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Between the World and Me

Format: Hardcover, 176 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
On Sale: 07/14/2015
Price: $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-812-99354-7
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
Winner, National Book Award in Nonfiction
Winner, Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction
Winner, ALA Alex Award
Finalist, Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction)
Selected for the Green Mountain Book Award Master List

Selected for common reading at:

Adelphi University
Allegheny College
Amherst College
Augustana College
Brooklyn College
California State University, Northridge
California State University San Marcos
College of the Redwoods
Davidson College
Eastern Mennonite University
Edmonds Community College
Framingham State University
Gustavus Adolphus College
Hampshire College
Hiram College
Jackson State University
Kresge College
Lafayette College
Lesley University
Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania
Mount Holyoke College  
New York University
North Carolina State University
North Hennepin Community College
Pacific Lutheran University
Rhode Island College 
Saint Martin's University
Saint Michael's College
Sewanee: The University of the South
Skidmore College
Temple University 
Tulane University
University of California, Los Angeles
University of Kansas
University of Maryland Eastern Shore
University of Michigan–Flint
University of Oregon 
University of San Diego
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Washington University in St. Louis
Western Washington University

Selected for summer reading at:

Illinois Wesleyan University
Muhlenberg College   
Wagner College

“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

Praise for Between the World and Me
“Powerful and passionate . . . profoundly moving . . . a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Brilliant . . . [Ta-Nehisi Coates] is firing on all cylinders, and it is something to behold: a mature writer entirely consumed by a momentous subject and working at the extreme of his considerable powers at the very moment national events most conform to his vision.”The Washington Post

“I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.”—Toni Morrison

“Ta-Nehisi Coates is the James Baldwin of our era, and this is his cri de coeur. A brilliant thinker at the top of his powers, he has distilled four hundred years of history and his own anguish and wisdom into a prayer for his beloved son and an invocation to the conscience of his country. Between the World and Me is an instant classic and a gift to us all.”—Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns
“I know that this book is addressed to the author’s son, and by obvious analogy to all boys and young men of color as they pass, inexorably, into harm’s way. I hope that I will be forgiven, then, for feeling that Ta-Nehisi Coates was speaking to me, too, one father to another, teaching me that real courage is the courage to be vulnerable, to admit having fallen short of the mark, to stay open-hearted and curious in the face of hate and lies, to remain skeptical when there is so much comfort in easy belief, to acknowledge the limits of our power to protect our children from harm and, hardest of all, to see how the burden of our need to protect becomes a burden on them, one that we must, sooner or later, have the wisdom and the awful courage to surrender.”—Michael Chabon

“A work of rare beauty and revelatory honesty . . . Between the World and Me is a love letter written in a moral emergency, one that Coates exposes with the precision of an autopsy and the force of an exorcism. . . . Coates is frequently lauded as one of America’s most important writers on the subject of race today, but this in fact undersells him: Coates is one of America’s most important writers on the subject of America today. . . . [He’s] a polymath whose breadth of knowledge on matters ranging from literature to pop culture to French philosophy to the Civil War bleeds through every page of his book, distilled into profound moments of discovery, immensely erudite but never showy.”Slate

“Immense, multifaceted . . . This is a poet’s book, revealing the sensibility of a writer to whom words—exact words—matter. . . . As a meditation on race in America, haunted by the bodies of black men, women, and children, Coates’s compelling, indeed stunning, work is rare in its power to make you want to slow down and read every word. This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future . . . Coates offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. . . . This moving, potent testament might have been titled Black Lives Matter.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His book Between the World and Me won the National Book Award in 2015. Coates is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.
open close READ AN EXCERPT

. . . we sprawl in gray chains in a place full of winters when what we want is the sun

Amira Baraka, “Ka Ba”


Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.

The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the rec­ord of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—­torture, theft, enslavement—­are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.

This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—­the need to ascribe bone-­deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—­inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—­this is the new idea at the heart of this new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—­Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—­and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury. I think you know.

I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-­year-­old child whom they were oath-­bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.

