black neighborhood. However, Coates cannot feel sympathy for the first responders or for America as a whole because during that period, for him, the country is split into Dreamers and those oppressed by the Dream. The white people enslaved black people and built the American Dream on black backs. After slavery was abolished, fear permeated the segregated black communities all the way into the present. Fear seeps into parents, translates into violence, and allows the “heroes” of society to kill without repercussion, with even black people killing black people. In the shadow of the senseless death of his friend, Coates thinks of the individual Dreamers in America as a whole system, the system that killed Prince. Thus, the Dreamers perpetuate fear and violence, and do not deserve a reprieve when it comes their way in the form of the September 11 terrorist attack.