What is the significance of the title of Between the World and Me?
Ta-Nehisi Coates took the title of his memoir from the poem “Between the World and Me” by Richard Wright, an influential black author who was born in Mississippi and later became a French citizen. “Between the World and Me” first appeared in the Partisan Review in 1935 and was later included in Wright’s 1957 book White Man, Listen! among several other collections. Coates also uses the first stanza of the poem as the epigraph to his memoir:
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me....
The scene the speaker describes is the aftermath of a lynching. Gripped first by pity and then by fear, the speaker imagines how the terrible event must have unfolded, putting himself in the place of the murdered man.
Like Wright’s poem, Coates’s memoir deals with the United States’ history of racist violence. Coates describes how this violence, which began with slavery, now takes the form of police brutality, mass incarceration, gentrification, red-lining, and everyday instances of racism perpetrated by individuals and perpetuated by official policies. Wright’s speaker imagines his “black wet body” being tied to the tree where the lynching took place, and Coates notes the fragility of his own body in a society where the theft, exploitation, and destruction of black bodies is “traditional.”
In the poem “Between the World and Me,” the speaker is reminded by the remains of the lynching of the constant threat of bodily destruction that surrounds him. In the memoir Between the World and Me, Coates attempts to help his teenage son, Samori, come to terms with the fact that, nearly a century later, this threat remains ever-present.