There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—­race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—­serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

That Sunday, with that host, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-­year-­old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. 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. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.

This must seem strange to you. We live in a “goal-­oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—­specifically, how do I live free in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. I have asked the question through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother, your aunt Janai, your uncle Ben. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.

And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such.

It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-­length fur-­collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T‑shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired.

I saw it in their customs of war. I was no older than five, sitting out on the front steps of my home on Woodbrook Avenue, watching two shirtless boys circle each other close and buck shoulders. From then on, I knew that there was a ritual to a street fight, bylaws and codes that, in their very need, attested to all the vulnerability of the black teenage bodies.

I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies. I saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over. And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how they would cut you with their eyes and destroy you with their words for the sin of playing too much. “Keep my name out your mouth,” they would say. I would watch them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vas­elined up, earrings off, Reeboks on, and leaped at each other.
open close TEACHER'S GUIDE


Please click on the PDF link at the bottom of this page to download the Teacher's Guide.


In a profound work that pivots from the most pressing questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of an African American father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s painful racial history and our current civil rights crisis. Americans have built an entire society on the idea of “race,” a false construct whose ramifications damage us, but fall most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion to their number in the population. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions, in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in American culture through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken far too soon, as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son. Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Touching on a range of topics, Coates’s letter to his adolescent son is a deeply ruminative and moving meditation. The impetus for the book is Coates’s attempt to situate himself within our current fraught racial climate, while grappling with our nation’s history of slavery. As the book progresses, he offers philosophical investigations into systems of slavery, police brutality, what it means to parent a child, and other topics that are of critical import for understanding identity in twenty-first-century America. However, there are ultimately no clear answers, making this text an excellent resource for discussion, reflection, and re-reading.
Supporting the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Reading Informational Texts for high school curriculums, Between the World and Me is an appropriate selection for grades 11 and 12 in Language Arts or US History classes. At the college level, the book is appropriate for Composition and Literature classes, Race Studies, Gender Studies, and is also ideal for first-year/common reading programs.
In the following “Examining Content Using Common Core State Standards” section of this guide, the prompts provide for a critical analysis of Between the World and Me using the CCSS for Informational Text for grades 11 and 12 and are organized according to the standards they primarily support. In addition, at the end of each standard and the corresponding prompts, a classroom activity is provided that will further enhance analysis of the text.
For a complete listing of the Standards, go to:
Reading Between the World and Me will be a richer and more meaningful experience for students if they first have had opportunities to understand that individual experiences determine one’s perception of race and race relations in the US today. The personal exploration and reflection the book invites requires that teachers and students first be aware of the historical context of race, and the political, economic, and cultural outcomes that have been produced by its role and influence in American society since the nation’s founding. 
Talking about and reflecting on race and racism is difficult. However, a quick glance at any set of headlines reveals what happens when we fail to acknowledge difference and do not attempt to reach some type of cross-cultural understanding. Between the World and Me is situated in the middle of this discomfort, as Coates is a black man relating his experiences of racism and police brutality, among other contentious topics. Thus, it makes sense to prepare readers to open themselves up to being able to truly hear and understand Coates’s ideas, and to be ready to share and examine their own personal reactions to the book.
If people feel uncomfortable discussing race, they shut down, thus eliminating opportunities for growth and communication. Therefore, it is appropriate to have an initial conversation in which guidelines are established to ensure participants’ comfort and safety, and to create an inviting space for reading the text. Taking the time to have these discussions up front with students encourages them to move beyond stereotypes and self-censorship, and to be able to grapple with a more nuanced understanding of what it means to live in our current world. Although the discussion may initially prove uncomfortable, setting mutually agreed upon parameters first will go a long way toward setting a foundation that will encourage empathy and deeper understanding. It might also be helpful to allow for time for thoughtful reflection and processing throughout the reading of the book; this may also help to ease any discomfort that arises. For example, allow students to spend some time journaling before transitioning into small group discussions that encourage honest discourse. This, too, helps establish an environment where listening to and respecting different viewpoints is valued.
Additionally, reading some of Coates’s columns for The Atlantic on the magazine’s website introduces readers to his work and positions prior to reading the book. See the Resources section of this guide for additional ideas for pre-reading work.


