Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates Character Analysis

Ta-Nehisi Coates is both the author and the main character of the book, which is written in the first person and addresses Coates’ son, Samori. Born to Paul Coates and Cheryl Waters in 1975, Coates grows up in West Baltimore during the crack epidemic, and his childhood is haunted by the dangers of the streets and by Coates’ unresolved questions about the injustices of the world, particularly those relating to the experience of black people in America. He attends but does not graduate from Howard University, where he meets his partner, Kenyatta Matthews. When he and Kenyatta are both 24, their son is born. Though it is not easy, Coates gradually manages to make a successful career as a writer, all the while continuing to explore the questions that have troubled him as a young person. Coates’ life story, as well as his thoughts on American racism, the history of violence against black bodies, and the racist structures supporting “the Dream” make up most of the book’s content. Coates is a harsh realist and an atheist, refusing to sugarcoat or mythologize the truth of what he sees, but he is also not without hope, and he finds a sense of freedom in his relentless pursuit of the truth.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Quotes in Between the World and Me

The Between the World and Me quotes below are all either spoken by Ta-Nehisi Coates or refer to Ta-Nehisi Coates. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
African-American Family and Heritage Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Spiegel & Grau edition of Between the World and Me published in 2015.
Part 1 Quotes

Son,
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.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

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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.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

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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.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

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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.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Related Symbols: The Dream
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

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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?

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Paul Coates, Cheryl Waters
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

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What did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, Pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me? I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas. We spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Paul Coates, Cheryl Waters
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

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The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

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Perhaps I too might live free. Perhaps I too might wield the same old power that animated the ancestors, that lived in Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Nanny, Cudjoe, Malcolm X, and speak––no, act––as though my body were my own.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Malcolm X
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

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I was admitted to Howard University but formed and shaped by The Mecca. These institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education, concerned with the LSAT, magna cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa. The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Related Symbols: Howard University/The Mecca
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

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The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Dream
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

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She said to me, “You take care of my daughter.” When she got out of the car, my world had shifted. I felt that I had crossed some threshold, out of the foyer of my life and into the living room. Everything that was the past seemed to be another life. There was before you, and then there was after, and in this after, you were the God I’d never had. I submitted before your needs, and I knew then that I must survive for something more than survival’s sake. I must survive for you.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates, Kenyatta Matthews
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 2 Quotes

I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people, and I must have felt it powerfully then. The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me, because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Prince Jones
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

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The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

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Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body––it is heritage.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Samori Coates
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

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I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of “race”––“race" itself is just a re-statement and retrenchment of the problem.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

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It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world––the ease between your mother and me, the miracle at The Mecca, the way I feel myself disappear on the streets of Harlem. To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds, fashioned by our ancestors, to the plunderer. We made that feeling, though it was forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied, we made it all the same.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker), Kenyatta Matthews
Related Symbols: Howard University/The Mecca
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

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Today, when 8 percent of the world's prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 3 Quotes

Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Dream
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

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Black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers––lost in their great reverie––feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. We have made something down here.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Dream
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

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Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos––the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing––and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.

Related Characters: Ta-Nehisi Coates (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates Character Timeline in Between the World and Me

