Coates begins the book with a direct address to his son, Samori. He describes a time when he is speaking on a talk show and is asked to explain what it means to lose his body. Coates reflects on the fact that white American progress has been constructed through the exploitation and oppression of black people, and that even though Americans “deify” democracy, this is hypocritical because the country has never truly been a democratic nation. When President Lincoln declared that the US would be ruled by a “government of the people,” African Americans were not included in the category of personhood.
Coates is writing in the context of the recent racist murders of Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, and Mike Brown. These murders demonstrate the fact that the destruction of black people’s bodies is part of the fabric of American society, and is a key component of the (American) Dream. Although we commonly think of the American Dream as an innocent pursuit of success and happiness, in reality this Dream cannot be unbound from violence against African Americans. As a result, black people live in a constant state of fear, knowing that their bodies are always at risk of destruction. Coates recalls the violence that surrounded him in his youth, and observes that although the young people he grew up with often claimed to “own” the streets, in reality the world around them was far beyond their control.
While the streets pose a threat to the young Coates, he is further constricted by the schools he attends, which seek to discipline black children rather than help them learn and grow. It is also not possible for Coates to seek escape in religion, because his parents raised him to distrust the “mysteries” of the church. On the other hand, he is able to learn from his father, Paul, who was formerly a local captain of the Black Panther Party and now works as a research librarian at Howard University. Coates prefers the precedent set by the Panthers and Malcolm X to the strategy of nonviolent resistance that is glorified at school.
After graduating from high school, Coates enrolls at Howard, which he refers to as “my Mecca.” He is astonished by the diversity and vibrancy of the student population at Howard; this diversity teaches him that racial categories are too broad and expansive to represent real divisions between people. At Howard, he continues his exploration of black history and culture, reading voraciously and encountering the significant contradictions between the arguments of black intellectuals. He also begins to explore the wider Washington DC area, attending poetry readings and open mics where he meets other young writers. He falls in love with a series of three women who each challenge what he knows about himself as well as black people. The last of these women is Kenyatta Matthews. When Coates and Kenyatta are 24, she becomes pregnant with Samori, who is named after the Guinean Muslim cleric Samori Touré who resisted French colonizers and died in prison.
Soon after Samori’s birth, Coates and Kenyatta’s classmate from Howard, Prince Jones, is killed by the Prince George’s County police. Coates and Kenyatta return to Howard for Prince’s memorial, and Coates feels alienated by the emphasis on faith and forgiveness that occurs during the service. In the following weeks, Coates learns that the officer who killed Prince is known to be dishonest and incompetent, but was never reprimanded for past errors. Prince, meanwhile, was a kind, upstanding, beloved, very religious person, and the fact that he of all people was killed proves to Coates the inescapable intensity of racism.
In 2011, Coates and his young family move to New York, where Coates often feels anxious and out of place. He recalls an incident at a movie theatre on the Upper West Side during which a white woman manhandles Samori. Coates speaks harshly to her and another white man intervenes, telling Coates, “I could have you arrested!”. Coates interprets this as a deliberate reminder of white people’s power over black bodies. He recalls another episode, when he takes ten-year-old Samori and his cousin to visit historical sites from the Civil War. Coates feels a responsibility to teach his son the truth about the country in which they live, including the disturbing and violent history of white people sacrificing black bodies in service of the Dream. He cannot reassure Samori that everything will be okay, but he can ensure that his son has the knowledge necessary to confront the world as it truly is.
Coates’ career as a journalist progresses, and he travels to Chicago to shadow the officers of the county sheriff. During this experience, he witnesses black people being evicted from their homes. On another occasion, he takes Samori with him to meet the mother of a boy killed by police. The boy’s mother finds a sense of reassurance and redemption through her Christian faith, and tells Samori: “You exist. You matter. You have value.”
At 37, Coates receives his first adult passport and makes a trip to Paris. Although he is anxious at first, the experience of being in Paris gives him a profound and thrilling sense of confidence and wonder. That summer, he returns along with Kenyatta and Samori. He reflects that Samori has enjoyed an “abnormal amount of security” in his own life, but that his son is still nonetheless deeply aware of the injustice of the world. Coates meditates on the many terrible acts that are currently being committed in service of the Dream, including police brutality, mass incarceration, and the use of drone bombs in the Middle East.
One day, Coates goes to visit Dr. Mabel Jones, the mother of Prince Jones, at her home in a gated community outside of Philadelphia. Dr. Jones is a reserved, elegant woman, who tells Coates stories of her own life. Born in Louisiana, Dr. Jones became aware of racism early, but nonetheless managed to excel in school, win a scholarship to Louisiana State University, and train as a radiologist. Although she was the only black radiologist she knew at the time, Dr. Jones refuses to admit that she experienced any particular hardship.
Dr. Jones describes her son, Prince, as academically gifted and beloved by everyone. Although she wanted him to attend Harvard or another Ivy League school, Prince chose to go to Howard. Dr. Jones describes the immense pain she felt when Prince died, and remarks that no matter how much black people achieve, it only takes “one racist act” for all of this to be undone.
Coates leaves Dr. Jones’ house, reflecting on the possibility that the Dreamers will “awaken” into an awareness about the reality of the atrocities and injustice in the world. He hopes that this is possible, but admits that it would be unwise to live one’s life in the hope that it will happen. Coates considers the way that advances in technology have increased the power of the Dreamers over the world, and worries about the future. As he is driving home, he passes through the ghettoes of Chicago, and feels the same fear from his childhood coming back to him.