Between the World and Me
|Subject||Autobiography, American history, race relations|
|Publisher||Spiegel & Grau|
Between the World and Me is a 2015 nonfiction book written by American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and published by Spiegel & Grau. It is written as a letter to the author's teenage son about the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being Black in the United States. Coates recapitulates American history and explains to his son the "racist violence that has been woven into American culture." Coates draws from an abridged, autobiographical account of his youth in Baltimore, detailing the ways in which institutions like the school, the police, and even "the streets" discipline, endanger, and threaten to disembody black men and women. The work takes structural and thematic inspiration from James Baldwin's 1963 epistolary book The Fire Next Time. Unlike Baldwin, Coates sees white supremacy as an indestructible force, one that Black Americans will never evade or erase, but will always struggle against.
The novelist Toni Morrison wrote that Coates filled an intellectual gap in succession to James Baldwin. Editors of The New York Times and The New Yorker described the book as exceptional. The book won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
Coates was inspired to write Between the World and Me following a 2013 meeting with sitting United States President Barack Obama. Coates, a writer for The Atlantic, had been reading James Baldwin's 1963 The Fire Next Time and was determined to make his second meeting with the president less deferential than his first. As he left for Washington, D.C., his wife encouraged him to think like Baldwin, and Coates recalled an unofficial, fiery meeting between Baldwin, Black activists, and Robert F. Kennedy in 1963. When it was his turn, Coates debated with Obama whether his policy sufficiently addressed racial disparities in the universal health care rollout. After the event, Obama and Coates spoke privately about a blog post Coates had written criticizing the president's call for more personal responsibility among African Americans. Obama disagreed with the criticism and told Coates not to despair.
As Coates walked to the train station, he thought about how Baldwin would not have shared Obama's optimism, the same optimism that supported many Civil Rights Movement activists' belief that justice was inevitable. Instead, Coates saw Baldwin as being fundamentally "cold," without "sentiment and melodrama" in his acknowledgment that the movement could fail and that requital was not guaranteed. Coates found this idea "freeing" and called his book editor, Christopher Jackson, to ask "why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore." Jackson proposed that Coates try.
Between the World and Me is Coates's second book, following his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Since then, and especially in the 18 months including the Ferguson unrest preceding his new book's release, Coates somberly believed less in the soul and its aspirational sense of eventual justice. Coates felt that he had become more radicalized. The book's title comes from Richard Wright's poem "Between the World and Me," originally published in the July/August 1935 issue of Partisan Review. Wright's poem is about a Black man discovering the site of a lynching and becoming incapacitated with fear, creating a barrier between himself and the world. Despite many changes in Between the World and Me, Coates always planned to end the book with the story of Mabel Jones. The only endorsement Coates sought was that of novelist Toni Morrison, which he received. Between the World and Me was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015.
Between the World and Me takes the form of a book-length letter from the author to his son, adopting the structure of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time; the latter is directed, in part, towards Baldwin's nephew, while the former addresses Coates's 15-year-old son. Coates's letter is divided into three parts, recounting Coates's experiences as a young man, after the birth of his son, and during a visit with Mabel Jones. Coates contemplates the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being Black in the United States. He recapitulates the American history of violence against Black people and the incommensurate policing of Black youth. The book's tone is poetic and bleak, guided by his experiences growing up poor and always at risk of bodily harm. He prioritizes the physical security of African-American bodies over the tradition in Black Christianity of optimism, "uplift," and faith in eventual justice (i.e., being on God's side). As Coates discussed in a 2015 interview at the Chicago Humanities Festival, he was inspired by his college professor Eileen Boris who utilized an extended metaphor of the physical body for exploitation by objectification in her course, “History of Women in America" at Howard University. Her teachings inspired Coates's theme of the physical and visceral experience of racism on the body. His background, which he describes as "physicality and chaos," leads him to emphasize the daily corporeal concerns he experiences as an African-American in U.S. culture. Coates's position is that absent the religious rhetoric of "hope and dreams and faith and progress," only systems of White supremacy remain along with no real evidence that those systems are bound to change. In this way, he disagrees with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s optimism about integration and Malcolm X's optimism about nationalism.
Coates gives an abridged, autobiographical account of his youth "always on guard" in Baltimore and his fear of the physical harm threatened by both the police and the streets. He also feared the rules of code-switching to meet the clashing social norms of the streets, the authorities, and the professional world. He contrasts these experiences with neat suburban life, which he calls "the Dream" because it is an exclusionary fantasy for White people who are enabled by, yet largely ignorant of, their history of privilege and suppression. To become conscious of their gains from slavery, segregation, and voter suppression would shatter that Dream. The book ends with a story about Mabel Jones, the daughter of a sharecropper, who worked and rose in social class to give her children comfortable lives, including private schools and European trips. Her son, Coates's college friend Prince Carmen Jones Jr., was mistakenly tracked and killed by a policeman. Coates uses his friend's story to argue that racism and related tragedy affects Black people of means as well.
After reading Between the World and Me, novelist Toni Morrison wrote that Coates fills "the intellectual void" left by James Baldwin's death 28 years prior. A. O. Scott of The New York Times said the book is "essential, like water or air." David Remnick of The New Yorker described it as "extraordinary."
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that Between the World and Me functioned as a sequel to Coates's 2008 memoir, which displayed Coates's talents as an emotional and lyrical writer. Coates's use of "the Dream" (in reference to paradisal suburban life) confused her, and she thought Coates stretched beyond what is safely generalizable. In particular, she felt that the phrasing of his comments on 9/11 could be easily misread. Kakutani thought that Coates did not consistently acknowledge racial progress achieved over the course of centuries and that some parts read like the author's internal debate. Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York magazine said that a sense of fear for one's children propels the book, and Coates's atheism gives the book a sense of urgency.
