Between the World and Me is a book of nonfiction in the form of a letter from the author to his then-teenaged son. Throughout the letter, Coates shares his experience coming to terms with the realities and injustices of being Black in America in order to give his son, Samori, the insight needed to navigate the world as a Black man. Coates urges Samori to reject the Dream, or the version of the American Dream idealized by white people which entirely excludes Black people.

The book takes on qualities of a tutorial as Coates attempts to preemptively guide his son through experiences and realizations they may come to share as they exist in the world with Black bodies. The book explores most of Coates’s life, nearly forty years, as his experiences as a Black man both change and stay the same throughout different settings and years. The text is mostly chronological, although the author sometimes strays from the timeline to provide anecdotal support or context.

Because Between the World and Me is a work of nonfiction, there are not clear literary moments such as an inciting incident or climax. However, in Coates’s pursuit to warn his son against the lies presented by white society and to prepare him for the realities of living as a Black man, the closest thing to a rising action would be Coates’s own budding awareness of this dichotomy. From an early age growing up in Baltimore, Coates realized the gap between himself and his Black neighbors and the white suburban community. Coates argues that this gap is visible in the ways each race engages with fear. White people weaponized fear as a tool of racism whereas the Black people Coates grew up with masked their fear with boasts and violence. Coates cites examples of these disguises, including violence between Black teenagers, the music Coates listened to, and the abusive tendencies of his own father.

Each experience that leads Coates to understand new myths presented to Black people compounds into his inciting awareness, driving him toward his eventual decision to write a letter to his son. Coates argues that safety is a myth for Black people, as violence and death can appear so suddenly and easily. He argues against street or gang violence, stating that although he understands the appeal of wanting to control the streets, there is no way to control something that is run by white systems. He even argues that education, especially his education in Baltimore, is a myth, as the school system’s true mission is not to educate Black children but to control them. These notions of safety and control, while being myths for Black people, are reality for the Dreamers.

Coates’s beliefs continue to evolve as he learns more about Black history. Coates argues that teaching civil rights through the lens of nonviolent figures, while maybe not intentionally racist, perpetuates the systemic control the Dreamers have over Black bodies. By ignoring figures like Malcolm X who resisted racial violence with his own violence, white people spread the Dream further by limiting the options for resistance Black youth can learn. Coates himself argues that the work of Malcolm X eclipses that of nonviolent figures in its effectiveness.

Coates’s time at Howard University exposes a lot of Coates’s previous beliefs as more mythology. For example, the population of the university suggests to Coates that race is truly a construct and that, while Black people share the struggle of the Black experience and are all oppressed by the Dreamers, Black people are not inherently the same.

The moment Coates is pulled over by Prince George County police may constitute the closest thing to a climax the book has. Coates relays how the same police force, which has a reputation for firing their guns more than any other department in the country, murdered Prince Jones, a former classmate of Coates’s. All the experiences Coates shares leading up to this moment culminate into the episode with the highest stakes. The fact that Prince Jones’s death is revealed alongside Coates being pulled over shows how easily Coates could have been in the same position.

Coates confesses early on that there is no resolution to the conflict in the book. In place of a falling action, Coates provides additional experiences that back up the severity of what he warns Samori against. Coates urges his son to reject the myth that diverse places, such as Manhattan, are better for Black people. He cites an incident where a white woman manhandled Samori in a movie theater and the other surrounding white people villainized Coates for speaking out to protect his son. Coates argues that even in environments that seem safe, white people will always try to control the Black body.

Coates seeks to destroy any myths residing in Samori’s thinking to better prepare him for the world. To do this, he explores ideas of slavery and police brutality in graphic and unpleasant detail to avoid sugar-coating unpleasant ideas like modern parents so often do for their children. Coates argues that by not protecting Samori from the dark truths of his past, he is protecting Samori from the similar truths of his future.

Coates does not end the book on a note of optimism, as optimism can also be seen as a myth. Rather, he ends the letter to his son on a note of encouragement. Samori has the insight he needs to face the future. Although Samori will grow up in a different world, Coates encourages him to be vulnerable and investigate the world just the same.