Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history by “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States” (The New York Observer)
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER | NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER | NAACP IMAGE AWARD WINNER | PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST | NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST | NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • O: The Oprah Magazine • The Washington Post • People • Entertainment Weekly • Vogue • Los Angeles Times • San Francisco Chronicle • Chicago Tribune • New York • Newsday • Library Journal • Publishers Weekly
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 . . . a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Eloquent . . . in the tradition of James Baldwin with echoes of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man . . . an autobiography of the black body in America.”—The Boston Globe
“Brilliant . . . [Coates] is firing on all cylinders.”—The Washington Post
“Urgent, lyrical, and devastating . . . a new classic of our time.”—Vogue
“A crucial book during this moment of generational awakening.”—The New Yorker
“Titanic and timely . . . essential reading.”—Entertainment Weekly
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.
Many of us have known for years that Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America's most compelling and thoughtful voices. His timely, provocative and well-researched writings about race and this nation's shameful history of inequality have been essential reading. The Atlantic published his widely distributed “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, and new audiences began to take notice. When his best-selling second book was released last summer, it seemed everyone came to understand that he is the real deal. Between the World and Me is brilliantly structured, insightful and forcefully argued. He navigates the complexities and burdens of race in America compassed by a father's love for his son. But it's the soulful writing that makes the work a classic, prompting Toni Morrison to herald Coates as America's new James Baldwin and the MacArthur Foundation to announce his genius. He claimed the National Book Award for best nonfiction this year, but don't think that this is the culmination of his work. He has much more to say, and we will all be the wiser for reading it. --Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative)
1. Between the World and Me has been called a book about race, but the author argues that race itself is a flawed, if not useless, concept—it is, if anything, nothing more than a pretext for racism. Early in the book he writes, “Race, is the child of racism, not the father.” The idea of race has been so important in the history of America and in the self-identification of its people—and racial designations have literally marked the difference between life and death in some instances. How does discrediting the idea of race as an immutable, unchangeable fact change the way we look at our history? Ourselves?
2. Fear is palpably described in the book’s opening section and shapes much of Coates’s sense of himself and the world. “When I was your age,” Coates writes to his son, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” How did this far inform and distort Coates’s life and way of looking at the world? Is this kind of fear inevitable? Can you relate to his experience? Why or why not?
3. The book—in the tradition of classic texts like Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time—is written in the form of a letter. Why do you think Coates chose this literary device? Did the intimacy of an address from a father to his son make you feel closer to the material or kept at a distance?
4. One can read Between the Worldand Me in many different ways. It may be seen as an exploration of the African American experience, the black American male experience, the experience of growing up in urban America; it can be read as a book about raising a child or being one. Which way of reading resonates most with you?
5. Coates repeatedly invokes the sanctity of the black “body” and describes the effects of racism in vivid, physical terms. He writes: “And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape…There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructive—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.” Coates’s atheistic assertion that the soul and mind are not separate from the physical body is in conflict with the religious faith that has been so crucial to many African Americans. How does this belief affect his outlook on racial progress?
6. Coates is adamant that he is a writer, not an activist, but critics have argued that, given his expansive following and prominent position, he should be offering more solutions and trying harder to affect real change in American race relations. Do you think he holds any sort of responsibility to do so? Why or why not?
7. Some critics have argued that Between the World and Me lacks adequate representation of black women’s experiences. In her otherwise positive Los Angeles Times review, Rebecca Carroll writes: “What is less fine is the near-complete absence of black women throughout the book.” Do you think that the experience of women is erased in this book? Do you think Coates had an obligation to include more stories of black women in the text?
8. While much of the book concerns fear and the haunting effects of violence, it also has moments where Coates explores moments of joy and his blossoming understanding of the meaning of love. What notions of hard-won joy and love does the book explore? How do these episodes function in counterpoint to the book’s darker passages?
9. Do you think Between the World and Me leaves us with hope for race relations in America? Why or why not? Do you think “hope” was what Coates was trying to convey to readers? If not, what are you left with at the end of the book? If so, hope in what?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been heralded by some as the heir to James Baldwin. Like Baldwin, he writes about race with a fierce passion, and the urgency that can only be captured by living within a black body in a place and time where the black body is endangered. Yet it may be fairer to say Ta-Nehisi Coates is unique. While he may be an heir to predecessors like Baldwin, he is also carving his own path and establishing his own voice.
Coates is the author of two memoirs The Beautiful Struggle and the recently released Between the World and Me. He also serves as a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about race and culture while curating one of the most interesting, and dare I say, thoughtful comment sections online. His award-winning 2014 essay, "The Case for Reparations," is a searing argument for reparations as a means of addressing the moral debts of slavery, segregation, and discriminatory housing practices.
