63 pages 2 hours read

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s nonfiction book Between the World and Me was published in 2015 by One World, an imprint of Random House. It was met with critical acclaim and won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the Biography/Autobiography genre, and the 2016 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. It is a New York Times best-seller and was heralded by iconic literary figure Toni Morrison as “required reading.” Coates has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and is currently a distinguished writer in residence at the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He also authors the Marvel comics Black Panther and Captain America.

Between the World and Me takes the form of a long letter to Coates’s son Samori at age 15. The book focuses on the psychological and physical trauma of racial violence that haunts generations of black people, and takes its name from a poem by famed black author Richard Wright. Within the first chapter, Coates explains the bodily harm that institutionalized racism, from law to discriminatory economic policies to ineffective public school systems, causes black lives. Coates often references his body or his son’s body, emphasizing the corporal harm that results from America’s willful ignorance of its historical past, including slavery, genocide, and Jim Crow-era racism. Coates connects this history to contemporary life, in which black youth are faced with the realities of police brutality as emphasized by the murders of children and young adults like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Renisha McBride.

Coates weaves personal experience into his social commentary. He recalls his son’s reaction to the verdict of Michael Brown’s case. After a five-month trial, the police officer who murdered Brown was charged with no crime. Coates recalls hearing his son cry in his room and choosing not to comfort him. He recalls his own understanding of the fragility of his body as a black man while growing up in Baltimore. He describes the young men who used fashion and bravado as a shield against this fear of death and the corporal punishment that he and many of his friends received from their parents, which served as a warning shot for the real world.

Witnessing injustice on the streets and in his schools, Coates questions the version of blackness that he has been taught by white America. He turns to figures such as Malcolm X to answer these questions of racism. When he arrives at Howard University, which Coates lovingly calls “the Mecca,” he sees the complexity of African American and African identity and history. His professors break down the idealized version of black legacy that he has constructed. He learns from the older poets around him how to write in a way that matches his curiosity about the world. The women Coates falls in love with at Howard expose him to different expressions of blackness and different expressions of love.

After meeting “the girl from Chicago,” Coates’s son Samori is born (102). Fatherhood deepens Coates’s understanding of his survival, knowing that his death would have a reverberating effect on his child. Shortly after Samori is born, Coates’s Howard University acquaintance Prince Carmen Jones, a high-achieving student from an affluent family, is killed by police. After Jones’s death, Coates comprehends on an even more visceral level the blatant disregard that American institutions have for black life, regardless of class, accomplishment, or social standing.

Coates’s move to New York City further accentuates the gap he feels between himself and white Americans. He sees the level of entitlement on gentrifying Harlem streets. He recalls a white woman once pushing four-year-old Samori to implore him to walk faster. When Coates responds, a white bystander threatens to have Coates arrested. In these moments Coates is again reminded of America’s foundational white supremacy, enacted even in these daily social interactions. He reflects on America’s portrayal of the Civil War as a point of heritage rather than the protection of white people’s right to enslave and exploit black bodies. He calls this willful ignorance of the roots of American history “the Dream.”

Coates ends the book by returning to the Mecca with his wife and son. He explains to Samori the powerful affirmation of community. He encourages him not to forget his history—the good and the bad. He encourages Samori to be aware of the responsibilities and burdens of blackness, but not to internalize them. “Struggle for wisdom,” Coates tells Samori, but “do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all” (148).

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