Between the World and Me | Study Guide

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Ta-Nehisi Coates | Biography


Childhood and Education

American author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates was born September 30, 1975, in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother, Cheryl, was a teacher, and his father, William Paul, had been a member of Baltimore's chapter of the Black Panther Party—an African American political party founded in 1966—and worked as a librarian. Coates's father also ran a publishing company called Black Classic Press, which published books by African American authors. Thus, Coates's early years were filled with books, and he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. At age 17, he began writing poetry.

Coates graduated from Woodlawn High School in Baltimore and enrolled at Howard University, one of the country's most famous African American universities, in Washington, D.C. in 1993. He spent five years at Howard but left before finishing his degree. At age 24 Coates and Kenyatta Matthews welcomed a son, whom they named Samori. The couple initially chose to remain unmarried.

Early Writing Career

After leaving Howard University, Coates worked as a journalist for The Washington City Paper but struggled to make ends meet. Eventually, though, his writing career began to take off. He wrote essays for Washington Monthly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Village Voice, and Time. In May 2008 he wrote an essay titled "This Is How We Lost to the White Man" for The Atlantic, in which he criticized African American actor Bill Cosby (b. 1937). In the article the seeds of ideas that would be explored more deeply in Between the World and Me were already germinating. Coates ended the article by quoting Cosby as saying, "I need people to stop saying I can't pull myself up by my own bootstraps." He continues, "They say that's a myth ... other people have their mythical stories—why can't we have our own?" This mythmaking is something Coates came to believe was a barrier to seeing reality as it is, and thus a barrier to true freedom.

The article garnered mixed reactions and stirred controversy. Still, Coates's unique perspective and insightful analysis of culture, grounded firmly in his own experience as an African American man in America, made his voice an important one in the conversation about race and racism in the United States. It also won him a regular job at The Atlantic. The year 2008 was a big year for Coates. He went on to publish an essay in Time titled "Obama and the Myth of the Black Messiah" in November of that year, just after Barack Obama (b. 1961) had been elected to the presidency. He also published his first book, a memoir titled Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (2008). The book describes his childhood in Baltimore and the path that led him to Howard University.

Growing Fame and Influence

Coates's fame grew as he continued to write for The Atlantic, publishing the essays "Fear of a Black President" (2012) and "The Case for Reparations" (2014). He also expanded his reach through teaching. He became a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2012 through 2014 and became the City University of New York's journalist-in-residence in 2014. His second publication, Between the World and Me, was published in 2015 and became a huge success. It was on the New York Times Best-Seller list and won both a National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Kirkus Prize. It was featured by universities as an essay incoming freshmen should read. That year, Coates also won a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation.

In 2016 Coates received the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He was also asked to write a comic series about Marvel superhero Black Panther, and his first comic, released in 2016, sold widely. The original Black Panther superhero was created by Jack Kirby (1917–94) and Stan Lee (1922–2018) and was introduced to the public in 1966. Coates's successful comic series led to renewed interest in and inclusion of the Black Panther character in the Marvel film franchise (Captain America: Civil War, 2016), and some of Coates's creative ideas inspired aspects of the blockbuster film Black Panther (2018). In 2017 Coates published the essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power, in which he examines the presidency of Barack Obama and the election of Donald Trump (b. 1946). Coates has been living in Paris, France, with Kenyatta and Samori since 2016.

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