Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me Study Guide

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s acclaimed letter to his teenage son, Samori, about what it means to be a black person in America. It spans the personal, such as growing up in Baltimore and his cultivation of an intellectual and political consciousness at Howard University in the 1990s, and the historical, as seen in his discussion of the ways in which the black body has always been privy to destruction. Written in a bold, immediate, and at times passionate and angry voice, Coates places contemporary events like the killings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin in this larger narrative of black struggle. One of his main themes is the "Dream" - the world in which people who call themselves white inhabit and the one they do not want black bodies within; the Dream is alluring but false.

The letter came about for a few reasons. He met President Obama in 2013 and was frustrated with himself for being so deferential when he had difficult questions for the President on race. At their second meeting he was more direct, discussing healthcare and its racial dimensions. Obama pulled Coates aside and referenced a criticism Coates had made of him on his blog regarding Obama’s statement that African Americans had “lost their way” and needed to take more personal responsibility. Obama said Coates had been unfair, and as he walked away, told Coates, “Don’t despair.” Around this time Coates had been rereading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and asked his editor why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore. His editor suggested he try, so Coates began to write a letter to his son much in the fashion of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. His son’s heartbroken response to the exoneration of the officer who killed Brown also influenced the development of the work.

Even though Coates wrote the book as a letter to his son, he asked him about it first and showed him drafts. He said he would not have published it without his son’s permission.

The work was initially slated to appear in October 2015 but was bumped up to July after the Charleston church shooting in which a white supremacist targeted black churchgoers. Critics almost unanimously lauded the work. It won the 2015 National Book Award and the NAACP Image Award; it was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It spent many weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and made it onto many “Ten Best Books of the Year” lists in 2015.

The only person Coates sought an endorsement from was Toni Morrison. Although he and his editor did not know her, they got the galley in her hands and her assistant forwarded her response: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates… This is required reading.”