Coates Between the World and Me


Please draft an outline for Essay 2 that is formatting MLA style and includes the following features:

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  1. Draft Title
  2. Draft Thesis Statement
  3. Body Paragraph topics (and topic sentences)
  4. points to be discussed or argued in each body paragraph (bullet points are fine)
  5. a minimum of 2 textual quotes per paragraph (list them with quotation marks)
  6. Explain how you interpret these quotations
  7. Outside, if any, sources you intend to use. I would highly recommend consulting at least one or two outside sources.




Write a correctly formatted (MLA) and grammatically correct essay on one of the following topics. Don’t forget you have an outline to compose for this essay that is due Wednesday, Nov. 18th. This essay is worth 10% and should be between 750 and 1000 words.

  •  How does the author compare his experiences with public education to the expectations that society has for black people? What does it mean when he says that “the schools were not concerned with curiosity,” but with “compliance”? What statement might the author be making about racial injustice in the American school system?
  • The author speaks of the complexity of human society. Describe the contrast between the reality of his Baltimore neighbourhood with that of the American suburbia he viewed on TV as a child. How might this contrast have affected his personal philosophy?
  • While at Howard University, the author was influenced by such poets such as Robert Hayden and Ethelbert Miller. Their lyrical influence is still evident even in his memoir. How does the author’s style of writing and choice of words reflect a poetic influence? Be specific in the examples you give. What are the potential benefits of using poetic language in a non-fiction work such as Between the World and Me? What are the potential drawbacks of using figurative, rather than literal language?
  • Consider how Coates uses symbols/objects in his memoir. Use three symbols in the text as they relate to the body, which is a key or core symbol in the text. Symbols that could be explored include The Black Body, Law Enforcement, The Mecca, The Dream, The Belt, Education, Violence, Fear, Racism, and Black.




Coates Between the World and Me



  1. Distinguish memoir from biography and autobiography.
  2. Identify symbols in relation to theme and narrative development.
  3. Discuss the relationship between audience and purpose.
  4. Identify components of argument, including ethos, pathos, logos, and Kairos.



Reading Assignment

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Moore, Natalie Y. “Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me.” Chicago Humanities Festival, 2015.





Ta-Nehisi Coatees (1975–) is an American writer, novelist, and journalist, perhaps best known to students for his writing in the Black Panther comics series, although his books are primarily non-fiction. His third book, Between the World and Me, is written as a letter to his son, modelled on James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. This means Coates combines literary forms, blending epistolary form (letters), memoir, and autobiography, just as Baldwin had done. He discusses his personal life, experiences, and education, but like Baldwin, this exploration of the personal is also a way of discussing American society in general and specifically its history of racial conflict and white supremacy. As readers, we should recall that Coates is well education, has taught at several major universities as writer in residence, including the City University of New York, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and New York University. This means that when we give our attention to things like literary form, allusion to other texts (such as Baldwin’s), and literary devices such as symbolism, we should recognize that he does so as a writer fully conversant with the academic and scholarly approaches to literature. The epistolary form and use of personal memoir to discuss larger and wider social conflicts is therefore a conscious choice made by Coates as a way of achieving his intended purpose. We should ask ourselves what his purposes 2 are in writing this book and why he is sharing it with us? In a strict sense, the form of the work makes it a letter to his son, but by writing this as a letter to readers he stresses the way that the personal communication between father and son is primarily a social communication between the author and the community at large. This should provoke us to distinguish between the epistolary (letters), memoir, and autobiography. We are used to thinking of memoir as a narrative about event that expresses something important to the author. It is a form of creative nonfiction that works as self-expression. That is, memoir as expression is concentrated on the personal and domain of the personal. This is distinct from biography and autobiography, which are non-fiction genres that tell the story of a live not for self-expression but as a form of history. Coates is doing something different. Between the World and Me is literally a letter to his son, which is epistolary, private, and within the family; however, it is also a book intended (perhaps primarily) for our consumption and through which he intends to foster change in the world, specifically the USA.




