Between the World and Me (Coates)

Between the World and Me 
Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015
Random House
166 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781925240702

Winner, 2015 National Book Award

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—September 30, 1975
Where—Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Education—Howard University (no degree)
Awards—National Book Award, George Polk Award, Hillman Prize (Journalism)
Currently—lives in New York, New York

Ta-Nehisi Coates (TAH-nə-HAH-see KOHTS) is an American writer, journalist, and educator. Coates is a National Correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about cultural, social and political issues, particularly as regards African-Americans. In 2015, he won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me.

Coates has worked for the Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and Time. He has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Washington Monthly, O, and other publications. In 2008 he published his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. His second book, Between the World and Me, was published in 2015 to wide acclaim.

Early life
Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to father, William Paul "Paul" Coates, a Vietnam War veteran, former Black Panther, publisher and librarian, and mother, Cheryl Waters-Hassan, who was a teacher. Coates' father founded and ran Black Classic Press, a publisher specializing in African-American titles, as a grassroots organization with a printing press in the basement of their home.

Coates grew up in the Mondawmin neighborhood of Baltimore during the crack epidemic. His father had seven children—five boys and two girls, by four women (his first wife had three children, Coates' mother had two boys, and the other two women each had one child). In Coates' family the important focus was on child-rearing. The children were raised together in a close-knit family; most lived with their mothers and often visited their father. Coates, however, said he lived with his father full-time. As a Black Panther, Coates' father adhered to the Black Panther doctrine of free love rather than monogamy.

As a child Coates, enjoyed comic books and Dungeons & Dragons. His interest in books was instilled at an early age when his mother punished bad behavior by making him write essays. Another big influence was his father's work with the Black Classic Press; Coates said he read many of the books his father published.

Coates attended a number of Baltimore-area schools, including William H. Lemmel Middle School (where some scenes for The Wire TV series were shot), Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, before graduating from Woodlawn High School. His father was hired as a librarian at Howard University, which enabled some of his children to attend with tuition remission.

After high school, he attended Howard University and left without a degree after five years to start a career in journalism. He is the only child in his family without a college degree. In summer 2014, Coates attended an intensive program in French at Middlebury College to prepare for a writing fellowship in Paris.

Coates' first journalism job was as a reporter at the the Washington City Paper; his editor was David Carr, who later wrote for the New York Times.

From 2000 to 2007, Coates worked as a journalist at various publications, including Philadelphia Weekly, Village Voice and Time. His first article for The Atlantic, "This Is How We Lost to the White Man," about Bill Cosby and conservatism, started a new, more successful phase of his career. The article led to an appointment with a regular blog column for The Atlantic, a blog that was both popular, influential and had a high level of community engagement.

Coates became a senior editor at The Atlantic, for which he wrote feature articles as well as maintained a blog. Topics covered by the blog included politics, history, race, culture as well as sports, and music.

His writings on race, such as his September 2012 Atlantic cover piece "Fear of a Black President," and his June 2014 feature "The Case for Reparations," received special praise and won his blog a place on the Best Blogs of 2011 list by Time magazine, as well as the 2012 Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism. The blog's comment section has also received praise for its high level of engagement; Coates curates and moderates the comments heavily so that, "the jerks are invited to leave [and] the grown-ups to stay and chime in."

In discussing his Atlantic article on "The Case for Reparations," Coates said he had worked on the article for almost two years, reading Rutgers University professor Beryl Satter's book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America,. Satter's book is a history of redlining, which discussed the grassroots organization, the Contract Buyers League, of which Clyde Ross was one of the leaders. The focus of the article was more on the institutional racism of housing discrimination than on reparations for slavery.

Coates has worked as a guest columnist for the New York Times. He turned down an offer from them to become a regular columnist.

In 2008, Coates published The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir about coming of age in West Baltimore and its effect on him. In the book, he discusses the influence of his father, a former Black Panther; the prevailing street crime of the era and its effects on his older brother; his own troubled experience attending Baltimore-area schools; and his eventual graduation and enrollment in Howard University.

Coates' second book, Between the World and Me, was published in July 2015. Coates said that one of the origins of the book came from the murder of a college friend Prince Carmen Jones Jr. who was killed by police in a case of mistaken identity. In an ongoing discussion about reparation, continuing the work of his June 2014 Atlantic article, Coates cited the bill sponsored by Representative John Conyers "H.R.40 - Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act" that has been introduced every year since 1989. One of the themes of the book was about what physically affected African-American lives, their bodies being enslaved, violence, that come from slavery and various forms of institutional racism.

Coates was the 2012–14 MLK visiting professor for writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the City University of New York as its journalist-in-residence in the fall of 2014.

Personal life
Coates currently resides in Harlem with his wife, Kenyatta Matthews, and son, Samori Maceo-Paul Coates. His son is named after Samori Ture, a Mande chief who fought French colonialism, after black Cuban revolutionary Antonio Maceo Grajales, and after Coates' father. Coates met his wife when they were both students at Howard University. He is an atheist and a feminist.

Coates says that his first name, Ta-Nehisi, is an Egyptian name his father gave him that means Nubia, and in a loose translation is "land of the black." Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in current day northern Sudan and southern Egypt. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 8/27/2015.)

Book Reviews
Powerful and passionate...profoundly moving...a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today.
Michiko Kakutani - 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.
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

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.

(Starred review.) [A]n immense, multifaceted work. This is a poet's book, revealing the sensibility of a writer to whom words—exact words—matter.... [I]t speaks so forcefully to issues of grave interest today....[and] will be hailed as a classic of our time.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) [W]hat it means to be black in America, especially...a black male.... This powerful little book may well serve as a primer for black parents, particularly those with sons.... [A] candid perspective on the headlines and the history of being black in America. —Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe
Library Journal

(Starred review.) [Coates] came to understand that "race" does not fully explain "the breach between the world and me," yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered.... Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live "apart from fear—even apart from me." ... [A] moving, potent testament.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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 World and 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?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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