On November 18, 2015, it was announced that Coates had won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. NPR's Colin Dwyer had considered it the favorite to win the prize, given the book's reception. It also won the 2015 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction.
The book was selected by Washington University in St. Louis and Augustana College in 2016, as the book for all first-year students to read and discuss in the fall 2016 semester. In the same year, the book was ranked 7th on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.
Editions and translations
- Hardcover, English. Spiegel & Grau; 1 edition (July 14, 2015) ISBN 978-0812993547
- E-book, English. Spiegel & Grau; 1 edition (July 14, 2015) ASIN: B00SEFAIRI
- Hardcover, French. "Une colère noire : Lettre à mon fils." AUTREMENT (January 27, 2016) ISBN 978-2746743410
- E-book, French. "Une colère noire : Lettre à mon fils." AUTREMENT (January 27, 2016) ASIN: B01A91OE0G
- Hardcover, German. Miriam Mandelkow (Translator) "Zwischen mir und der Welt." Hanser Berlin (February 1, 2016) ISBN 978-3446251076
- E-book, German. Miriam Mandelkow (Translator) "Zwischen mir und der Welt." Hanser Berlin (February 1, 2016) ASIN: B018VATBL4
- Paperback, Spanish. Javier Calvo Perales (Translator) "Entre el mundo y yo." (nd) ISBN 978-8432229657
- E-book, Spanish. Javier Calvo Perales (Translator) "Entre el mundo y yo." Seix Barral (October 18, 2016) ASIN: B01IPXTMS4
- Paperback, Catalan. Josefina Caball Guerrero (Translator). "Entre el món i jo." (nd) ISBN 978-8416367719
- E-book, Catalan. Josefina Caball Guerrero (Translator). "Entre el món i jo." (October 19, 2016) ASIN: B01JB6TWY8
- Hardcover, Norwegian. Bodil Engen (Translator). "Mellom verden og meg." Heinesen forl. (2016) ISBN 9788281770430
On September 30, 2020, HBO announced that it had adapted Between the World and Me as an 80-minute-long television special, which premiered on November 21, 2020. Between the World and Me was initially adapted and staged in 2018 by the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. The HBO adaption of Between the World and Me combines elements of the 2018 production at the Apollo Theater, readings from the book, and documentary footage from the actors’ home lives. Both the Apollo and HBO versions are directed by Kamilah Forbes. The HBO special included appearances by around 20 celebrities and civil rights activists including Oprah Winfrey, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Davis, Mahershala Ali, Joe Morton, Yara Shahidi and Angela Bassett. The production used Baltimore street scene photographs by John Clark Mayden, which the Baltimore Sun called "powerful images".
- "Between the World and Me". Bowker Books in Print. Retrieved July 13, 2015. (Subscription required.)
- Wallace-Wells, Benjamin (July 13, 2015). "The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates". New York. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
- Dyson, Michael Eric (July 23, 2015). "Can Ta-Nehisi Coates Measure up to the Legacy of James Baldwin?". The Atlantic. Retrieved April 23, 2019.
- Kakutani, Michiko (July 9, 2015). "Review: In 'Between the World and Me,' Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers a Searing Dispatch to His Son". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 23, 2019.
- Bennett, Brit (July 15, 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates and a Generation Waking Up". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved April 23, 2019.
- Dwyer, Colin (October 14, 2015). "Finalists Unveiled For This Year's National Book Awards". NPR. Retrieved October 14, 2015.
- Alter, Alexandra (November 19, 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award". The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
- "Finalist: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)". Pulitzer Prize. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi (January–February 2017). "My President Was Black". The Atlantic. ISSN 1072-7825. Retrieved April 23, 2019.
- Kakutani, Michiko (July 9, 2015). "Review: In 'Between the World and Me,' Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers a Searing Dispatch to His Son". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
- Butler, Robert, ed. The Richard Wright Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2008. p. 38.
- Hammett, Roberta F. "Between the World and Me". Memorial University of Newfoundland. Archived from the original on January 10, 2017. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
- Kakutani, Michiko (July 9, 2015). "Review: In 'Between the World and Me,' Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers a Searing Dispatch to His Son". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
- Prince, Richard. "Ta-Nehisi Coates' Book Gets Endorsement From Toni Morrison, the Only One He Wanted". Journal-isms - The Root. Retrieved April 23, 2019.
- Remnick, David (June 19, 2015). "Charleston and the Age of Obama". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
- Norris, Michele (July 10, 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates Looks At The Physical Toll Of Being Black In America". Morning Edition. NPR. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- Gross, Terry (July 13, 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates On Police Brutality, The Confederate Flag And Forgiveness". Fresh Air. NPR. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- Alter, Alexandra (November 18, 2015). "Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award". The New York Times.
- "2015 Finalists | Kirkus Reviews". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
- Adams, Tim (September 20, 2015). "How Ta-Nehisi Coates's letter to his son about being Black in America became a bestseller". The Guardian.
- "Augie Reads summer essay", Augustana College.
- Keaggy, Diane Toroian (May 9, 2015), "First Year Reading Program selects 'Between the World and Me'", Washington University in St. Louis.
- "The 100 best books of the 21st century". The Guardian. Retrieved September 22, 2019.
- "HBO to Adapt Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me," to Debut This Fall". The Futon Critic. July 23, 2020.
- "HBO Special Event "Between the World and Me" Debuts November 21". The Futon Critic. September 30, 2020.
- Stuever, Hank. "Review | 'Between the World and Me' was already a must-read. With HBO's adaptation, it's also a must-watch". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
- Turner, Tatyana (December 24, 2020). "For 50 years, a Baltimore photographer trained his lens on the city. Now he's in the spotlight". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved December 24, 2020.(subscription required)