The timeline below shows where the character Ta-Nehisi Coates appears in Between the World and Me. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
African-American Family and Heritage Theme Icon
Black Bodies Theme Icon
Captivity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Youth, Education, and Growth Theme Icon
Myth vs. Reality Theme Icon
Coates begins the book in the style of a letter addressed to his son Samori. He... (full context)
Black Bodies Theme Icon
Captivity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Myth vs. Reality Theme Icon
Coates argues that white Americans’ tendency to “deify” democracy causes them to forget that their country... (full context)
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Coates explains that the boundaries of what counts as “white” identity are fluid, and that Catholics,... (full context)
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At the time Coates is writing, his son Samori is fifteen, and has recently witnessed the violent, racist deaths... (full context)
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Leaving the TV studio, Coates walks around and observes white families going about their days. He feels sad, and realizes... (full context)
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...police officer who killed Mike Brown will not be punished, something that does not surprise Coates but does surprise Samori, who walks out of the room crying. Coates chooses not to... (full context)
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Avoiding false optimism and tidy resolutions puts Coates at odds with the “‘goal-oriented’ era” in which he lives. He explains that he inherited... (full context)
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The freedom of this questioning makes Coates less afraid of “disembodiment,” but he still remains fearful. He recalls that when he was... (full context)
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Coates also recognizes the fear in the music he listens to, which is full of ostentatious... (full context)
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Coates understands the reasoning behind black parents subjecting their children to harsh physical punishments, but he... (full context)
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Coates recalls a particular time at age eleven, watching a group of older boys yell at... (full context)
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Coates observes that Samori’s life is very different from his own. During Samori’s youth, the president... (full context)
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People who turn their fear into violent rage pose the biggest threat, and Coates recalls that he learned to avoid certain places and individuals in order to keep himself... (full context)
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Coates argues that “if the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left”; however,... (full context)
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Coates did not imagine he or anyone he knew would escape this oppressive environment. Some of... (full context)
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As a child, Coates is curious about the way in which racism simultaneously sustains the Dream and perpetuates the... (full context)
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Coates finds further answers in the books supplied by his father, Paul, who works as a... (full context)
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Coates ends up viewing the streets and schools as “arms of the same beast.” Both exert... (full context)
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Coates remarks that he is not alone on this journey toward political consciousness. The work of... (full context)
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Coates listens to hip hop and takes inspiration from the Black Power movement. He begins to... (full context)
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Coates describes the students who pass through the Yard at Howard; students of different national origin,... (full context)
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Coates senses that whites oppress black people because they are intimidated by black people’s power. He... (full context)
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Having made this warning, Coates admits that he himself held the view that black people were “kings in exile” when... (full context)
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Coates gradually gains a more solid sense of himself, guided by the things he is learning... (full context)
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Coates describes a neighborhood in DC called Prince George’s County, which has a wealthy black population.... (full context)
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Coates admits that this process of learning is “physically painful and exhausting,” even as it is... (full context)
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Coates describes the first woman he falls in love with at Howard, a half-Indian girl from... (full context)
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Coates sometimes goes to local clubs where, although he is too scared to dance personally, he... (full context)
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The bisexual woman Coates mentions above was previously in a relationship with a boy who Coates admits he thinks... (full context)
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The last time Coates falls in love at Howard is with Kenyatta, Samori’s mother. Kenyatta does not know her... (full context)
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When the baby is born, Coates and Kenyatta call him Samori, after Samori Touré, the Guinean Muslim cleric who fought French... (full context)
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Coates encourages Samori to view American history realistically and to resist seeing enslaved people as “chapters... (full context)
Part 2
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Not long before Samori’s birth, Coates was pulled over by the Prince George’s County police. Coates is terrified, recalling the fact... (full context)
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Coates and Kenyatta travel to Howard for Prince’s memorial, where people speak of Prince’s deep religiosity,... (full context)
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...Prince looked nothing like him. Ultimately, the officer is not charged and returns to work. Coates imagines what would have happened if he had been in Prince’s place, envisioning being taken... (full context)
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The death of Prince Jones leads Coates to better understand why his own father, Paul, beat him as a child. He remarks... (full context)
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...a job in New York and the young family move there together. On September 11th, Coates watches the towers burn and feels “cold,” plagued by his own tragedies, including the death... (full context)
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When Coates takes Samori into Manhattan, he feels “ill at ease,” aware of the fact that he... (full context)
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Coates recalls one incident in which he takes Samori to the movies on the Upper West... (full context)
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Coates argues that the saying “It only takes one person to make a change” is a... (full context)
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Coates recalls a trip he took with ten-year-old Samori and his cousin to historical sites from... (full context)
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...slavery rather than the horror of the fact that slavery existed in the first place. Coates takes this as evidence that “historians conjured the Dream.” He wants Samori to be aware... (full context)
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Coates argues that without the right to “break” black bodies, white people might “tumble out of... (full context)
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Coates recalls a day in which he was following officers of the county sheriff in Chicago... (full context)
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Coates tells Samori that he wanted his son to “grow into consciousness,” and recalls when he... (full context)
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The boy’s mother tells Samori: “You exist. You matter. You have value,” and Coates is glad she says it. He expresses a kind of envy at the woman’s faith;... (full context)
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Coates is writing at 40 years old, and he admits that, overall, his childhood self would... (full context)
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...possibilities out there,” and for the first time, France feels like a real place to Coates. At this stage in life, Coates’ own world is expanding, and he is meeting more... (full context)
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At age 37, Coates receives his first adult passport; before leaving the US, he admits to Kenyatta that he... (full context)
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That summer, Coates and Kenyatta take Samori to Paris, in the hope that they will give their son... (full context)
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Coates reflects on the fact that he survived his youth, proving that “there was another way... (full context)
Part 3
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Coates often thinks of the family members who were left behind after Prince Jones’ death. Prince’s... (full context)
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Coates reflects that awareness of racism reaches black children in different ways, but that none can... (full context)
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...attended Louisiana State University on full scholarship, served in the Navy, and became a radiologist. Coates mentions that she refuses to “acknowledge any discomfort” or admit that her story is “remarkable.”... (full context)
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Coates compares Dr. Jones’ disposition to that of Civil Rights protestors depicted in photographs—both display a... (full context)
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Coates leaves Dr. Jones’ house and reflects on his visit. He wonders if it is possible... (full context)
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Coates reflects that in the past, the power of the Dreamers was curtailed by the “limits... (full context)