Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in West Baltimore in 1975. His mother, Cheryl Waters, was a teacher. His father, William Paul Coates, was a publisher who founded the Black Classic Press, which reissued forgotten African American works. His father also worked as a librarian at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and was a member of the local Black Panther chapter. The neighborhood where Coates grew up was very violent during his childhood. Violence was a common part of daily life, in homes and in the streets. Coates was regularly in fear for his physical safety. However, being surrounded by literature from an early age pushed him to seek answers about the struggles of black people and his culture through reading.
Coates started at Howard University in 1993 but left five years later without a degree. Shortly thereafter, he had his son, Samori, with Kenyatta Matthews, whom he later married. He began to work as a freelance writer, though at first he was not terribly successful. Then he started getting work writing periodicals. He wrote for Washington Monthly, Philadelphia Weekly, and Time, to name a few. He gained readership when he began corresponding for The Atlantic magazine’s website. He wrote a series of very opinionated essays that garnered attention, including a few about former president Barack Obama. Coates won a National Magazine Award for two essays written in 2013 and 2014. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2015, and earned a PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay in 2016. Before Between the World and Me, Coates published a memoir called The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. When he published Between the World and Me in 2015, it won the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.
Coates took his inspiration for Between the World and Me from James Baldwin, who wrote The Fire Next Time in 1963. Baldwin wrote one of the essays in his book as a letter to his nephew, and the subject matter is an analysis of the problems facing African Americans in a time of segregation. Coates’ book is a letter to his son concerning much of the same subject matter. When Coates was writing Between the World and Me, the issues of police brutality and racial profiling had become prevalent in the media. Coates was profoundly affected by the deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of the police.
Between the World and Me references several examples of lethal police brutality. Michael Brown Jr. was an 18-year-old black man from Ferguson, Missouri. In 2014, Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown and claimed self-defense, though other witnesses said Brown had his hands up in surrender and was unarmed. The city of Ferguson erupted into riots until the National Guard was called in. Wilson went on trial and was not indicted.
Trayvon Martin was a teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the “neighborhood watch captain,” in 2012. Zimmerman reported that Trayvon looked suspicious and Zimmerman ignored police instructions to stay in his car and not confront the teenager. Instead, he tracked Trayvon and killed him, claiming self-defense. Zimmerman was acquitted of murder. Between the World and Me is Coates’ attempt to explain the struggle of black men and women in America to his son—to prepare his son for the realities of the life ahead and pass on his own knowledge gleaned from decades of study. His work serves as a stark eye-opener to issues of racial injustice in the United States.