The Mecca: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Howard University Experience

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his fifteen-year-old son about what it means to be a black man living in a black body.  He illuminates how history, social constructs, and current events merge to create a society where, “police departments . . . have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” [1]  To Coates, his body and the bodies of his black ancestors have continuously been destroyed, sold, and viewed as inferior to “White America.”  He writes of the acts that have oppressed and violated black bodies through history and how this violation of identity and dreams continues today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son, Samari (from Between the World and Me, courtesy of Spiegel & Grau)

In writing Between the World and Me, Coates recalls how his experiences at Howard University in Washington, DC differed greatly from the experiences he had while in middle and high school in West Baltimore. In regards to his school experience in West Baltimore, Coates explains, “if the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left.  Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now.  But fail to comprehend schools and you gave up your body later.” [2]  Educators presented school to Coates as a means to escape jail and death from violence on the streets.  He admits in his book that he was a curious kid and the school he attended was not interested in cultivating his curiosity and talents but instead concerned with compliance and instilling false morality. [3]

Moorland-Spingharn Research Center, Howard University (Wikimedia Commons)

Flash forward to Coate’s college career.  He attended Howard University at age 17 and discovered a new world of scholarship and culture.  In an interview with Democracy Now!, Coates describes Howard University as, “ a beacon point, the Mecca, as I call it, as it calls itself, you know, in the book, for the entire black diaspora around the world.”[4]  Established in 1867, Howard University is, “the only truly comprehensive Black university and one of the major engineers of change in our society.” [5]  In Between the World and Me, Coates captures the objective and spirit of Howard: “The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.  The Mecca derives its power form the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.”[6]  The legacy of influential intellectuals and activists, as well as the location of Howard University, created the Mecca, the crossroads of the black diaspora. [7]

The Yard, Howard University (Wikimedia Commons)

Coates’s connection with Howard University deepened as he explored his identity and the importance of reclaiming his body through study and exploration.[8]  His interactions with other students also influenced his discovery of new identities within the black diaspora.  He elaborated on this idea, writing:

“And really what it showed me is, even within what seems like a narrow band, which is to say, you know, black life, is in fact quite cosmopolitan, is in fact a beautiful, beautiful rainbow. And to see all of these people, you know, of all these different persuasions, and to have that heritage —you know, Toni Morrison went to Howard. Amiri Baraka went to Howard. Lucille Clifton went to Howard. Ossie Davis went to Howard. And I was aware of that when I was there.”[9]

He addresses how his education at Howard University allowed him to study the histories and traditions of the black diaspora and how he witnessed those traditions in the quad, also known as The Yard.  Moreover, he explains how his interest in journalism allowed him to ask the hard questions concerning identity and society in an open, honest environment.  [10]

Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates addresses institutions and systems he has not only continuously striven to understand but also actively struggled against during his life.  Howard University is an example of an institution that encourages growth, understanding, and achievement.  Coates is another scholar in a long legacy of prominent activists, educators, and artists who took advantage of the beauty and intellectual environment of Howard University, the Mecca.

[1] Ta-Nahesi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 9.

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me, 25.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] “Between the World and Me”: Ta-Nehisi Coates in Conversation on Being Black in America.

[5] Howard University, History.

[6] Coates, 40.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] “Between the World and Me”: Ta-Nehisi Coates in Conversation on Being Black in America.

[10] Coates, 25.

16 thoughts on “The Mecca: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Howard University Experience

  1. I really enjoyed this part of the book and the connection you made between Coates’ Howard experience his previous education is really poignant. Although it is common for people to have an awakening in college and find other people whom they can relate to on deeper levels, the contrast here is really stark. His description of his pre-college education is so stale and bored. His time at Howard is a colorful enlightenment.

    1. I, too, really enjoyed this part of the book. Your post does a nice job at breaking down why Howard was so influential for Coates and other black activists. I found it incredibly frustrating that Howard needed to break away from the American educational system and become the Mecca for black students, because there were no other options for equal education. This portion of the book really highlights the control that white privilege has over almost every aspect of American society.

