History is at the heart of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me. Not just in how the events of the past shape the lives of African-Americans, but in how understanding and misunderstanding of the past shape both American society and Coates’ perception of it.
Looking back on his youth in Baltimore, Coates remembers fear being a regular part of life, and he sees that culture of fear as deliberate. For centuries, culture and government policy in the United States have worked together to keep African-Americans in fear. While white Americans are protected by home loans, the school system, and the justice system, these systems do far less to protect African-Americans, especially in poor neighborhoods. For Coates both in his youth and today, the justice system is more of a threat than a comfort.
In school, Coates found little encouragement. He wrote of Black History Month, and how his school portrayed the Civil Rights Movement. The more fierce, outspoken voices were ignored in his education. Instead, only the pacifist side of the movement was taught. “It seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera.” Coates wondered why his school only ever showed pacifist, even passive heroes.
Unable to find answers in school, Coates turned to his own research. Here he found his own heroes, first in Malcolm X. His writings were Coates’ first experience with not passive survival, but black pride. This led Coates to read more, delving into a history he had never learned in school. Before going to Howard University, he found his greatest inspiration in Queen Nzinga, a 16th-Century Central African monarch who had resisted the Dutch. Coates read of how, when the Dutch ambassador refused her a seat, Nzinga had ordered her advisor to kneel and make a chair of her body. Coates was awed by this display of power, seeing an idol in the queen’s indomitable will.
Coates’ education at Howard shattered that pedestal. The books he had read before had portrayed Nzinga’s show of power as an act of defiance, but Linda Heywood, Coates’ professor at Howard, showed a different perspective. She told the story from the view of the advisor, forced to humiliate herself and act as furniture so that her queen could sit. How could this be his idol, when she was just another oppressor? Dr. Heywood problematized the story, making Coates put himself in the place of the powerless and the downtrodden, rather than the monarch. His view of history changed again.
This made Coates reevaluate his life. He had been trying to fight back against colonial ideas. He had been trying to prove that Africans were worthy, to find the “Tolstoy of the Zulus” that novelist Saul Bellow had joked about. Coates realized that by doing this, he had been accepting Bellow’s colonial ideas. He had been accepting the idea that Bellow had reason to be proud because his skin was the same color as Tolstoy’s. Coates threw away the colonial perspective and was free to come to his own understanding of what it meant to be black in America.
Part of that understanding was realizing how oblivious white Americans could afford to be. Coates recalled going to the movies with his young son, and how a white woman shoved his child. When he got angry over the assault, the woman acted offended and a white man stepped in to defend her. Coates said that he wanted to point out the historical context, the reason that she felt entitled to move his son like an object in her way, but he knew she would deflect. The system of racism is built on deniability. Coates recounted how throughout history, even the most obvious racists have denied being racist. From Michael Richards shouting out racial slurs to homeowners in the 1960s fighting to keep their neighborhoods segregated, they always claimed to be not racist. Coates wanted to point out “that there was no golden era when evildoers did their business loudly and proclaimed it as such.”
Later in life, Coates wanted to foster the same knowledge of history in his son, and to expand his own knowledge. When his son was ten years old, Coates took him to several Civil War historical sites. Some of these sites were promising, others less so. Some sites, such as Gettysburg, tell a more inclusive narrative now. Coates mentions how before the Battle of Gettysburg, the town had a free African-American community, some of whom fled from the Confederates for fear of being enslaved. Petersburg Battlefield, by contrast, completely dodged the issue of slavery. The interpretation there presented Confederates as noble heroes, and the discussion on the tour obsessed over the weapons of war while carefully avoiding any discussion of why the war took place.
Coates shows history as a tool, one that people have often misused. It can oppress or empower. But to truly empower ourselves, we must see history as it was, not how we wish it were.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 17-18.
 Coates, The World, 32.
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