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Why Between the World and Me is required reading

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at


Written as a letter from father to son, Between the World and Me chronicles key moments in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ life. Imparting lessons to his son and the reader, the author, who contributes to The Atlantic, presents an unidealized portrait of America and its history of racial injustice and violence.

The emotional center of the book is the death of Prince Jones, a bright star and dear friend whom Coates met while attending Howard University. His murder, by a Prince George’s County police officer, is a reminder of an unrelenting and harsh system that constantly works to harm men of color.

Coates employs clear and precise prose to appeal to a broad audience. Rooted in a long intellectual tradition, he peppers pages with references to critical writers and activists. He uses symbols like Mecca and Dream to describe complex ideas. The author, however, always returns to the real, or corporeal, to be more exact. While recalling his youth, he writes—and I quote at length:

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker. However you call it, the result was our infirmity before the criminal forces of the world. It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black—what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable. (p. 17-18)


Why is Between the World and Me essential reading?

We have all read alarming statistics about the unprecedented rise of the carceral state: 1 in 12 black men ages 18 to 64 are incarcerated, compared to 1 in 87 white men. Since the 1970s, 1 out of 4 black men have been incarcerated. As a result of stricter policing and sentencing laws, since the 1990s, while violent-crime rates have fallen, incarceration rates have risen. High school dropouts are more likely to go to prison. Former inmates are less likely to obtain employment. Households are stripped of husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, and friends.

Coates knows the statistics too. Between the World and Me, however, is about the people that populate statistics. Prince Jones. Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin. And, countless more.

Coates does not allow his son, or the reader, to lapse, to be misled by persuasive talk or lulled by fantastic promises. He writes, “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the work of the physical world” (p. 36). He demands more. Be critical of everything. Focus on what is real. He commands, “So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope” (p. 71).

The book is an illustration of the effects of bad policy and the need for good policy. It is a warning and invocation. Similar to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, it takes the form of a letter to a loved one. The editorial decision to write using second person allows Coates to speak to his son and the reader, creating some intimate and evocative moments. We learn as the son learns. And, when he writes "What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility" (p. 137), we listen.