Ta-Nehisi Coates frames the book-length essay as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori. The essay explores what Coates has learned about living in America as an African American and expresses hope that his son will live courageously and free in an otherwise violent world. Throughout the essay, Coates is thoughtful and observant. His tone is full of wonder but also full of helplessness, rage, and resignation. He fiercely looks the darker aspects of American society in the face and names them. His courage in doing so, in spite of his childhood, brings authenticity and heart to his work.
Samori Coates is the author's son and the boy to whom the essay is addressed. He is present as a baby, a child, and finally as a teenager. Through these limited interactions, the reader comes to know Samori as a carefree, friendly, and sensitive boy. Most important, however, is his change into a sorrowful and disillusioned young teen when he learns that Michael Brown's killers are exonerated.
Kenyatta Matthews met Ta-Nehisi Coates at Howard University. She grew up in Chicago, never knowing her father. Coates says she had an air of "cosmic injustice" about her, which made him feel they had something in common. Coates notes that she gave up believing in "the Dream" earlier than he did. This allowed her more freedom, and so she wanted to travel and see more of the world. Her visit to Paris and the photos she took of her trip inspire Coates to go there as well—a trip that proves to be life changing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates first met Prince Jones at Howard University and describes him as likable and admired. Jones was the son of Dr. Mable Jones and grew up with more privilege than Coates as a result of his mother's respected position in society. He went to private schools and excelled academically. Prince Jones is shot by an officer of the Prince George's County police force shortly after Coates was pulled over in the same county. While Coates was let go without incident, Jones was killed and the officer was not held accountable. This contrast serves to highlight the fact that privilege, success, and wealth do not protect an African American man from racism.
Dr. Mable Jones
Ta-Nehisi Coates's visit with Dr. Mable Jones after her son's death is the focus of the third part of the essay. During the visit, she shares details of her childhood, her first experience of discrimination, and her ambition to become a doctor. She'd excelled in every way, and by the time she was in high school she was an accomplished athlete as well as a strong student. She became class president, went to medical school, and became a respected doctor. She gave Prince everything she could—a safe neighborhood, private schools, and the university of his choice. Still, all of her hard work and success did not save her son. He was still a victim of racism. Coates describes Dr. Jones as calm and controlled. She clearly spends a great deal of effort restraining her reactions, giving the most subtle signs of what is clearly very strong emotion. Though her grief is deep, she chooses not to show it openly.