Between the World and Me Summary

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

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Between the World and Me Summary

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Between the World and Me is an autobiographical book by journalist and academic Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written in the form of a lengthy letter to his son (a form inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time), the book explores race and racism in modern-day America, concluding that non-whites will have to struggle against white supremacists forever. The book is divided into three parts.

In Part 1, Coates address his son, telling the story of an appearance he made on a talk show. The white host asks him why he believes the progress of what could be defined as “white America” was built on violence and looting. He responds that the answer is the entirety of American history, describing the sadness he feels when asked such questions.

Coates tells his own personal history as a black man born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1970s and 1980s. His childhood surroundings were violent and crime-ridden. He observes that some of his peers attempted to seize control of their lives and their environment by “owning” the streets; this was a false sense of agency as they literally owned nothing and had no true power in the larger context of society.

At school, Coates encountered a different form of powerlessness, as the teachers and systems were designed to discipline and control behavior rather than to educate or inspire. He finds that religion offers no guidance, as his family is not very religious and is distrustful of the church.

Coates tells his son that he learned the most from his father, who was a member of the Black Panther party. The aggressive approach of the Panthers and Malcolm X is more effective than the nonviolent approach. Coates attended Howard University, which he refers to as “my Mecca.” Howard’s diverse student body taught him the limitations of racial categories. He tells how he began working as a writer and about the women he dated, who challenged his ideas—the last woman is his son’s mother.

In Part 2, shortly after his son’s birth, a classmate, Prince Jones, was killed by the police; Coates describes his anger and resistance to the messages of forgiveness offered at the service. He compares his good, kind-hearted friend with the incompetent and violent police officer who has escaped punishment for so long, seeing the eternal nature of racism. Coates moves his family to New York. He recounts several incidents where he is uncomfortable, feeling threatened by white citizens who to wield the power of the state against black people such as himself.

Coates reminds his son of a trip they took to visit Civil War battlefields when his son was ten years old. He took pains to teach his son about the way white people used black bodies to effect their political and social changes; this has always been the case. He tells his son that he cannot offer him optimism about the future, but he can arm him with information and knowledge. Working as a journalist, Coates travels to Chicago to follow police, witnessing black people being evicted forcibly from their homes. He brings his son to meet the mother of a black man killed by the police. Coates travels to Paris, thrilled to feel the absence of the ingrained racism he has felt in America his entire life. He brings his family there as well; while Europe is certainly not paradise, he revels in not feeling hated. He reflects that his son has been insulated from the violence and racism around him to a certain extent, but that he feels he has prepared him as best he can.

In Part 3, Coates visits Prince Jones’s mother, Dr. Mabel Jones. He describes her as a remarkable woman who was aware of the racism and white supremacy around her, but who, nevertheless, worked hard and became a doctor, refusing to acknowledge that she experienced any hardship that her white peers did not. She loved her son intensely and feels the pain of his death acutely, telling Coates bitterly that no matter how much progress black people make, all it takes is one act of violence to undo it.

Driving home, Coates describes his thought process as he reflects on the “Dream” and how the “Dreamers” may someday awaken to the permanent state of violence and hatred they live with, and how technology may be a factor going forward in this struggle for awareness. As he drives home through the crime-ridden neighborhoods of Chicago, however, he feels the same sense of insecurity and fear he felt as a child, implying that nothing has really changed. He expresses great worry about the future.