Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates was born to Cheryl Waters and Paul Coates, a former local captain of the Black Panther Party and founder of Black Classic Press. The name Ta-Nehisi comes from an Egyptian word for Nubia, which roughly translates to “land of the black.” Coates had seven siblings on his father’s side; his parents were strict and attentive, and his mother taught him to read at the age of four. Coates grew up during the crack epidemic, attending public schools in West Baltimore. He recalls that his middle school in particular was extremely violent, and that during these years he had to be especially careful in order to protect himself. Following high school, Coates attended Howard University, where his father worked as a research librarian. During his time at Howard, Coates began to work as a freelance journalist. It was during this time that he also met his future spouse, Kenyatta Matthews. After five years at Howard Coates left without graduating, and when they were both 24 he and Kenyatta had a son, Samori. Coates began publishing his journalism in a variety of outlets, including The Village Voice, Time, and The New York Times. He became a regular columnist for The Atlantic, a position he holds to this day, and it is in this forum that some of his most well-known essays have been published, including “The Case for Reparations” and an essay version of “Between the World and Me.” In 2008, Coates published a memoir that focused particularly on his youth and his relationship with his father entitled The Beautiful Struggle. This was followed by Between the World and Me, published in 2015. Coates has been awarded numerous awards, including a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2015. He has taught at the City University of New York and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He travels frequently to Paris, and otherwise resides in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, NY, with Kenyatta and Samori.
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Historical Context of Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me was written in a context of renewed attention to anti-black violence in America, galvanized by the murders of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, and many others. Opposition to this violence and to the policy of mass incarceration disproportionately targeting black Americans took the form of the Movement for Black Lives, also known as Black Lives Matter. The Movement’s demands include ending the criminalization of black youth, demilitarizing law enforcement, and distributing reparations to black people in the US. The movement forms a contrast to the view that, following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the US has entered a “post-racial” era in which issues of racist inequality and violence are no longer a major problem. Between the World and Me (along with the journalistic output of Coates and other African-American writers) points to the ongoing effects of the legacy of slavery and sustained racist injustice as evidence against this “post-racial” view.

Other Books Related to Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me follows a tradition of African-American autobiographical work that also contains cultural and political criticism. The earliest examples of this genre can be found in the slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries; major 20th century figures working in this tradition include Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou. The format of Between the World and Me, which takes the form of an extended letter addressed to Coates’ son, Samori, echoes the first essay in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), which is addressed to Baldwin’s nephew on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. One of the texts most influential to Between the World and Me is undoubtedly The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a collaboration between Malcolm and the journalist Alex Haley. More recently, African-American writers have continued to expand the genres of criticism and memoir, pushing them into new directions. Claudia Rankine’s most recent book, Citizen (2014), straddles the genres of poetry and criticism in order to examine the concepts of race, violence, and belonging in the contemporary US. Margo Jefferson’s Negroland (2015) explores issues relating to race, class, and privilege through Jefferson’s memories of growing up in an upper-class black family in the 1950s and 60s.
Key Facts about Between the World and Me
  • Full Title: Between the World and Me
  • When Written: 2014
  • Where Written: New York, NY
  • When Published: 2015
  • Literary Period: 21st century African-American nonfiction
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: West Baltimore; Howard University; New York City; Paris
  • Climax: The death of Prince Jones
  • Antagonist: The Dreamers
  • Point of View: First person (Ta-Nehisi Coates is the writer of the essay)

Extra Credit for Between the World and Me

Superhero stories. Since 2016, Coates has written the Black Panther series published by Marvel Comics, following the adventures of the black superhero T’Challa.

Fatherly pride. On learning that Between the World and Me was first on the New York Times bestseller list, Ta-Nehisi’s father texted him: “You’ve now made up for all the dumb stuff you did as a kid. We’re very proud of you.”