Reading guide for 'Between the World and Me'
Active reading suggestions
Before you start to read the book, read over these questions and the essay prompt, to allow you to anticipate some of the ideas and issues you should pay attention to while you read.
While you are reading, write in your book — note questions you have, responses you have to various ideas, patterns you notice and more. Try using a pen or pencil, instead of a highlighter, so you are able to write and not just highlight. Underline, circle, draw arrows and stars, and write questions and key words in the margins. In other words, annotate and engage in a conversation with the text.
After you read, read through these questions again and think through possible responses. You may also want to take notes responding to these questions, although the notes will not be collected in class. Read over the essay prompt again. Flip through your text and reread your annotations. Write a rough draft response to the essay and then put it aside for a few days. Read your essay aloud to yourself and then revise it to the best of your abilities.
NOTE: There are several published summaries of "Between the World and Me," but we encourage you to read the original book, entirely, not just a summary. You need to read the original text in order to get a sense of the author's tone and style and to read all of the details. If you read the summary before or after you read a chapter, it may help you anticipate the key issues and ideas and read with more focus and better recall, but beware that the authors of these summaries tend to oversimplify and overgeneralize. Reading just the summary will not be in your best academic interest.
Reading guide questions
These questions have been provided to help guide your thinking while you read. You do NOT need to write out or turn in the answers to these questions.
1. Consider the title of the book. What does Coates believe is "between the world and me?"
2. What is the most important lesson to be learned from the book? Why is it important?
3. The title of Coates' book comes from Richard Wright's poem "Between the World and Me." What connections does he build between the poem and his story?
4. The book is divided into three sections, each beginning with a poem or quotation. These are called epigraphs. Read each one carefully and think about how it pertains to that section of the book. Why did the author choose that epigraph?
5. On page 5, Coates says, “she turned to the subject of my body?” See pages 9 and 12 for more ideas. Why do you think Coates comes back to the idea of the body again and again?
6. On page 7, Coates refers to a group of “new people.” Who are these people and what is new about them?
7. Early on, Coates makes the first of many references to “the Dream.” He has “wanted to escape into the Dream,” but claims that he cannot because “the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (11). What ideas are part of this “Dream”? How does this Dream conflict with reality?
8. Coates describes his adolescent experience in Baltimore in the following way: “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired” (27). Who are “we” in this statement? What does the author mean by the metaphor of the ground being “trip-wired”?
9. On page 28, Coates writes: “Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body.” Consider the dilemma he is in and how that it feels to be in a no-win situation.
10. On page 29, Coates talks about what his mother made him write. How does he feel about that? Why does he repeat that pattern with his son?
11. On page 35, Coates begins to describe his admiration of Malcolm X. Who was Malcolm X? What is the significance of this figure for the author?
12. On page 39, Coates refers to Howard University as his Mecca. What is the significance of this metaphor?
13. On page 40, Coates lists many famous alumni of Howard University. Besides their educational trajectory, what do these figures have in common? Why does Coates take the time to list their names in his book?
14. On page 46, Coates admits that, in his younger years, he saw “all black people as kings in exile.” How does his view of black people shift as a result of further study and reading?
15. On page 48, Coates describes the classroom and the library differently. How are these spaces different from one another, in his experience? What does each space represent to him?
16. On page 56, Coates mentions the hip-hop group OutKast. What is the role of hip-hop music videos in creating the black identity and its struggles? How do OutKast’s music video “Ms. Jackson” and Childish Gambino’s “This is America” have connections to Coates’ portrayal of the struggles of black community (political, economical, social)?
17. On pages 61-62, Coates observes his peers dancing in local night clubs and laments that he “almost never danced.” How does Coates approach the act of dancing, and the dancing of black people in particular? What does it represent for him?
18. On pages 66-67, Coates describes how the birth of his son changed his life and worldview. Then, on page 82, Coates compares parenting within the black community to general parenting strategies. What does Coates learn, or come to understand, by becoming a father?
19. On pages 86-87, Coates describes his reaction to the events in New York City on September 11, 2001. Does his reaction surprise you? Why or why not? How does his experience compare to that of your parents and loved ones on that fateful day in history?
20. On pages 93-94, the author describes an incident in which a stranger pushes his young son. Who are the various players in this scene and how does each person react to the encounter? How would you have reacted?
21. On pages 105-106, Coates describes himself and his son as the “below.” What does he mean by this?
22. Which portion of the author’s body suffers most (p. 116)? What is the significance of this metonymy?