Like all black intellectuals like all intellectuals from underrepresented groups, really Coates is forced into a difficult position in which he is expected to be many things to many people. He carries the expectations of a great many people who are not accustomed to having their experiences or something akin to their appearances voiced.
In Between the World and Me, Coates writes a letter to his son on living with a black body that faces too many dangers. He writes about the fear black parents have, and the ways in which that fear shapes how they raise and discipline their children. From his childhood in Baltimore, to "The Mecca" of Howard University, to the early years of parenting his son, Coates examines the black man's place in America, and how he grew into a father raising his son to be whole and confident when "The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are."
Coates and I had a great conversation via email, where we discussed Between the World and Me, the rhetoric of the black body, and what it takes to discuss race in a culture that makes such discussions so contentious and, at times, seemingly impassable. Roxane Gay
The Barnes & Noble Review: How are you handling the book's amazing reception so far?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It's a bit overwhelming. I mean, you know about this. When you write, you're inside the project. You can't really think about the reception. It has to be worth it even if no one reads it. So I'm shocked. I was not prepared.
BNR:Has your son read this book yet? What does he think?
TC: Yup. In draft. And then in galley. He was very proud.
BNR: How do you handle such lofty comparisons like those, for example, to James Baldwin?
TC: I think that bothers other people a lot more than it bothers me. It's fairly clear there will be another Baldwin. I take a great deal of inspiration from his work. I think Toni Morrison's opinion is an opinion for one book. It is not a guarantee on the next book.
BNR: In Between the World and Me, you center much of the discussion on the black body. What compelled you to make this rhetorical choice?
TC: There is tendency in academia and in (some) social justice circles to make that which is oppressive distant and abstract. We use a language, which at times obscures what's going on racial discrimination, racial segregation, racial justice, etc. This sort of language eliminates the actual actions of actual people. It was deeply important to me to situate racism as a done thing: as a thing you actually feel. I should add that in my stripe of atheism, it's very hard to see beyond the body. There is a tendency to adopt euphemism when confronted with the very real violence that comes with having a foot on your neck.
BNR: One of the strongest critiques I've seen of Between the World and Me is that black women don't figure as significantly as black men. At the same time, this is one of those critiques we often see toward writing about difference that a given text needs to be everything to everyone. Is it your responsibility to center black women in a work that is memoir and a letter to your son?
TC: I'd say that Between the World and Me is a personal essay in three parts. It can't really be a history of pain and struggle. I don't want to get into a citation war here, but there is the threat of rape and how my grandmother communicates that danger to my mother. There is the enslavement, personalized, and rendered through a black woman's eyes. There is the incredible work of historian Thavolia Glymph on the specific violence done to black women, undergirding (and cited) my understanding of enslavement.
But even with that I'd accept that this a story told through a black man's eyes, through his lens. That has some effects. I've been saying that what we need is more books by black women, but I don't know that that quite gets it. The two endorsements I'm most proud of come from Isabel Wilkerson and Toni Morrison. The latter is the greatest American fiction writer of our time, and the former is on her way to being the greatest American nonfiction writer of our time. There is the work of Thavolia Glymph. There is the work of Kidada Williams. There is the work of Paula Giddings. There is the work of Natasha Tretheway. And of course there is you.
All of these writers are different and not simply in genre but in their actual interest and approach. Their work represents something larger, even as it is must be the reflection of individuals.
I say that to say, there can't really be a black women's version of Between the World and Me because there really isn't a black man's version of it. There's Ta-Nehisi's version of it. And that is necessarily, individual, and limited.
Ultimately, I suspect that maybe this isn't about the book, but how certain people most of them white have received the book. I don't know what to say or do about that. I write my truth. How white people react is not in my control, and thus can never be in my consideration.
BNR: What do you see as your responsibilities as a writer?
TC: I guess I feel charged to be "fair" to people. I feel some need to represent where I'm from. But ultimately I think my only real responsibility is to as much as possible interrogate my own truths. This is to say not merely writing what I think is true, but using the writing to turn that alleged truth over and over, to stress-test it, in the aim of producing something readable.
BNR: Discussions about race, particularly in mixed company, are often combative and contentious. How the hell do we talk about race?
TC: No idea. I just try to communicate with as much honesty and respect as possible. I think we should not forget that a not so insufficient portion of this country sees it as in their interest to disrupt and marginalize such discussions. Everyone isn't convince-able.
BNR: Do you have an intended or imagined audience when you write about race?
TC: I think a lot about the private emotions of black people what we feel and yet is rarely publicly expressed. I guess in that sense, the audience is black people.
BNR: How can allies best serve as allies? What is an ally? Are they needed?
TC: I don't know. I think it's probably terribly important to listen. It's terribly important to try to become more knowledgeable. It's important to not expect that acquiring of that knowledge in this case of the force of racism in American history to be a pleasant experience or to proceed along just lines. They certainly don't proceed that way for black people. It's going to be painful. Finally I think one has to even abandon the phrase "ally" and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.
