Between the World and Me: Book Summary and Analysis

Andie Woodard

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a letter from a father to his son, a true account of what his son should expect as a young African American male growing up in modern-day America. Coates’ sole intention is to educate his young, black son of the dangers of the world (to illuminate the violent actions of white men against “black bodies”) in order to protect him from them. He expresses this objective clearly when he says, “My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own. You can no more be black like I am than I could be black like your grandfather was” (Coates, 2015, p. 39).

This book is short and concise because it doesn’t bother to explain in detail truths that are generally known among the black community–that white privilege exists, that microaggressions occur on a daily basis, that fear is an inherent characteristic of growing up black in America. This book was written with a specific audience in mind.

The name of the book is drawn from a poem of the same title by Richard Wright that was published in 1957 in a larger work entitled White Man Listen! (Coates, 2015, copyright page). The irony lies in that Coates’ Between the World and Me was not written with white men in mind. White people aren’t in need of the protection that Coates is trying to bestow upon his son. Indeed, Coates has no responsibility to protect white bodies–so he is in no mood to make the “white man listen.”

A major theme that runs like a current through Coates’ letter is this: Although black people are no longer physically in chains, they are imprisoned by their bodies, their inescapable skin color that communicates to white culture that they are less than human, different and, therefore, dangerous. A motif in Between the World and Me is the effort that black people make to escape this social slavery. The first and most pressing example Coates uses to describe this instinct to flee is his own son’s reaction to learning that Michael Brown’s killer would not be convicted of the crime: “I’ve got to go” (Coates, 2015, p. 11).

Something else worth noting is Coates’ clear dismissal of free will. If opportunity (through wealth, social fluidity, rights, etc.) is unequal and some people have more “will” than others, how can it be free? Coates describes how black people have struggled to take back control over their bodies by means of violence and “loud rudeness,” and then swiftly admits, “Of course we chose nothing” (Coates, 2015, p. 22). He even goes as far as to wonder, “Why–for [black people] and only [black people]–is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies?” (Coates, 2015, p. 26). Coates does not necessarily work to answer the question, but illustrates just by asking it–by needing to ask it–that his son, unfortunately, must work harder to succeed in America than white people, but he must also recognize that by being successful he will be seen as more of a threat.

This book is just 152 pages long, but it was a slow read: At the turn of every page, I had to set the book down and digest the profound, earth-shaking statements that Coates made so matter-of-factly. This book certainly wasn’t written with me in mind, and the tone of the work reflects that intention consistently throughout. Nevertheless, I was so grateful to read this work, to gain insight into life as an African American–something that I could never understand firsthand or empathize with completely because I have never in my life had to experience racial discrimination.

Some readings that helped me understand Coates’ message from an outsider’s perspective were A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki and Racial Formation in the United States by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. Through Racial Formation in the United States, I learned that colorblindness is a lie, that race is the product of racism (not the other way around) and that race and ethnicity are social constructs (Omi, 2015, paraphrased). Understanding these concepts helped me interpret this short, intimate work. It helped me translate passages like:

“… race is the child of racism, not the father” (Coates, 2015, p. 7).

“The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white. ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies” (Coates, 2015, p. 42).

I learned from reading A Different Mirror that American history books have been white-washed, that the crimes against people of color are skirted over and expressed passively (Takaki, 2008, paraphrased). “Black people were enslaved,” say American history texts, while Takaki’s work states simply that “white people enslaved black people” (Takaki, 2008, paraphrased). My new understanding of American history and microaggressions were particularly helpful in allowing me to understand Coates’ attitudes about the “intentions” of white people:

“It does not matter that the intentions of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions … ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (Coates, 2015, p. 33).

I was able to empathize, in my own way, with the feeling of being “othered” that’s expressed in Between the World and Me though because I am a minority in different respects: I was assigned female at birth (AFAB); I am pansexual; I am not a Christian; I am working poor.

I grew up far, far below the poverty line, but I did not grow up in a “poor” neighborhood. My family was “trailer trash,” and we lived on the edge of town, by the lake, out of sight and out of mind. I knew what it was like to have to trust people who are angry and hurt, who have been damaged by society–the same kind of trust Coates describes, the kind of trust black people have to have “on the streets” (Coates, 2015, paraphrased). I also know what it’s like to be told my whole life that education was my own window through which to escape poverty, to escape the cycle of worthlessness, to escape the burning, itchy, bright brand of being “trailer trash”–but that education comes second to survival. It’s hard to focus on your studies when you don’t know if you’re going to eat that night. It’s hard to have realistic dreams when you have no role models.

The difference between my situation and the situation Coates describes for black people is that, of course, I have white privilege. I had the privilege to grow up in a town that had a five-A school, one with teachers who cared about me. Particularly, I was able to blend in as faux-middle class, in donated clothes that were cleaned in coin-operated washing machines, because I was white. In new clothes, wielding the vocabulary of the “educated,” I could blend in with Dominant Culture. This is not possible for black people in America.

Coates’ testament to “crimes against the body” also resonated with me as an AFAB person: I feel, on a daily basis, that my body is objectified. This objectification is, of course, different from what black bodies undergo. People with female sex organs are sexually objectified, while black bodies–excluding the intersectionality of black women specifically–are objectified with labor in mind. This attitude about the black body is also what perpetuates the myth that black men are stronger than white men and are, therefore, dangerous, a threat.

Still, that I am dehumanized and looked at for what I–for what my body–can offer men on a daily basis allows me to empathize with Coates’ description of the black body. I can understand the fear of someone acting against my body, committing crimes against my body. I can understand fearing for my life because of my body. The difference is that, when people look at me, they’re not also fearing for their own lives the way they are when they revere black bodies.


Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. (2015). Racial Formation in the United States. New York, NY: Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group.Takaki, Ronald. (2008). A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.

Takaki, Ronald. (2008). A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.