One Book, One Community
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
New York Times
Bestseller, National Book Award Winner, ALA Alex Award
“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
Why a One Book, One Community read?
Ever since Seattle started the trend in 1998, the phenomenon of One Book, One Community reading programs has been growing steadily across the country. The Safety Harbor Library Advisory Committee and the Library believe now is a good time to start a conversation.
“The idea is that the city that opens the same book closes it in greater harmony.”
— Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 2002.
Stay tuned to this page, Facebook, Instagram, and Safety Harbor Connect, for updates on Zoom book discussions.
In a profound work that pivots from the most pressing questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of an African American father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s painful racial history and our current civil rights crisis. Americans have built an entire society on the idea of “race,” a false construct whose ramifications damage us, but fall most heavily on the bodies of black women and men— bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion to their number in the population. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions, in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in American culture through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken far too soon, as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow, Coates received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.”
He is a distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is the author of the bestselling books The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, and Between The World And Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015. His first novel, The Water Dancer, was released in September 2019. Ta-Nehisi is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. He is also the current author of the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and son.
For more information, visit: https://ta-nehisicoates.com/
Questions provided by the publisher, Penguin Random House.
1. Between the World and Me has been called a book about race, but the author argues that race itself is a flawed, if not useless, concept—it is, if anything, nothing more than a pretext for racism. Early in the book he writes, “Race, is the child of racism, not the father.” The idea of race has been so important in the history of America and in the self-identification of its people—and racial designations have literally marked the difference between life and death in some instances. How does discrediting the idea of race as an immutable, unchangeable fact change the way we look at our history? Ourselves?
2. Fear is palpably described in the book’s opening section and shapes much of Coates’s sense of himself and the world. “When I was your age,” Coates writes to his son, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” How did this far inform and distort Coates’s life and way of looking at the world? Is this kind of fear inevitable? Can you relate to his experience? Why or why not?
3. The book—in the tradition of classic texts like Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time—is written in the form of a letter. Why do you think Coates chose this literary device? Did the intimacy of an address from a father to his son make you feel closer to the material or kept at a distance?
4. One can read Between the World and Me in many different ways. It may be seen as an exploration of the African American experience, the black American male experience, the experience of growing up in urban America; it can be read as a book about raising a child or being one. Which way of reading resonates most with you?
5. Coates repeatedly invokes the sanctity of the black “body” and describes the effects of racism in vivid, physical terms. He writes: “And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape…There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructive—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.” Coates’s atheistic assertion that the soul and mind are not separate from the physical body is in conflict with the religious faith that has been so crucial to many African Americans. How does this belief affect his outlook on racial progress?
6. Coates is adamant that he is a writer, not an activist, but critics have argued that, given his expansive following and prominent position, he should be offering more solutions and trying harder to affect real change in American race relations. Do you think he holds any sort of responsibility to do so? Why or why not?
7. Some critics have argued that Between the World and Me lacks adequate representation of black women’s experiences. In her otherwise positive Los Angeles Times review, Rebecca Carroll writes: “What is less fine is the near-complete absence of black women throughout the book.” Do you think that the experience of women is erased in this book? Do you think Coates had an obligation to include more stories of black women in the text?
8. While much of the book concerns fear and the haunting effects of violence, it also has moments where Coates explores moments of joy and his blossoming understanding of the meaning of love. What notions of hard-won joy and love does the book explore? How do these episodes function in counterpoint to the book’s darker passages?
9. Do you think Between the World and Me leaves us with hope for race relations in America? Why or why not? Do you think “hope” was what Coates was trying to convey to readers? If not, what are you left with at the end of the book? If so, hope in what?
Additional Thoughts for Discussion
Questions provided courtesy of Rhode Island College.
1. It often helps to consider how we see ourselves: how we understand our own identities, roles, responsibilities, and rights in relation to our society. What are some key ideas that you would use to describe your own identity?
2. Coates is careful to avoid assuming that whiteness is a given. Rather, he calls attention to the way that race is socially constructed when he describes families and individuals who “believe themselves to be white” or children who are “raised to be white” (10). At the same time, whiteness is a powerful social force, a descriptor for a community of those who have “maximum power and minimum responsibility,” those who have the power to take the lives of others without punishment (80). What role does race play in your self-understanding? How does your understanding of yourself and your identities connect to the social and historical consequences Coates discusses?
3. Coates writes that “race is the child of racism, not the father” (7). What does the author mean by this? How does this assertion compel us to think about the history of race and racism in the United States? How does this apparent reversal of common sense compel us to rethink the history of race and racism in the United States?
4. Coates writes about schools that “were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance” (26). How does the author see the education system as complicit with a power that continues to divide America into separate worlds? Do you have personal experience with a school that was or was not concerned with curiosity?
5. Considering “the Dream” and our relationships to it, what does it mean to be “conscious citizen[s] of the terrible world” (108)?
6. What is Coates’s definition of race on page 115? Do you agree? What other populations might this definition apply to globally, beyond those in the United States? If race is not a biological reality, then what is it?
Ta-Nehisi Coates on Asking Questions That Have No Answers
Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has always been curious. “When I was a kid, I pretty much was interested in the same things I'm interested in now: Why does the world look like the world looks?” he explains in this short animation.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on race, hope and speaking out
The recipient of a National Book Award and a MacArthur Gran," Ta-Nehisi Coates talks to correspondent Martha Teichner about his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me
Chicago Public Media reporter Natalie Y. Moore joins Coates for a conversation. This program was recorded on October 24, 2015 as part of the 26th annual Chicago Humanities Festival, Citizens.