      1. I agree–and it’s interesting to think that although Howard was once necessary because there weren’t other options for black students, it continues to be necessary when there are completely integrated colleges and universities. Although black students may have other options, Coates does a fantastic job of explaining the truly unique, empowering atmosphere of being educated in a place surrounded by the “beautiful rainbow” of black life.

  2. I remember how dumb-struck I felt when Coates talked about the Streets and the Education system. He described them as two arms of the same beast, I believe, and talked about how both are designed to keep the system of American racial inequality alive and well. Thankfully, there is an educational institution that breaks from this “beast” I was glad to read your examination into how Howard University is the cultural heart of black Diaspora. I still cannot imagine the energy and excitement Coates must have felt when he first entered the school!

  3. Cassidy, great post. I was really interested to read Coates’ experiences at school. Like Julia stated, it is a stark contrast from his high school experiences to his time at Howard. His earlier experiences with the school system in Baltimore highlights the discrepancies within the education system that still shapes and influences young people today.

  4. I loved Coates’ description of Howard as “The Mecca,” as a place where people of different experiences could come together honestly and share stories and ideas. It made me wonder how these “Meccas” are created. In part, I would guess, it has to do with the long history of the institution. But I wonder if museums can become “Meccas,” probably not on the same level as Howard, but in some ways. I’m interested in what would be needed to make this happen.

    1. I agree, Christine! Howard seems to be able to exist to some extent outside of the “white american” system that, as Coates explains, continues to oppress and violate black bodies. Coates makes it seem that the removal of this system created a safe space which allowed him to explore his own identity more fully. I think that perhaps museums can also be a safe space in this way. However, I think that before we can do that we first have to come to terms with our own history as colonial institutions, and take steps to tell complete histories that include the voices of diverse populations.

    2. Christine, I thought about this a lot as I was writing this post, I wonder the same about the role of museums and how we can work to make the museums we work in “Meccas.”

  5. Coates’s description of Howard were really enlightening and it was really interesting reading your thoughts on it. I think his thoughts on Howard can be summed up by the very fact he calls it “The Mecca.” With two words, he expresses all of the emotions and the pull and influence of Howard. In those two words, he expressed an idea that could have taken paragraphs upon paragraphs to describe. And he did describe his experience there in detail as well as how that experience has impacted the rest of his life.

  6. As stated, I really enjoyed how your post expanded on Coates’s education in elementary/middle school and at Howard University. His time at Howard seemed to be an awakening for him as well as a time to really explore his intellectual thoughts and feelings. What I find interesting and would love to research more about as to why he did not finish his degree at Howard University. He seems to have prized his time at Howard and I am curious as to why he did not finish with a degree.

  7. I love the contrast here between Howard and the public school system. Howard challenged Coates, it made him think deeper, sparked his curiosity and made him reexamine everything he knew. The Baltimore schools just tried to keep him quiet and in line, not really interested in educating him or helping him develop.

  8. I really like the line “black life, is in fact quite cosmopolitan, is in fact a beautiful, beautiful rainbow. And to see all of these people, you know, of all these different persuasions, and to have that heritage.” It’s so great to see that Coates got the opportunity to feel this way despite the challenges of his upbringing.

  9. I enjoy how you brought out this section of the book Cassidy. The contrast between Coates’ experiences between his public school and Howard. How the public school tried to stifle his curiosity is a staggering view on the education system. I do like his description of Howard as a Mecca of learning and conversation. This awaking of Coates really shines through and highlights his thoughts on the rest of the book.

  10. I too found this an interesting part of the book, mainly in Coates’ discussion of “The Mecca” of Howard being at once the same and distinct from the university and the college curriculum. While Coates discusses at the Mecca was made possible through Howard, it it existed at the level of a greater awareness of African-American identity, and that rather than trying to replicate through a black lens what he thought the white race had, Coates needed to explore, understand and appreciate the beauty of black culture, for the good and the bad. Though Coates did not actually graduate from Howard, he determined that he gained his education from The Mecca and that this would light his path moving forward.

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