Between the World and Me Summary

Between the World and Me is a book-length letter from author Ta-Nehisi Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori. It was written shortly after his son learned that Michael Brown's killers would go free—the same year that Tamir Rice and Eric Garner were killed by police officers. Coates wanted to explain to his son what it means to be a black man in America.

  • Part I of the letter recounts Coates's experiences as a young man. He grew up in Baltimore in the 1980s, at a time when simply walking to school was dangerous enough to get people killed. He went on to study at Howard University, his Mecca, where he began pursuing his career as a writer.
  • Part II is set after the birth of Coates's son Samori. It begins with a discussion of the death of Prince Jones, an African American man killed by a police officer who was never brought to justice. It then follows Coates to New York City, where he established himself as a writer, and to France, where Coates would eventually move his family.
  • Part III is the shortest section of the book. It recounts Coates's visit with Mable Jones, Prince Jones's mother, a very successful woman who rose up out of poverty to give her children all the things she never had.

Summary

Between the World and Me takes the form of a book-length letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his son. In this long letter, Coates relates his personal experiences as an African American man in a country built on the oppression of African Americans. He 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 slavery 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 slavery, 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 African Americans and other 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, 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. Coates 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, 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 light-skinned 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, his "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...

(The entire section is 1431 words.)