Symbols are objects or things that stand in for or represent a relationship or idea. Like a metaphor, it means that one things stands in for another thing. The most obvious symbols around us are things like a red light or raised hand meaning “stop” or figured shapes of human bodies meaning gendered washrooms. In literary works, this often means that an object or recurring image symbolizes some wider or larger concept important to the text. An example of one symbol that operates quite profoundly in his text, is the body, the black body in particular. This means that as Coates writes about American race relations, racism, and white supremacy, he uses images or descriptions of the black body (especially his own) in order to represent the larger black community and the racism inflicted on it. Hence, harm done to his body in the book can be read as symbolizing harm to the larger community, and likewise scars on or the confined of his body carries a wider meaning for the community at large. The French critic Michel Foucault gives us a useful way of thinking about the body as such a symbol. Foucault is innovative as a theorist because he moved attention away from strictly physical or economic pressures on people, such as poverty or slavery. For Foucault, a larger category of institutions is essential. He is concerned with how these institutions enact practices that have multiple effects on the body, and how these practices become gaps or openings for research and understanding. While earlier critics emphasized the use of force or economic pressures to contain people, Foucault reminds us that institutions may have effects that we do not give as much attention because institutions don’t only control us through practices – they also help to confer our identities. This is worth considering for a moment: institutions help to establish our self-identities, and hence institutional forces 3 exert pressure on us both internally and externally (in contrast to most economic or physical pressures, which are predominantly external in their nature). For example, Columbia College is an institution that is part of a larger community of post-secondary institutions. It gives you a form of identity, namely that you are a Columbia student seeking an Associates degree or transfer status to another institution. More importantly, when you run into other Columbia students on the street, you are part of a community together as distinct from all of the other people who are not students or who are students at, say, Douglas College. The institution grants you forms of sameness or analogy (you are all Columbia students together) as well as difference (those other people are not students or, worse!, they are Douglas students from another school…). This shapes how you understand your own identity and the identities of others through forms of inclusion and exclusion, or sameness and difference. It can also lead to powerful feelings of belonging, exclusion, and sometimes even the sacred. Notably, however, those institutional forms of identity actually have little to do with our physical bodies and similarities to other outside of our own institution. We can further extend this symbol of the body using another of Foucault’s ideas: “biopolitics.” By this term, Foucault meant it to be closely related to his theories of “institutionality,” so we are still connected with our sense of institutions. The body is the active agent who receives the effects of institutional authority and power. This may be obvious, such as through imprisonment’s effects on and control over the body (sharing a cell, being put in solitary confinement, and prohibitions on movement or privacy, to name a few) as well as the way that the institution of a prison confers forms of identity (“criminals” or “convicts” versus “guards”). However, “biopolitics” can also appear in things ranging from grooming, body modification, ways of imbuing the body with meaning (ie: skin colour, “race,” and so forth), and the various things that people can do with bodies to acquiesce to power or to resist it. For this reason, academics may pay close attention to “carceral bodies” (meaning imprisoned people’s bodily experiences) or to the “biopolitics” of many other groups. The comments in the above paragraph about biopolitics and how the body is imbued with meaning centers around the concept of “race.” Furthermore, when using “race” we must be careful of our terminology. The word “race” is a malapropism—human beings are all one “race” and skin colour is not a meaningful genetic trait for distinguishing humans “racially,” nor does it mark out any kind of genuine biological categories or sub-species. It is a trait of bodies that we imbue with meaning, principally using the concept of “race.” Hence, the skin becomes a symbol of larger social values, whether they are based in reality or not, and how we understand or interpret bodies is shaped by the social values that the body symbolizes. The profound and pervasive mis-use of the term “race” may actually be useful for recognizing the enormity of biopolitics and the exercises of power over the body. The 4 misuse of the term also helps us to recognize how the body comes to signify different meanings in different times, places, cultures, and contexts. Its meanings are not intrinsic, nor do those meanings even originate in the body—they are based on external social values that they symbolize and come to reflect. What is “beautiful” or “dirty” or “powerful” in one scenario may be understood very differently by other people in other places and times, or in fact even by the same people in different circumstances of their cultural life, because these meanings do not actually originate in the body itself. The body is also seen as a metaphor. Symbols can be represented as other literary devices. That is, one thing can be interpreted in many ways. In Coates’ book, the body is a symbol that stands in for the constitutive, widespread, and long-held effects of systemic and institutionalized oppression. More simply, the body magnifies and makes visible what are often otherwise invisible forms of racism. We see the shadow or trace of secret, institutional racism on the physical body of the oppressed. Yet, here, the body can be represented as one, as a community, as an entire race. Therefore, to talk about just the body requires explanation.


Questions for Self-Review

  1. What kind of change do you think Coates is proposing through making public his private experiences? 2. Why do you think Coates preferred to use the epistolary form?
  2. Can you identify two instances in which Coates’ discussion of the body (or his own body) is also a way of speaking about the larger community?
  3. How are bodies regulated and controlled in the book?

Works Cited & Supplemental Reading


Carney, Kelly Walter. “Brother Outsider: James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Exile Literature.” CLA Journal, vol. 60, no. 4, 2017, pp. 448–457.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

 Evans, David and Peter Dula. Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity. Cascade Books, 2018.

 Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. Palgrave, 2008.

Lordi Emily J. “Between the World and the Addressee: Epistolary Nonfiction by Ta-Nehisi Coates and His Peers.” CLA Journal, vol. 60, no. 4, 2017, pp. 434–447.

Moore, Natalie Y. “Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me.” Chicago Humanities Festival, 2015.

Rambsy II, Howard. “The Remarkable Reception of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” African American Review, vol. 49, no. 3, 2016, pp. 196–204

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