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
The Body: What does Coates say about the precarious nature of his specifically African American body? What dangers does he cite that threaten the safety of his body? Examine the specific instances in which Coates describes his body, the violence enacted upon it, and his attempts to preserve his body and the bodies of loved ones. What explicit ideas about the perceived value of black life do these examples support?
The Dream: What, exactly, is “the Dream” as Coates describes it? Who is able to experience the Dream? What prevents Coates and his loved ones from realizing that same Dream? How does Coates’s version of the Dream differ from other, idealized versions of the Dream favored by popular media, literature, and other outlets? Why might Coates’s aversion to the Dream as it is traditionally conceived be difficult for Americans to accept?
Education: Coates repeatedly finds himself at odds with the American system of formal education. “I was made for the library, not the classroom,” he writes (48). Despite his discomfort with traditional education, however, he expresses a nearly insatiable desire to learn. What complications and questions do his literacy experiences raise, particularly for a young black man? Note: For a deeper exploration of the issues surrounding race and education, consult the ACLU’s School to Prison Pipeline website.
Prince Jones: Examine Coates’s description of Prince Jones as a “vessel that held his family’s hopes and dreams” (81–82). Evaluate how this description underscores the notion that “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession” (82).
Create a visual representation that compares and contrasts Coates’s reality to “The Dream.” Then, in a written exploration, trace the significance of the differences between dream and reality, and explain how the visual representation helps articulate and extend Coates’s main points.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.2 Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.
Coates explores several broad themes, including race, racism, and systemic oppression; fear; father-son relationships; the search for identity; education; and justice, among others. Trace the development of one or more of these themes throughout the text. How does Coates develop this theme? What events or details are most central to his development of this theme?
The title of the book is taken from Richard Wright’s poem of the same name. The poem and the book make a fitting text pairing. Read Wright’s poem (available here:, and then analyze the connections between the two texts, and the patterns they may share.
Coates writes the book to his adolescent son, Samori. Throughout, he describes moments of paralyzing fear, often accompanied by imminent or potential threats of violence. In the first section of the book, Coates reacts to the murder of Michael Brown, and how to address it with Samori, writing, “I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I never believed it would be okay” (11). How does Coates’s reaction here help us think about the relationship between fear and violence? How is the perceived relationship between fear and violence further developed after his friend, Prince Jones, is killed? Readers might also want to consider Coates’s admiration of Malcolm X, and how this admiration adds another layer of complexity to the fraught relationship between fear and violence.
“Literacy for Freedom” is a belief deeply rooted in African American liberation tradition. Essentially, it is necessary for African Americans to be able to read and write, if they are ever to achieve freedom and equality. In many respects, Between the World and Me can be read as a literacy narrative. Examine Coates’s description of the types of literacy he pursued, and the types of literacy promoted by his father and other family members. Create a timeline of Coates’s significant experiences of reading and writing, including people who influenced him in his explorations of literature and literacy. Conduct a Structured Academic Conversation (explained here: to determine which experience was the most liberating for Coates, and the overall impact of that key experience.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines “faction” in Federalist No. 10).
“I was admitted to Howard University, but formed and shaped by The Mecca,” (40) Coates explains. When Coates arrives at Howard in his narrative, his tone changes. At this “crossroads of the black diaspora,” he is enveloped in a multilayered history. Analyze Coates’s description of Howard’s Yard (40–42), thinking in particular about how his word choices help to reflect the magnitude of his educational and racial awakening, as well as to distinguish between “the Mecca” and “Howard University.” How did each place contribute to the growth of Coates’s self-awareness and his path toward maturity? What is the relationship between institutions and the culture that institutions create, as well as the culture that is created by students or individuals within these institutions?
When Coates travels to Paris, he has another learning experience that challenges his fears and assumptions. After an outing with a friend, he describes a particular type of loneliness that deeply disturbs him and leads him to realize that “Some of us make it out. But the game is played with loaded dice” (124). How does this statement characterize Coates’s conflicting emotions and concerns about the legacy he hopes to share with his son?
