Between the World and Me Themes

  • Between the World and Me is about race. Coates argues that America was built on the backs of slaves and that to be black in America is to be in a constant state of danger. He describes how vulnerable black bodies are to police brutality, street fighting, and drug abuse. He wants his son to understand what it means to be an African American man in this day and age.
  • Coates calls the American Dream "the Dream." He describes the Dream as "perfect houses with nice lawns" and a general sense of prosperity and well-being that African Americans rarely achieve. The Dream doesn't apply to all Americans, and the Dreamers often fail to recognize that fact.
  • Fatherhood is an important theme in the book, and Coates feels responsible for his son's education as a black man in America. He wants his son to become a serious, intelligent black man who understands what it means to be African American. This letter is an attempt to impart some of the knowledge Coates has accumulated over the years to his son.

Race and Racism

Race and racism are two of the central themes of Between the World and Me. Unlike many scholars, Coates believes that race derives from racism, not the other way around. In other words, he believes that the desire to hate others in order to improve one's own status requires that there be an "other," a race "inferior" to one's own. Thus, the desire to be rich drove plantation owners to reduce their black slaves to possessions, strip them of their rights, and deny their humanity. It was the construct of race that enabled these plantation owners to believe that slavery was good and owning slaves wasn't evil.

America was founded on racism, fueled by the labor of slaves that made it possible for white people to live the Dream. Over a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery (except as punishment for a crime), black people are still oppressed, relegated to ghettos, and imprisoned at disproportionate rates. What's more, this history weighs on every black American. Coates learned how to bear this burden, and now he hopes to teach his son to do the same through this letter.

The Black Body

Coates introduces the theme of the black body on the first page of the letter, during his account of an interview he gave on a popular news show. Without realizing it, the interviewer who asked why he believed American progress was built on violence was really asking about his body: whether or not it was free, whether he was safe, whether he bore the weight of American history on his back. In the course of this letter, he explains how black bodies have historically been used, beaten, enslaved, profiled, imprisoned, and otherwise crushed by their oppressors. Even—and perhaps especially—in black neighborhoods, black bodies are vulnerable, threatened on every side by police officers, guns, drugs, discriminatory laws, and violence within the community.

As a child growing up in the streets of Baltimore, Coates learned the subtle language of black bodies: the fear of being targeted by cops and drug dealers alike, the "toughness" that covers that fear, the codes that dictate how people act in every situation, including saying hello. Even when he left Baltimore, that fear weighed on him. The knowledge of his own vulnerability never left him—at least, not until he visited France, where black people don't have the same history of oppression.

The American Dream

Early on, Coates describes the American Dream like this: It is "perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake." This beautiful, fanciful Dream, he writes, was built on the backs of slaves; it is made possible by racism; it thrives, but only for white people—black people rarely have access to it.

Coates calls it "the Dream" rather than "the American Dream" because it doesn't apply to all Americans. Those who believe in it are called Dreamers. Dreamers are, by virtue of the fact that they are sleeping, blind to the reality of racism. Some of them believe themselves to be enlightened. Some are completely unaware of the problem. And still others aren't just complicit in the oppression of black people; they actively participate in it. These Dreamers are police officers and lawmakers and even everyday citizens who use their privilege for evil, killing innocent children, assuming all black people are criminals, and acting with impunity because the justice system only values black bodies as prisoners. Knowing all this, Coates writes, it's difficult to believe in the "American Dream," except to believe in its faults.

Fatherhood

Fatherhood is a fraught theme for Coates. He became a father at the age of twenty-four, before he was established in his career. Having his son, Samori, changed his life for the better but brought with it a host of concerns: how to teach his son to be strong and intelligent, to bear the weight of black history bravely, to not be crushed by it.

Coates himself admits that he was luckier than many boys in his neighborhood: his father was present, a research librarian at Howard University, and didn't go to jail or die in the streets. Coates was raised by both of his parents and was determined to give his son that same privilege. He wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his son. This letter is an expression of his fatherly love and also a kind of educational document, a gift of knowledge passed from father to son so Samori will have the tools he needs to face the world. That's Coates's goal: to make his son a serious, intelligent man.

Death

Death and the threat thereof preoccupies Coates. Growing up in Baltimore, he understood that death would more often than not be unnatural for black men. It would come early, in the form of gang wars and police brutality, and wipe out entire families if they weren't careful. Coates was in the sixth grade when a boy pulled a gun on him for no real reason. He didn't tell anyone it happened, but that moment stuck with him.

Coates understood that death and violence are part of black heritage. Slavery destroyed generations, and the War on Drugs imprisoned others. Everywhere he looked, Coates saw the effects of police brutality. He was particularly struck by the senseless murder of Prince Jones, an innocent black man who was stalked and shot by a police officer who was never brought to justice. This death only further emphasizes the vulnerability of black bodies in America.