Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Discussion Questions from Washington University in St. Louis and Alexis Elafros
1. Coates says: “I hope to haunt my readers, to trouble their sense of how things actually are.” Are there passages that stood out for you?
2. Are there things in Coates’ writing that are similar to your own experiences?
3. Coates writes that journalism, fatherhood, living in New York, and traveling to Paris opened doors for him to other worlds. Is there an experience that you have had that caused you to question a belief or something you had been taught? What was the experience like?
4. Can this book also be seen as a plea for education reform? When Coates says that “the schools were not concerned with curiosity,” but rather with “compliance,” what does that tell us about how the educational institution in America perpetuates racial injustice?
5. What does Coates mean when he speaks about the “Dream” and those who are living in it?
6. On pg. 78, Coates speaks of the recent talk about “diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras.” He says that “these are all fine and applicable, but that (they) understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them.” If speaking about diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras allows the American people to dissociate racism from themselves, what is it that we should be discussing? How can we make the American people face the racial injustices and prejudices that still exist?
7. Coates says that he not only cannot tell his son it is going to be okay, he cannot even tell him that it might be okay. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” That being said, in general, is this text hopeful? Or is it pessimistic?
8. Coates often refers to a certain group Americans as those “who believe that they are white.” What concept is Coates conveying with this phrase and for what end does he use it?
9. Provost Holden Thorp wrote, “‘Between the World and Me’ holds special significance at Washington University, where students, staff and faculty are searching for meaningful ways to address the inequities exposed by Ferguson.” How can the ideas expressed in the book be useful as we think about Ferguson as well as our other surrounding communities?
10. From the first word of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the reader is aware that the author is addressing his son with both love and fear for the vulnerability of his black body. As the book develops, he addresses his son at greater length and in increasingly personal ways. What do you find are the most important perspectives or lessons the father passes on to his son, even as he recognizes that they are a generation apart? Example: “I am sorry that I cannot save you… I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (107-108)
11. As a student at Howard University, Coates realizes that the point of his education “was a kind of discomfort” in learning that not only American dreams but the dreams he had conjured to replace them, including the “comforting myths of Africa,” are broken, thus leaving him only with “…humanity in all its terribleness,” (52). Where does one go from this point in learning? In the remaining two-thirds of his book, Coates recalls past experiences that were important discoveries, others that were part of an “odyssey” of “struggle.” Do these experiences contrast with his earlier description of dreams and how so?
12. At one point, Coates states the he, “…came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast,” (33). What leads him to this conclusion? What other institutions built upon “good intention” do you see as contributing to the same cycles of inequality?
13. When Coates writes about his involvement in incidents at school, he recalls his grandmother demanding that he write about them. For the future autobiographer, these were his “earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness.” Whereas classroom lessons had more to do with compliance than curiosity, Coates writes, self-interrogation might serve a different end. In settings that measured academic success, have you ever sometimes found your awareness of yourself as a learner shaped by self-interrogation? If so, how would the result of a private conference with oneself differ from an official record of success or failure? How much would social experiences like race, social and economic class or national origin enter into a dialogue with oneself?
14. How might a reader, having finished Coates’ book, name the space that stands “between the World and Me”?
a. For Coates, a frequent candidate for that space is the black body, deprived of its personhood in America by slavery and its cultural inheritance into the present. Recalling fears for his own body’s safety, Coates alerts his son to the endangerment that follows when all black bodies are seen as one. The son’s body will then be seen as responsible for the “worst actions” of other black bodies. Injustice will be justified when the destruction of a black body is attributed to his or her own error, “real or imagined.”
15. What reductions of a person to their culture (be it in language, appearance, or practice) are you familiar with? What reductions did you learn about in Between the World and Me? From your experience so far, how might a student at Wash U be subject to a similar reduction?
Links and Resources
• Listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss the creation of Marvel's Black Panther comics and the impact he hopes it has in this interview with NPR
• In linguistics, "code-switching" means mixing languages or patterns of speech in conversation. Many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction. Code Switch
is a blog project run by six NPR journalists who cover topics of race, ethnicity and culture.
• The Race Card Project
explores a different kind of conversation about race. We ask people to think about their experiences, observations, triumphs, laments, theories or anthem about race or cultural identity. Then they take those thoughts and distill them down to one six-word sentence.
• A Girl Like Me
is a short piece explores the way racial stereotypes influence the self-image of African American young women and children. Davis interviews teenage black women about their experience with racialized standards of beauty, and replicates the Kenneth Clark Doll Test, to show how black girls and boys to this day associate whiteness with beauty and virtue and blackness with ugliness and vice.