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'Between the World and Me' Summary of the book
Between the World and Me takes the form of a book-length letter from the author to his son, adopting the structure of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time; the latter is directed, in part, towards Baldwin's nephew, while the former addresses Coates's 15-year-old son. Coates's letter is divided into three parts, recounting Coates's experiences as a young man, after the birth of his son, and during a visit with Mable Jones. Coates contemplates the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being Black in the United States. He recapitulates the American history of violence against Black people and the incommensurate policing of Black youth. The book's tone is poetic and bleak, guided by his experiences growing up poor and always at risk of bodily harm. He prioritizes the physical security of African-American bodies over the tradition in Black Christianity of optimism, "uplift," and faith in eventual justice (i.e., being on God's side). His background, which he describes as "physicality and chaos," leads him to emphasize the daily corporeal concerns he experiences as an African-American in U.S. culture. Coates's position is that absent the religious rhetoric of "hope and dreams and faith and progress," only systems of White supremacy remain along with no real evidence that those systems are bound to change. In this way, he disagrees with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s optimism about integration and Malcolm X's optimism about nationalism.
Coates gives an abridged, autobiographical account of his youth "always on guard" in Baltimore and his fear of the physical harm threatened by both the police and the streets. He also feared the rules of code-switching to meet the clashing social norms of the streets, the authorities, and the professional world. He contrasts these experiences with neat suburban life, which he calls "the Dream" because it is an exclusionary fantasy for White people who are enabled by, yet largely ignorant of, their history of privilege and suppression. To become conscious of their gains from slavery, segregation, and voter suppression would shatter that Dream. The book ends with a story about Mabel Jones, the daughter of a sharecropper, who worked and rose in social class to give her children comfortable lives, including private schools and European trips. Her son, Coates' college friend Prince Carmen Jones Jr., was mistakenly tracked and killed by a policeman. Coates uses his friend's story to argue that racism and related tragedy affects Black people of means as well.
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