BNR: What books have made you into the man you are?
TC: Oh God, Roxane, where to begin: Jonah's Gourd Vine. Battlecry of Freedom. American Freedom, American Slavery. Mothers of Invention. The Forever War. The Great Gatsby. Postwar. The Country Between Us. Quilting. The Book of Light. Where the Sidewalk Ends. Slaughterhouse-Five.
So it goes. LOL.
BNR: How did you develop your voice and confidence in your voice?
TC: I don't really know. I just write a lot. I don't think there's much point in writing if you're doing it in someone else's voice. It just kills the fun.
BNR: It seems like every week, if not every day, we have a new tragedy to mourn. Do you ever feel like it is all too much? What do you do in those moments?
TC: No. Never. This has always been life. And I suspect it will always be my life. I know we're in this new moment where it seems like the police have suddenly gone crazy. But police violence is not new, and it is only the most spectacular end of a range of violence black people live under.
BNR: What are you asked too often? What do you wish more interviewers asked you, and how would you answer that question?
TC: Why don't I have "hope." I don't know. I don't have a preference re: questions. I just want people to really read the work before talking about it.
BNR: What's next for you? How is that novel coming along?
TC: It's coming.
BNR: What do you like most about your writing?
TC: The actual doing it. It is a beautiful thing to have a feeling, a notion and then transform it into something tangible. It's like being in the X-Men.
Between the World and Me 4.4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
A great step through one man's conscious encounters with race and oppression throughout his life. It's brutal honesty should make it required reading for all Americans, regardless of race or heritage.
More than 1 year ago
Awesome book great themes perfectfor the issues today
More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most powerful books I have read. It really shows me a different perspective the what I have seen in my life.
More than 1 year ago
What a beautifully written, sad and heart breaking story!!!!
I have always heard, " you don't know until you have walkedin anothers shoes."
That was a small, brief peak into not just one persons but a whole race of people's " shoes ".
I can only thank you for allowing me into your life, your pain and your struggles. I must admit I feel ashamed.
Review by: Pamisue
More than 1 year ago
A beautiful book. Slim but packed with brutal honesty. What everyone needs to hear.
More than 1 year ago
Very powerful and informative!
More than 1 year ago
Mr. Coates provides an honest, frightening view into the experience of living in the non-"dreamers"America . His painful, powerful observation has changed how I'll view our world going forward.
More than 1 year ago
Read this somewhere you can rage cry
More than 1 year ago
I really struggled to understand this book. It was so foreign. That was kind of the point though. Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing to his son about his struggle to understand what I means to live in his black body. I struggled to understand his struggle.
The book is written in a long, flowing letter. It reads like a memoir at times, but more philosophical at other points. It touches on some elements of history, like the Civil War, but most references are to brutal police killings of black men.
I had to read this book in complete silence. The writing is beautiful, but it's hard to follow. I kept reading and tried to focus on understanding the overall message, versus the individual sentences. Although there were many amazing statements throughout the book.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, an affluent, black writer, fears for his body and the body of his son. He points out that the huge divide in our country is not between the rich and the poor, but between those who are black and those who believe themselves to be white. I was blind to this point before reading this book. I naively assumed that black people who escaped the inner city escaped the violence against them. The continual police murders are showing that this is not the case. It is dangerous to be black everywhere in this country.
What I could relate to was his separateness as an atheist and his love for his son. The things he says and the stories he recounts from his son's childhood make it apparent how much he loves his boy.
I see why John Green said all young people should read this book. And I'm glad that I read it. For its value to our society, I gave it 4 stars even though it wasn't what I'd call an enjoyable read.
What I want to know now is how do we fix our country? Where do we start?
More than 1 year ago
I will be reading this again before long. This is a rich, beautiful, powerful book.
More than 1 year ago
Powerful story of growing up in America black. As the mother of three white sons, I worried about them doing stupid things and making mistakes in their teen years but I never considered that such lapses could get them dead. This book was an awakening to that reality which consumes mothers of black sons in America. Toni Morrison is right: "this is required reading".
More than 1 year ago
The writing is transcendent and the ideas are challenging and powerful. I'm deeply grateful to have read this. This book should be studied, discussed, shared, and purchased. I wish every high school senior and person seeking or holding elected office would read it. It is not Mr. Coates's responsibility to offer "solutions" but to impart ideas and the wisdom of his experience as an African American man.
23 days ago
I think it was an alright book but it was very racist towards whites which I know that’s what it was about but it made me feel weird. Also it made fun of my religion. But overall it was an alright book.
11 months ago
Vcgxhhvhyddztftdfctcrcrduzre. My nae is bob and u
I lived this book. It was AWESOMW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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