In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates packed all of the punches and pulled none of them. While this epistolary is directed to his son, it’s also aimed directly at us. In the book he talks without sentiment (or frankly much hope) about the state of race in the US. He fears for the Black body and how our culture has not been able to shake discrimination.
This book was both an Oprah pick and it also won the National Book Award.
This book is not a light read, and it won’t make for a light book club conversation either. But we need to talk about race, and Coates is helping us do that.
In order to help your group get started, we’ve developed this discussion guide, which includes Between the World and Me book club questions.
Start with the synopsis, does it accurately reflect your experience of the book? Then use our 10 book club questions for Between the World and Me to get more conversation flowing. We’ve also included some thoughtful (and thought provoking) reviews of the book.
And…if you are keen to explore this topic further, we suggest three books for your reading list.
(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Between the World and Me Synopsis
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls 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. 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 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 the world 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 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.
10 Between the World and Me Book Club Questions
- Very early in the book Coates says that “Americans have deified democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God.” What did he mean by that? Share some specific examples when America has not held the principles of democracy to the highest standard.
- Coates could simply have told a series of stories about struggle and racism. But instead, he put the Black body at the center of the narrative. How “racism is an assault on the body” and how the “empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body“, and how “you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason”.
How did you respond to his use of the body as a metaphor for the Black experience? Is it even a metaphor? Or is he being very literal?
- There are some moments of true joy and light in the book. Which ones did you relate to and how do you think they balanced the darker themes in the book?
- Coates talks about how white privileged people need to wake of from their Dream. How would you define that Dream? Are you in the Dream? And if so, how will you wake up from it?
- Coates refers repeatedly to people who “believe they are White”. What do you suppose he meant by that?
Was he inferring that many/most people are mixed race and don’t know it?
Or did he mean that Whiteness can be blinding? As James Baldwin put it, “…Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable population, cheerful natives, and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety.”
In the book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson refers to race is a completely artificial construction. Does Coates mean that?
Is it any of those? All three at once?
- The long reach of history is a repeated theme in the book. Referring to America’s “legacy of plunder” as an heirloom and a default setting. Coates isn’t offering any solutions in the book. But do you agree that our legacy of slavery and the related racism is a dark heirloom? If so, how do we reset the default?
- The book is crafted as a letter to his son. He is talking to his son…but isn’t he also talking to us? What did you think of the epistolary style of the book?
- The book was written in 2015, in the early stages of the Black Lives Matter movement. How does the book relate to the movement? What has changed since then?
- One of my favorite quotes from the book is “But race is the child of racism, not the father”.
But it’s not the only great quote– the book is positively stuffed with them. In advance of book club (or take a moment during) and have your members reviews this list of Between the World and Me quotes. Have each person chose one, read it and than share why it spoke to them.
- I wrote at the top of this discussion guide that Coates packed all the punches in this small book. Which of his punches, themes, stories or philosophies landed the hardest with you?
Selected Reviews for Between the World and Me
We add these selected reviews because you can often have an interesting discussion stemming from a well-considered review, be it negative or positive. Here are a few interesting ones for you:
“I think his aim was most of all to throw a brutally honest illumination on the past (and most especially the present), so that we can attempt to formulate a way forward only after we’ve been honest with ourselves about what’s been going on, and the harmful delusions we’ve been living under.”
“Freedom, opportunity and education are all part of being equal citizens in the first world. But these are things of the mind. If you can’t even keep the body safe, then what use are intellectual pursuits and a law guaranteeing you rights?”
“This is a book that takes our country’s sweet language about having a dream and turns it into a bitter mouthful of ashes. I’m actually surprised it’s so popular because I feel we as Americans crave optimism and promises of solutions, and Coates offers neither.
“Coates’ myopic race speak drivel offers no remedy or policy, simple grievance and complaint. In that way his voice is perfect for our neoliberal age which so perfectly uses identity politics cries for representation in the “upper management” cue to maintain the Empire.”
3 Books Like Between the World and Me
If you are keen to read more by Coates on race, check out this article in The Atlantic on history, memory and White supremacy.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson
If you’d like to explore more about the dark heirloom of racism and the constructs of race and class, then be sure to read Caste. In it, Wilkerson breaks down race, class and caste and how they have evolved in Jim Crow system of the US, Nazi Germany, and Hindu India.
If you choose to read Caste for book club, we have a discussion guide for it.
The Price of the Ticket, by James Baldwin
Coates was channeling Baldwin for some of his thoughts on Whiteness and the White Dream. And we quoted Baldwin in question #5. If you like to read more, then check out his collection of essays that discuss race, sexuality, and identity in an unjust American society.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo
You may want to read White Fragility if this whole thing is making you uncomfortable. Or you were frustrated that Coates didn’t offer solutions. Or you know that you’re Whiteness confers privilege but don’t know how to build your awareness and empathy beyond that. Or you say that you aren’t racist but secretly worry that you are. Or you want to talk to your friends and family more about race, but don’t know where to start.
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