This is where I usually try to have a little quip-y introduction, or a short story about myself and how I ended up reading this book, before I start the actual review. I find that it adds a little personalization to what is otherwise, hopefully, a fairly objective review (though I suppose that a review, in and of itself, can be considered nothing if not subjective). Regardless, I have nothing cute to say here. This is a nonfiction piece that has been on my TBR list for far too long, and I finally fulfilled what I consider as my societal obligation to read it. And I mean obligation in the sense that I am morally bound to do so, as a citizen of the US and the person I believe myself to be, not in the sense that I am forced to do something that I am opposed to, but must anyways because it is prescribed (like taxes).
Going into this, I had large expectations. I had yet to hear anything negative about it. And it has received much recognition and many awards. I was nervous, as a result, because sometimes these extreme expectations result in a letdown after experiencing it oneself. However, when just partway into the book I realized that I had already wanted to highlight/record/earmark almost every passage, I knew this would be a case of fully filled, and possibly even exceeded, expectations. In fact, although I did manage to pull some quotes and have added them to the end, it is really only a small representation of how many parts of this book struck me strongly. And the only way for you to really understand (and along the way to learn and grow) is to read it yourself. So please, please do it.
Although it is written in the form of a letter to his son, this work is really a letter to us all; written to and for black men, but no less (and probably even more) illustrative and revelatory for the rest of us as well. Coates reflects on numerous profound questions from the origins of the man-made construction of “race” to how that invention has led to a history of exploitation of the bodies of black men and women. From slavery to segregation to the new age systemic racism of today, Coates speaks of the suppression and oppression of black history and culture and pride and bodies. This history is a burden that falls primarily on the shoulders of black people in America, but whose responsibility falls squarely on those of us who have convinced ourselves that we are white, that that that means something, and gives us to right to use, mistreat, discard black people, and then be allowed to forget that we have done so. The illumination of the depth of the delusions we (white people) live under in the US is intense and necessary. Coates addresses these topics both in an academic and a personal way – speaking from his studies, his interviews and observances and his own experiences. And along the way we see how his own opinions and outlooks have developed and grown, along with his reflection that the room to make these mistakes or believe these misconceptions, and then the chance to recognize and grow from those, is something we all deserve, but do not all receive. It’s not easy to hear everything Coates has to say, but that is precisely why we need to listen. The cognitive dissonance created by his words must be embraced.
I first listened to this as an audiobook and then followed that up with a review of the printed version, in order to revisit some of the most affecting passages (the writing is expressive, powerful, almost tangible – every single word has value and carries a heavy weight, there is no extravagance of language or unnecessary ornament here). I was pleasantly surprised (I love when this happens) when Coates himself was the narrator. And the flow of the writing, like written spoken word (or just really spoken word, on the audiobook) is surprisingly soft and melodic for all the harsh realities and experiences it contains. That juxtaposition leaves you with a simultaneously shattered and redemptive feel, a proper post-read mood for this piece.
The blurb on the back of the print copy of this book, from Toni Morrison, says “This is required reading.” I could not agree more. And then once read, it must be shared – recommended, taught, discussed. It must be acknowledged and accepted. And then, it must be acted upon.
Just a small selection of the many passages I highlighted:
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
“So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”
“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”
“Then the mother of the murdered boy rose, turned to you, and said, “You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.”