Between the World and Me and Hillbilly Elegy: Comparative Essay

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In both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy contain an underlying theme of feeling as if both J.D. Vance nor Ta-Nehisi Coates do not belong in the place they were raised. However, one is more mental the other is more physical. In both books, Mr. Vance and Mr. Coates do eventually come to terms with their fear, and both face the thing that caused them to fear. The main differences and similarities are the following: how their upbringing effected their views on the world, leaving everything they knew to better themselves, and finally realizing that coming to terms with their fears was a part of becoming a strong individual.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, is a letter to his son, Samori. He mentions his upbringing in the “ghettos” of Baltimore. “To be black in Baltimore of my youth was the be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fist, knives, crack, rape, and disease.”(Ta-Nehisi Coates, 17.) But, he was middle-class; he was not poor. He saw people learn what they needed to learn to survive on the street. Him seeing people grow up in desperate and horrible situations made him want to leave Baltimore. He was surrounded by crime his entire childhood, but he never participated in the crime. He wanted to see the good the world had, not just the bad. “Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed.”(Ta-Nehisi Coates, 10.) He learned that people had to be loud in order be “human beings”; it was almost animalistic. It was in college when he went through a transformation. He attended Howard University, and there he saw the diversity of African American intellect and a difference of creativity for the first time, seeing as he came from the “ghettos” of Baltimore. He was so used to African Americans being violent, ill-tempered, and poor; but he saw something beyond his wildest imaginations when he got out of Baltimore and into university. He mentions how Howard University “captured and concentrated all the dark energy of African people and injected it directly into the student body.”(Ta-Nehisi Coates, 40.) He called Howard University his “Mecca”(Ta-Nehisi Coates, 39.) At Howard University, he met his future wife and life-long friend. He left Howard University after five years to become a journalist. He started doing journalism, but got known for his article in the Atlantic, titled “This is How We Lost to the White Man.” His first journalism job, however; was as a reporter for The Washington City Newspaper, and his editor for that was David Carr.

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In J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, presents the book as a reason to why he is different. He is from the backwoods of Kentucky, where drug abuse and poverty is everywhere. “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.”(J.D. Vance, 4.) Unlike the rest of his family, he actually tries to make something of himself. He believes that the “hillbillies”, like his family, are the ones responsible for the mess they are in. The family believes they are unable to change it. He lived with his grandparents in Jackson, Kentucky; due to the instability of his father being gone and his mother being with many men. Where his mother was, which was Ohio, there was a wide spread poverty outbreak; which at first was fairly fixable, but since no one wanted to be held responsible for their own money, it became unfixable. This lack of responsibility and duty caused decay in the community, in both the physical manner, the emotional manner, and the mental state of every individual. They started to become more reliant on the government, and they eventually fell into a deeper impoverish state. However, the family unit was fairly strong, especially considering the circumstances. “But yeah, like everyone else in our family, they could go from zero to murderous in a f*cking heartbeat.”(J.D. Vance, 40.) That referred to what would happen if anyone messed with their family.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, he left the drug-ridden, criminal-infested “ghettos” to pursue an education. That was very rare for anyone to do; especially since he said that “school and religion seemed useless to him” when he was younger. When he was in university, he heard about the killing of Prince Jones. Mr. Jones was killed by a police officer and it made Mr. Coates remember the killings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice. He was angry at this. He was not angry at the police officer who shot him, but he was angry at America. He believed in America that the majority of the people believe that ‘black-bodied” individuals in America had no value, and it truly did seem like that. He said that, “he did not want his son to be forgotten if he was murdered.” Although he did not end up getting a degree, he finally got to see what life was like outside of his “neighborhood.” After he left college, he became a journalist. In his journalism, he mentions to his son that he has to be “twice as good” and follow “the rules.” This meant that he had to be twice as good to just not be considered bad, and he had to follow the rules closer than a white kid would. The prejudice against colored people was completely unfair to his son, and in fact all people of a non-white race. Much like in Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, racism is very prevalent in these stories.

In J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, he goes into the Marines as soon as he finished high school. He believed he was not motivated enough to enroll in college quite yet. He was in bootcamp and was going to go to Iraq. He was very scared that while he was deployed that something would happen to Mamaw, and he would not be able to help her or his family. Before he could go to Iraq, his Mamaw died suddenly. His Mamaw essentially raised him so this was very heartbreaking to him and his family. His mother got very angry after Mamaw’s passing. She told her friends and family to “stop mourning,” and she even told her own children that “she was not your mother so you have no right to cry.” He then got deployed to Iraq for two years, and when he came back, he enrolled in Ohio State University. He graduated from Ohio State University in one year and eleven months. Vance was then accepted into Yale, where he did not feel like he fit in. He felt as if he was not rich enough or preppy enough to make it in Yale. He met Usha, a woman he fell in love with, at Yale. She slowly helped him through the anger and depression he had over his family. After he graduated from Yale, he married Usha. He also learned that his mother was abusing drugs again, but this time instead of running away in anger, he helped her anytime she needed help. She did not really want to accept help, in fact, she would have much rather stayed in her despare.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, his biggest fear seems to be losing his son in an act of violence. The book itself is a letter to his son, warning him of the injustice done to people like him. He does not want his son to meet to same tragic and unjust ending as Trayvon Martin, Prince Jones, or Tamir Rice met. Mr. Coates himself is a dreamer, he dreams of a day where young “black bodied” individuals will not be a target to society. He dreams of a day when they will be treated equally and just, and not have the young ones killed with no authority. He mentioned in an interview that his dad was a member of the Black Panthers, he was surrounded by political activism and politically unjust people for his entire life. He; however, did not like the violent aspects of the group Black Panthers or the violence of Malcolm X, he wanted them to act justly, but still get rights. He did not want, if his son was killed, for him to be forgotten and abandoned by his country like Prince Jones was. He wanted for his son to not have to work harder to just be seen as average. He wanted for everyone to be seen as equal individuals.

In J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, he wanted to rise above the prevalent poverty and drug abuse of his hometown, but he knew he would do it alone. The people of his hometown wanted to play the victim; they wanted to act as if they could not help themselves. The biggest example of this would be Vance’s mother. She not only lied about his father, who turned out to be a very religious man with a wife, kids, stable job, and mental stability, she also slept with multiple men, abused drugs multiple times, did not raise her own children, got mad when her children mourned the passing of their grandparents, but also continued to paint herself as the victim and receive sympathy no matter what. Vance tried to help her, but every single time he did, she would get mad. She yelled at her own children, saying, “He was not your dad.” when they mourned the loss of their grandad. She could not take the blame for the things she did. He tried to help them that could not help themselves. Vance’s biggest fear was him becoming his mother. But his mother was not the only one like this in the area, everyone was like this. They refused to take the blame for the things they have done, and they remained in their troubles and sorrows.

The upbringing, the leaving everything behind, and the coming to terms with their fears may be different for these two men, but they were nonetheless difficult for them. Both of them had to overcome both physical challenges, emotional challenges, and mental challenges; just to get to a place where they were stable. They had the world against them, and they defied the odds against them to make a difference wherever they were. Neither of them gave up, however; and that is the most important thing one could do. They both realized that it was better for them to better themselves, yet stray from what they know, than for them to live in struggle and fear over what will they do next.

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Between the World and Me and Hillbilly Elegy: Comparative Essay. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
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