Between the World and Me | Study Guide

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Between the World and Me | Context


Genre and Influence

Between the World and Me is a long essay divided into three main sections. It is framed as a letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates's teenage son, Samori. Coates used this framing device as a nod to African American writer James Baldwin's (1924–87) book, The Fire Next Time (1963). In The Fire Next Time Baldwin advises his 15-year-old nephew how to be African American in America. Coates's essay, though different in tone and conclusion, is driven by a similar idea.

The Long Legacy of Slavery in America

Coates bases his critique of American society on issues that stem from the country's very origins. The practice of kidnapping and enslaving African people has had effects ranging far beyond the practice itself.

The institution of slavery began in America during colonial times. It persisted throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, even as America's colonists fought Britain in the American Revolution (1775–83) alongside and against African American soldiers, many of whom had been enslaved. Although some of these former slaves were freed after the war, and although slavery was made illegal in northern states, the practice of slavery was allowed to continue in the South. In 1808 it became illegal to transport people from Africa to the United States as slaves. Unfortunately, this meant that the growth of the enslaved population—on which the cotton, tobacco, and sugar industries depended—could occur only by having enslaved women bear many children, who were then enslaved from birth.

The movement toward abolishing slavery began to pick up speed in the 19th century even as the tension between slave states and free states escalated. The tension eventually led to the Civil War (1861–65) and to President Abraham Lincoln's (1809–65) Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Incremental progress toward the inclusion of African Americans as citizens occurred in three phases: the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 to abolish slavery; the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 to grant citizenship to African Americans; and the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 to grant African Americans the right to vote. However, southern states did not enforce or guarantee these constitutional rights, and soon they were enacting their own laws that enforced racial segregation, known as Jim Crow laws (c. 1877–1954). White supremacist groups also began to grow, and by the early 20th century, violence against African Americans—in the form of lynching and other heinous acts—was rampant.

At the same time, insidious practices were developing that restricted the ability of African Americans to enjoy the same privileges as their white counterparts. Home ownership was an area in which African Americans faced discrimination in a practice called "redlining." Redlining is the refusal to grant mortgage loans or insurance coverage to people living in certain neighborhoods. Banks and insurance companies would draw maps of a community with color-coded outlines. A red line around an area would mean the area was predominantly mixed-race or African American. Citizens looking to buy in those areas would either be unable to secure loans or be subject to exploitative loan terms. Even federal programs designed to bolster home ownership ended up being largely unavailable to African Americans as their benefits were limited to buyers considered a good credit risk. Invariably, African Americans were considered high risk by default. As a result of redlining and similar practices, African Americans missed out on generations of wealth building through home ownership, leading to much of the 21st century's race-related economic inequality.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Almost as long as racial discrimination has thrived in the United States, there have been voices raised in opposition to it. However, the civil rights era (c. 1950) brought about some of the most influential African American voices—Malcolm X (1925–65) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68).

Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of a movement that used methods of nonviolent resistance and peaceful protest to push for social change. These included the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955–56; the lunch counter sit-ins that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, and other locations in 1960; and the "freedom rides" of 1961. These actions slowly pressured lawmakers to protect the rights of African Americans and move toward desegregation. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate against African Americans in matters of voting, employment, and public facilities. In Between the World and Me Coates recalls learning about the nonviolent civil rights protests of those who followed Martin Luther King Jr. However, he felt that there was a disconnect between the practice of nonviolence and the violence of his own experience. In addition, he was wary of the way that those in authority viewed these nonviolent activists as heroes. He saw the focus on nonviolence as a way to maintain the status quo, pointing out that white people were constantly "quoting ... King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong."

Coates found that he resonated more with the ideas of Malcolm X because he felt discomfort with the ideals of the nonviolent protest movement. Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X was a leader in the Nation of Islam (founded in 1930), a religious organization that merged Islamic beliefs with African American nationalism. Malcolm X took issue with Martin Luther King Jr.'s focus on rights and equality and disagreed with the idea of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Instead, he believed it was important for the African American community to have their own identity and defend themselves from the oppression of white people. His exhortations helped fuel the Black Power movement of the 1960s that sought more revolutionary goals than just civil rights. In Between the World and Me Coates describes what drew him to Malcolm X: "Malcolm made sense to me ... because nothing ... prepared me to understand tear gas as deliverance."

Law Enforcement and the African American Community

Coates grew up in West Baltimore, Maryland, in a part of the city that was—and remains—primarily African American. In the 1980s the city of Baltimore and other urban areas were significantly affected by the crack cocaine epidemic as the use of crack exploded because of its low cost and dramatic, immediate effects. The epidemic had the most harmful effects on the African American community. Deaths related to drug abuse became a fact of life for many. The "War on Drugs" that was begun in 1971 and greatly expanded to curb the devastation of the crack epidemic included a host of new federal laws and the funding to enforce them. It was thought that harsher penalties would deter potential drug dealers and users. Thus, law enforcement focused its efforts on the dealers on the street and their customers, often poor African Americans. As a result, by 1989 a quarter of all African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either incarcerated or had been incarcerated at some point.

As Coates's son Samori entered his teen years, social awareness of the growing rift between law enforcement and the African American community in some cities was growing. Several incidents became high-profile stories illustrating violence against African Americans by police officers and the court system. In Between the World and Me Coates mentions Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin was 17 years old when he was followed and shot by a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, on February 26, 2012. Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, was shot on August 9, 2014, by a white police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. In November of the same year the St. Louis County prosecutor made the announcement that the grand jury had decided not to indict Wilson. This led to protests throughout the city. On July 17, 2014, a New York City police officer named Daniel Pantaleo struggled with Eric Garner and applied a chokehold on him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The altercation resulted in Garner's death, and a Staten Island grand jury decided not to charge Pantaleo with a crime. On November 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer named Timothy Loehmann. Rice was playing with a toy gun at a park when the officer exited his patrol car and almost immediately began shooting. The officer was not charged in the boy's death.

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