Released two months ahead of schedule in July, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, has made waves around the country, with its personal and devastating look at the institutional and often unseen racism underlying American culture.

Written from personal experience, the book takes the form of a letter to Mr. Coates’s 15-year-old son Samori, in the spirit of James Baldwin’s 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has called the book “required reading.”

Mr. Coates, an award-winning journalist and national correspondent for The Atlantic, had originally set out to write a collection of essays about the Civil War. But in the wake of police killings of young black people around the country and public responses that he believed missed the historical point, his writing took a turn.

Ta-Nehisi Coates opens the festival with a discussion on race in America. — Nina Subin

“The most difficult thing is to get it clear,” Mr. Coates said of his writing process, in a conversation with the Gazette this week. “First of all to figure out what you are saying, and to state it as clearly as possible.” Between the World and Me was in large part an exercise in achieving clarity. “It turns out that focusing it like that and knowing directly who I was talking to helped clarify what I wanted to say and what I thought.”

Mr. Coates will join award-winning journalist and NPR correspondent Michele Norris on Friday for a sold-out public discussion sponsored by the Vineyard Gazette that explores the idea of a post-racial America. The discussion also kicks off this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, which features talks, interviews and panel discussions with 31 authors throughout the weekend in Edgartown and Chilmark. All author events on Saturday and Sunday are free and open to the public.

“This whole notion of a post-racial America has always been curious to me,” said Ms. Norris, who leads the Race Card Project, a national initiative to foster a discussion about race in America. “What’s really interesting to me as a journalist and a researcher, and as a writer, is why it entered the lexicon so quickly,” she said of the term. “Why did journalists embrace it?”

She and Mr. Coates have shared the stage in the past, but never on the Vineyard. It will be Mr. Coates’s first visit to the Island. The discussion comes at an opportune time, Ms. Norris said, when Between the World and Me is hitting the literary scene, in the midst of national outrage over racial violence, and as the author himself prepares to move to Europe with his family.

With a cool and steady voice, Mr. Coates explains to his son in one chapter that the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers should come as no surprise in a country rooted in black oppression.

“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage,” he writes. He argues that the American dream is only available to some and goes hand-in-hand with black oppression.

Some have criticized Mr. Coates as being overly pessimistic, but he sees optimism and pessimism as beside the point. “No one knows what’s going to happen,” he said. “Why I’m interested in the force of racism in America is because it is one of the most important ways of knowing one’s country. Racism [has been part of] this country since its beginning. It’s part of what made this country possible.”

The term “post-racial America” is not only inaccurate, Ms. Norris said, it invites people to ignore the challenges and discomfort that often accompany issues of race and cultural identity. “But a racial makeup is part of a tapestry of America,” she said. “Why would we want to render that invisible?”

The talk on Friday may touch on the topic of national leadership, and President Obama’s role in fostering a national discussion about race, but will likely focus on Mr. Coates’s personal journey. “It really is this wonderful opportunity to talk to a writer whose work has just exploded on the literary landscape with such force — at the moment that that is happening,” Ms. Norris said.

Racism, both overt and unseen, is a theme in this year’s book festival. Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, recounts the author’s youth in a segregated Louisiana town and his journey of self-discovery. Seasonal Aquinnah resident Dick Lehr’s new book, Birth of a Nation, focuses on a racist film of the same name and how the African-American community organized against it. In The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, author Jeff Hobbs reconstructs the life story of his college roommate, from a dangerous neighborhood in New Jersey to Yale and his untimely death in a drug-related shooting.

The festival closes Sunday evening with a discussion about the future of news, with Mr. Blow, Jeff Fager of CBS, and former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank. Mr. Frank’s memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, is also featured in the festival. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Jones will moderate the discussion.

“Our approach is to always have some very big names and also to find books that we think are important or interesting or would appeal to the community here but they might not otherwise know about it,” said festival founder Suellen Lazarus. “So we try to strike the right balance.”

A series of group discussions with a wide range of authors begins Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. On Sunday, individual author talks and one-on-one interviews continue under three different tents on the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center, beginning at 9 a.m. A full schedule of events is available at and appears in a special section in today’s print edition.

Local food and food sustainability make up another theme this year, with books and appearances by locals Chris Fischer, Ali Berlow, Laurie David and others. Several of those authors will discuss the future of the local food movement on Saturday at 11:30 a.m.

Some of the fiction at this year’s festival has a seafaring theme. Peter Nichols’s novel The Rocks draws from his experience with boats and has received wide acclaim. John Benditt will talk about his novel The Boat Maker, a story about life, boat-building and love. Matt Hobart from Gannon and Benjamin Boatyard will introduce him on Sunday.

The Vineyard is a place to relax, but also to explore ideas, said Ms. Norris, a longtime Vineyarder who served on the advisory panel for this year’s festival.

“There is this wonderful cross-pollination on-Island that you don’t often see in American beach or resort or vacation communities,” she said. “And there is a degree of integration here — social integration, cultural integration, racial integration, class integration.” More than just a summer retreat, she said, the Vineyard is a place of engagement. “And I think that’s actually pretty cool.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival begins Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at the Harbor View Hotel, Edgartown. For a full schedule of events, visit To learn about and participate in The Race Card Project, visit

Sara Brown contributed to this article.

Read more about the authors and books featured in this year's Martha's Vineyard Book Festival.