Between the World and Me is a letter written in three parts. Coates writes directly to his son Samori. Coates is forty years old, and Samori is fifteen. The text is not set up as a traditional narrative. Rather, it traces Coates’ thoughts and feelings throughout his life so far. It is loosely chronological though sometimes interrupted with anecdotes out of chronological order. The plot has less to do with specific events and more to do with the way Coates’ thoughts and opinions change over time.
Part I begins in the present, as a host for a news show interviews Coates. She asks Coates what it means to lose his body, and he answers her with all the knowledge he has gained over the years. Coates turns to his childhood, describing his life and family as he was growing up in the ghettos of West Baltimore. He first understands the gap between his black world and the suburban white world in childhood, though he cannot articulate the reasons for the separation. Coates begins to give form to his thoughts by reading the many books on Africana that his father owns. He develops a belief system similar to that of Malcolm X and disagrees with the idea of non-violent protests.
Coates attends Howard University, and he evolves his beliefs significantly during this time. He constantly studies, reads, and questions everything. He turns to Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilization as his main guidebook. He begins to think of black people as “kings in exile,” severed from their nation by plundering Europeans, and keeps a mental trophy case of African heroes. Debating with older poets and his teachers challenges his views, which leads Coates to journalism. He starts to think about black history more objectively and less romantically. At Howard, he meets Kenyatta Matthews, and she becomes pregnant at twenty-four. He leaves Howard without a degree and moves with Kenyatta to Delaware, where he works as a freelance writer.
The main event in Part II is the police murder of Prince Jones, whom Coates met at Howard. This is an episode of police brutality in which the officer is not charged. Coates begins to write about Jones’ murder and develops a rage at both the police and all of white America. Coates’ family moves to New York City in 2001, and Coates finds himself unable to sympathize with the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack because he views them all as part of the system that brought down Prince Jones. Coates describes his life in Brooklyn as a new father with young Samori. His thoughts revolve around Samori understanding the weight and struggle he will have to go through as a black man. The second main event of Part II is a trip to France. Travel opens Coates’ eyes to worlds outside of America. He realizes how much fear has damaged his life, and is able to better place himself in the larger context of the world as a whole.
In Part III, Coates visits Prince Jones’ mother, Dr. Mable Jones. He is amazed by her composure and compares it to the steady determination of his grandmother and the protestors at sit-ins in the 1960s. Dr. Jones speaks about her own history and tells Coates more about Prince. After leaving, Coates sits in his car and rethinks his views of non-violent protestors. He used to think they were shameful not to fight for themselves, but he now believes they may have known that there was never any security to fight for in the first place. He reflects on attending Howard University’s homecoming and the sense of black power he felt within that group of people. His parting message to his son is to remind Samori to engage fully in the struggle of his life as a black person, but to know he is not responsible for converting white people to the struggle. Coates is confident that white America will continue to plunder not only black bodies but the environment, too. The text thus begins and ends discussing the white assault against the black body.