There is a quote from Toni Morrison on the cover: “This is required reading.”
As I sit to write this, trying to corral my thoughts and find a somewhat linear path through everything I want to say, this is the thought that rises to the top. This book is phenomenal. This book is beautiful, it’s poetry, but it’s also hard-hitting and honest and raw and it hurts. And anyone living in this country should read it, because what it communicates is so essential to understanding the realities of our world.
In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for never asking what he regards as the only question worth asking: “What it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.” The question of what moves a group of people to commit atrocities, to make them commonplace. Without necessarily intending to (or so I assume), Coates seems to be attempting to answer this question even as he grapples with the lasting impacts of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and hundreds of years of institutionalized racism and personal discrimination.
The book is written as a letter to his son about his own experiences as a man who has been labeled as black and his own hopes and fears about his son’s future as a man who has been labeled as black. That’s an important distinction Coates makes–people are not black and white, and to continue to treat this as a scientific truth contributes to the problem: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” People are diverse, but races are a cultural construction. In different countries, there are different racial categories that to us might seem superfluous (because they are, and so are ours). These categories we create are defined by a set of physical characteristics to which people foolishly, inaccurately, ascribe non-physical characteristics.
At one point, when discussing the foolishness of people who hope for a future in which race disappears and the world is populated entirely by people who are medium-brown, Coates points out that races have disappeared before and it has not solved racism. The point isn’t the race–these specific races are ones we have invented, and the death of these does nothing to prevent the creation of others. This point. Is that we continue to attach non-physical characteristics to physical ones and treat that nonsense as science because it suits our purposes. And what, Coates seems to ask and answer, is that purpose?
White people are people who believe themselves to be white–for whom that label of “white” carries a certain meaning. It is a banner of superiority, of I-will-always-be-above-someone-because-I-am-white. But we know that people are just people, a combination of various random quirks of evolution, no better and no worse than anyone else’s collection of evolutionary quirks, and yet culturally, we ascribe significance. Coates goes to certain lengths to explore this, which makes sense because people who believe themselves to be white use that belief to label other people as black, and to give meaning to that label.
It echoes James Baldwin’s thoughts from decades previous, asserting that he is just a person, just a man, and the invention of the nigger is fulfilling a need for white people–that it really has nothing to do with black people at all, other than that they are victimized because of it. This is fact I’m sure Coates is aware of, because he quotes Baldwin near the end of the book: “And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.”
We can see the legacy of these beliefs in our language. For example, the phrase “white trash” to refer to white people of a lower socio-economic status, who behave in a way we do not find acceptable. White trash. Why the qualifier? Why not just “trash”? The implication is that non-white persons are obviously trash–never heard it with the qualifier black, have you?–that this is a truth that goes without saying, but that for those white people with whom we disapprove, we need to clarify. It both marks them as betrayer of our whiteness and still keeps them a step above–they may be trash, but at lest they’re white.
Baldwin and Coates are right: we created this fallacious concept of the nigger, and we did it because we needed to believe that we are white, that that means something. Of course that’s not the word we use today; the label of “black” is enough to conjure up the same stereotypes, but if we don’t actually use the “n-word,” we tell ourselves, we’re not actually racist.
And if we’re not racist, then we do not live in a nation that sanctions the execution of men and women of color without a trial, without a defense, without anything more than the subjective judgment of one or more police officers. We do not live in a nation that must always find fault with the victim, and behave as if searching for fault is merely being even-handed and understanding the whole of the situation. We do not live in a nation where from one side of our mouths we can exalt our inalienable rights, including a fair trial, and on the other side of our mouths announce that if a person, publicly executed, was anything but saintly, that public execution without a trial is justified.
And this is one of the most poignant points Coates makes: the fragility of the black body in an America run by people who believe they are white. The black body is always in peril; it has been since before our revolution and we have yet to see a moment since where it is not. It’s an interesting choice Coates makes, to separate the body from the self, especially because he later explains that for him, the body is the self: “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” But somehow, discussing the body as a completely physical thing makes attacks against it, threats against it, more frightening.
I think it’s because we do have notions of the soul, the afterlife, of a life beyond this one, that makes death seem less final, more spiritual. It softens the blow. When Coates talks about the destruction of black bodies, the plunder of black bodies, there is no softening. The body is weak, and black bodies are targets, and destruction seems a force as unstoppable as the tide, driven by things so much larger than ourselves. There is an immediacy to the horror that thoughts of everlasting life make distant. Coates speaks of bodies, and so does not allow this. But this is a good thing–this separating, this refusal to soften the blow, to make the excuse of marijuana possession or threatening words or too-loud music, as if any of these things justify the destruction of a body.
This insistence that we must remember the crimes, too numerous by far, against bodies in peril, lest we slip back into our delusions of black and white.
These crimes are recent, but on Martin Luther King Day, we should remember that they are older as well. One of the most hard-hitting moments of this book was when Coates describes being a young boy living in a rough neighborhood and going to schools that were just an extension of the trappings of his life, the schools and the streets both designed to bring him to heel, to keep his body in jeopardy. His teachers showed their classes videos from the Civil Rights Movement, videos of black men and women being attacked by dogs, being sprayed with high-pressure hoses, being beaten; their teachers held this up as aspirational. Uplifting.
I think maybe, for them, it was. When you believe yourself to be white, when you live in a society where your white body is not in peril, there is no immediate risk in those videos and photographs. You feel bad for those people, but there is a disconnect–those people are not your people, that life will never be your life. It feels like evidence that fighting the good fight, even when it is hard, can yield success. But for someone with nothing on the line, it’s all abstract. It’s empty hope and feel-good catharsis at the expense of broken black bodies. It never occured to me that this was the lens through which I was seeing history; it didn’t occur to me that there was another way to see it.
But this sacrifice of black bodies did not strike Coates as aspirational or uplifting. It was evidence that the cards were stacked against them, and that even the thought of asking for a different life was seen as a punishable crime. I don’t say this to downplay the significance of this day, and of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., but rather to emphasize that the victories of the Civil Rights Movement were paved with the sacrifice of black bodies–that this should be a day on which we reflect on the horrors that were faced, and the progress still to be made. It is not a day to celebrate a war long since won.
(It is also a day to remember MLK for who he actually was.)
There is much, much more in this book–more than I can even begin to cover here–layers of meaning in some of the most beautiful and most heartbreaking prose I have ever read. It added depths to my understanding of the world I live in, the racial divide, what it is like to walk in shoes that are not as privileged as mine.
Suffice it to say, this is required reading.