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.5 Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.
Coates structures his book as a letter to his son. Does the epistolary format make his overall argument more or less effective? Is the letter the best format for conveying such a powerful argument? If no, then what form might be more effective? If yes, name the aspects of the format that are most successful and that best support the argument in favor of the epistolary form.
James Baldwin also wrote a letter (to his nephew, not his son) that discussed issues including race, equality, and love (available here: Many consider this letter to be among Baldwin’s best writing; and Baldwin is regarded by many as one of America’s most important writers. Analyze and evaluate Baldwin’s main ideas in his letter, then compare his arguments with those of Coates. How are the letters similar in their messages and themes, and where do they diverge? Consider content, style, and overall message in your comparison. What connections can you draw between Coates and Baldwin?
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
Between the World and Me can be divided into three sections, each focused on a different era in Coates’s life: his early life, before attending Howard University; his time at Howard; and his life after Howard. What is Coates’s primary claim throughout the book? What is his key purpose in writing this book? As he narrates his experiences, what techniques (rhetorical, literary, etc.) does Coates use to make his ideas coherent and to organize his information?
“I wanted you to claim the whole world as it is . . . The Struggle is in your name, Samori” (68). Evaluate the power of Coates’s direct addressing of his son, and of his refusal to portray the world to his child in idealized terms. What is the value of “the Struggle,” even if the result is death? How, too, does Coates encourage readers to consider the complexity of parenting, particularly for black fathers and black sons?
Coates writes powerfully about the legacy of slavery and the haziness of memory, particularly as that haziness allows for the denial and erasure of the brutal institution’s role in American history. Interpret Coates’s meaning when he writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” (103). Then, compare that statement to this one: “There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream” (105). Why is the burden of truth so difficult to bear? Why must the truth be faced, regardless of the resistance to that truth?
Explore the resources available from the National Humanities Center ( on enslaved Africans in the United States. Then:
a. Find images that correspond to Coates’s description of an enslaved woman (69–70). Combine the visual and written texts in a way that illustrates his assertion that “slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh” (69). Or,
b. Create a dialogue poem between Coates and one of the images that helps to illustrate and support his assertion.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.
Coates reminds the reader of the seemingly unrelenting threat of violence perpetuated on black bodies throughout American history, from slavery, to redlining, to police brutality. He names numerous black men killed at the hands of police, including his friend Prince Jones. Select one or more of the men mentioned in the book and conduct research about his death, drawing on a variety of resources to ensure a balance of viewpoints. Then, decide how your research should be presented and determine an appropriate audience. Finally, your research should make clear how it can be used to strengthen claims Coates makes and, most importantly, how it either supports or refutes Coates’s contention.
“Let’s Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students” ( A Teaching Tolerance webinar with accompanying free materials including a self-evaluation and teaching strategies.
Ed Change ( Resources for multicultural and social justice education.
Systemic Racism YouTube Video Playlist ( This series of videos created by Race Forward features Jay Smooth, who explains the various systems that contribute to perpetuating racial inequality in the United States.
Moving the Race Conversation Forward ( This video featuring Jay Smooth aims to explain the complications of discussing race without considering the various levels of racism (internalized, interpersonal, systemic/institutional, structural) that are interrelated and affect and influence one another.
Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs by David Roediger: This book helps situate Coates’s discussions of whiteness and “those Americans who believe that they are white” (6), providing a foundation for discussion of Coates’s ideas.
Richard Wright, “Between the World and Me” (
The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
“In Case of Emergency: Letter to my Nephew,” Joshua Bennett (a spoken-word poem, available
Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Cuz He’s Black,” Javon Johnson (a spoken word poem, available at
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson
Native Son, Richard Wright

DR. KIMBERLY N. PARKER teaches English at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, MA. She is the current president of the New England Association of Teachers of English and the former Secondary Representative at-Large for the National Council of Teachers of English. Dr. Parker holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.