Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Between the World and Me Summary

Between the World and Me is a book-length letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son, Samori. In it, Coates explains to Samori what it means to be a Black man in America. 

  • Part 1 recounts Coates’ experiences as a young man growing up in Baltimore and his studies at Howard University. 
  • Part 2 takes place after the birth of Coates’ son. It discusses the death of Prince Jones and the time Coates spent in New York and France.
  • Part 3 discusses Coates’ visit with Prince Jones’ mother and Coates’ hopes—and fears—for his son and the Black people around him.

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Last Updated June 22, 2023.

Between the World and Me takes the form of a book-length letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his son, Samori. In this long letter, Coates relates his personal experiences as a Black man in a country built on the oppression of Black people.

Part I

Coates begins by remembering the interview he gave the previous Sunday on a popular news show. During the interview, a newswoman asked if Coates could explain why he believed that America's progress was built on looting and violence. He was disappointed because he believes it is abundantly clear that America was founded on enslavement and genocide; it was (and still is) fueled by racism. Coates feels that asking why he believes this is like asking about the condition of his body—his Black body, which carries the collective weight of centuries of enslavement, oppression, violence, and racism. That interviewer's question saddened him because she was asking him to wake her up from "the Dream": big, beautiful houses; white picket fences; happy homes filled with peppermint and strawberry shortcake. This American Dream is built on the backs of Black people and minorities.

When Coates sat down to write this letter, his son was fifteen years old. It was the year Eric Garner was choked to death, the year innocent twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by cops in a drive-by shooting, and the year Michael Brown's killers went free. Coates doesn't offer his son platitudes. Instead, he explains that this is his country and that his son will have to learn to bear the weight of this fact, just as Coates himself did.

Coates grew up in the streets of Baltimore in the 1980s. He never fit in with the hard, violent youths who stood on the corners playing music, peddling drugs, and beating passersby in order to prove their dominance. He couldn't speak their violent language and couldn't interpret their movements fast enough to defend himself. Most of the time, he avoided those kids. "To be Black in the Baltimore of my youth," he writes, "was to be naked before the elements of the world." Once, when Coates was in sixth grade, a boy pulled a gun on him, then put it in his pocket, then pulled it back out again. This moment stuck with Coates forever.

Though he learned the swagger of the streets, Coates’ "toughness" was merely a front. In truth, he longed for escape. Coates didn't take to school, thinking it another prison, but he was smart and admired Malcolm X. He aspired to be as intelligent and self-controlled as Malcolm X. He found himself drawn to The Mecca—that is, Howard University, where his father was a research librarian.

At Howard University, Coates was struck by the diversity of the student body: a mix of mathematical geniuses, African aristocrats, Muslims, rappers, and writers. When Coates arrived, his favorite book was Chancellor Williams's Destruction of Black Civilization. He read about Central Africa's long and complicated history. He read about Queen Nzinga, who ruled in the sixteenth century and flaunted her power by commanding a servant to kneel on all fours, like a chair; only later, in one of his classes, did he realize that he was that servant: the back on which the American empire rested. He learned that Black history was not simple or uniform: Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes were often at odds, W. E. B. DuBois warred with Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. disagreed on pacifism. Hip-hop artists fought with lyrics and bullets.

Coates' deep, abiding love of Black art in its various forms led to a love of art in general. Coates read poetry. He learned to cook for himself. He fell in love several times, and he began writing, primarily about music. He at last found his calling in journalism. And then, just before leaving Howard, he fell in love with a girl from Chicago: his future wife.

Part II

Coates found himself a father at twenty-four years old. He named his son after Samori Touré, a man who fought against French colonial rule in West Africa. After dropping out of Howard, he moved to Prince George's (PG) County in Maryland. PG County was (and still is) notoriously dangerous. The police officers were known to use excessive force, and despite many FBI investigations, the violent were rarely reprimanded and almost never brought to justice. One night, Coates was pulled over by a patrolman who asked for his ID; though the officer let him go, that didn't alleviate the fear Coates felt at all times. PG County policemen were unstoppable and could kill him at any moment.

That September, Coates read an article in The Washington Post about yet another police shooting: a friend of his, Prince Jones, was shot dead by an officer who claimed that Jones had tried to run him off the road—but Jones had done no such thing. Earlier that day, the police officer had been tasked with finding a five-foot-four, 250-pound African American drug dealer. Six foot three and 211 pounds, Jones didn't fit the description in the slightest; yet the officer followed him all the way from PG County to Northern Virginia and shot Jones just yards from his girlfriend's home. This devastated Coates. He began researching the history of police brutality in PG County. He grew angrier and angrier. Finally, he moved his family to New York City just two months before September 11, 2001.

In New York City, Coates slowly established himself as a writer. He worked as a freelancer, earning very little money, gradually building up a portfolio while his wife supported the family. One day, at a screening of Howl's Moving Castle, a New Yorker became impatient and pushed Coates' son, rushing to get by. Coates nearly got into a physical fight defending his son. This was dangerous, and a white man even threatened to call the cops on Coates. From this, Coates learned that New York City, despite all its diversity, was still a white man's town. Harlem was being gentrified. White people lived the Dream, pushing Black families out of their neighborhoods.

Around that same time, Coates became obsessed with the Civil War. He took his son to see Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and other Civil War sites. Like America itself, he understood that the South was built on the backs of enslaved people who picked cotton and fueled the economy. He saw the lasting effects of this injustice in everything: in his childhood in Baltimore, on his son's face when Eric Garner was killed, and in the anger and shame of a man being evicted from his home in Chicago. Coates shadowed the sheriff's officers as they conducted the eviction. He saw the devastation himself and understood that the same force that killed Prince Jones was demarcating and policing the ghetto: it was the Dream and the Dreamers maintaining their illusion of perfection by keeping Black people down.

Inspired by his wife's photos of Paris, Coates and his family traveled to France, where he found that the Dream didn't apply: France didn't have the same dark history as the United States (though it did, of course, engage in the slave trade). In Paris, Coates didn't feel the pressure of being a Black man in danger, a victim of the Dream.

Part III

In the final section of the letter, Coates recounts his visit to Dr. Mable Jones, Prince's mother, a kind, reserved woman who rose up out of poverty and gave her children everything: fancy cars, family vacations to Europe, excellent educations. She told Coates that Prince went to private schools his entire life; he made friends wherever he went and could probably have gotten into an Ivy League school. He chose Howard against her wishes. Coates writes, "I thought of the loneliness that sent [Prince] to The Mecca, and how The Mecca, how we, could not save him, how we ultimately cannot save ourselves."

The Dream is still strong and has empowered the Dreamers to plunder not just Black bodies but the earth itself. Coates ends the letter with twin offerings, one of hope and one of fear: the hope that one day Dreamers will wake up and become aware of the destruction they have caused, and the old fear of the ghettos that reminds Coates of how vulnerable his Black body is. He writes all of this to his son in the hope that it will help Samori grow into a man who understands the world around him.

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