In college I read Baldwin, Fanon, Malcolm, DuBois and of course King. In my legal career, I worked much of it under African-American men and women within my own office and in the court system. I thought I had a handle on racism in this country.
Ta-Nehisi Coates taught me otherwise.
Mr. Coates ostensibly writes to his son, a young teen growing up in NYC, but the real audience for his book is certainly white America, or those of us who perhaps aren’t so deeply wedded to the “need to be white” syndrome, and can “hear” what Coates is saying.
If you look at reviews you will of course find the “seemingly sophisticated” responses that take issue with Coates “bigotry”, a thing that most racists love to engage in when they become uncomfortable that someone is piercing the veil of their racism. But it is not bigotry to speak truth, and this Mr. Coates does admirably.
It is a truism that there is only so much relating that an individual can do regarding another. I can understand your pain at losing a child, but only in a superficial way if I have not lost one myself. And even if I have, I can only approximate your feelings on the subject to a greater or lesser extent, depending on my sensitivities. But here, Ta-Nehisi paints a portrait of growing up black in America that touches us deeply and allows us to penetrate the veil a bit more than we might expect.
It is a chilling rendition of life in urban America. It is shocking to say the least. Never again can one even “see” a group of young black boys on a street corner and think the same of them as before. Coates have forever changed the dynamics of any such encounter.
Toni Morrison, who wrote the forward, suggests that Coates may be the replacement for James Baldwin. Having read Baldwin, I can agree. It is difficult to read Coates in some measure precisely because it is hard to separate the amazing prose from the message. One is awed by both simultaneously and is continually marveling at the insights and the brilliantly turned phrase at the same time.
It is a feast for the lover of words.
I had to laugh at reading some of the reviews on Amazon. While overwhelmingly positive, there were exceptions, the usual suspects–white denials who lament that Mr. Coates has “failed to see that we have come a long way”. Isn’t that what all racists say? Isn’t that what they said to King? Every race discussion inevitably gets to “we have come a long way” as if that is solace to the millions who struggle, and die to live human. Can you even begin to come to grips with living in fear ALL the time? Can you ever come to grips with feeling “different” and “not at home” in so many places?
We cannot, and yet we have lived (in white America) with this pretence all our lives too. The Dream, as Coates puts it,–(the one we all remember from the early days of TV) consists of suburbia and all that we immediately call to mind with that one word. We have made Coates’ world in order to continue believing in the Dream. We have built the ghettos and the walls and then we have adjudged the prisoners as guilty of not living in the prison in emulation of suburbia. But how could one?
Coates systematically points out the distortions that his life must inevitably come to because of the Dream. How being raised in a black lives don’t matter culture, distorts everything one sees, everywhere. His trip finally to Paris illustrates this so well.
Coates presents a painful but so very real picture of growing up black in America. It is one that every African-American will immediately get, even those who have risen from the ghetto and attempt to enrobe themselves in the Dream, often at the real expense of their fellow African-Americans. But the real beneficiaries of Coates journey are those of us who want to think we are white.
Being “white” is defined by who isn’t, and as such Coates makes the startling remark that without racism, being white would have no point to it. It is designed and promoted on the backs of “others”. And as such, it is a useless appelation, designed to protect an exceptionalism that is not real.
For, as Coates argues, if America is exceptional, how could it have chosen to fail so miserably at this thing of race, a term we now understand, to be essentially meaningless scientifically? All Coates sees is that we are still exceptionally racist, hardly a flag to wave to the world.
This should be required reading in every school in America. It ought to be on everybody’s coffee table. It ought to be read and talked about at every table in America. It is that important. Important to African-Americans surely, especially to young people who are just now trying to figure out how they fit in, and can live in America, but just as surely this book is essential to so-called “white” America which has yet to come to terms with its personal responsibility for what is still existing today.
This will go down as one of the most important books in the 21st century. Coates is a giant.