Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Audiobook or Real Book: I listened to the audiobook read by the author
Why I read it: I first heard of the book when Coates was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Since then I have seen it recommended in quite a few places
Synopsis: The book is presented as a letter from Coates to his son after a grand jury refused to indict Darren Wilson
General Thoughts: I don’t think I can say a lot about this book. Sure, there were things Coates said that I wanted to vehemently dispute. There were also things he said that I wanted to show to everyone I’ve ever spoken to and say “see, this is the truth”. But, I do not think this is a book for me to discuss and debate. I am white. For me, this book is offered up as an experience. It is the opportunity to see inside what it means to be black in America, but I am not able to criticize or canonize anything Coates says. I can only listen. Any debate or discussion that can come up around this book is intended to come from within the black community.
I will talk briefly about the moments in the book I found most striking. The one that stands out the most to me is when Coates recounts going on a guided tour of a Civil War battleground and the tour guide being a confederate reenactor. The next most striking is when he describes having a confrontation with a white woman and a white man after the woman pushes his son out of the way. For me, it was not so much the rest of the confrontation that rattled me (although that appeared to be what rattled Coates) but the willingness of anyone to step forward and defend someone who shoved a child. I realize the phrasing of that sounds like I’m trying to dismiss the racist tones of that confrontation. I am not. Coates makes it clear that his son’s blackness is at least partially responsible for the push and his own blackness is certainly responsible for the man’s intervention, so for me, while the racism escalates throughout the conversation, it was the initial facts of the white peoples’ actions that left me reeling. Coates’s description of Howard, or really his description of attending an all-black college, was definitely striking to me. It was also eye-opening. While I had intellectually understood the arguments for all black (and all girl) colleges, I had never truly understood their popularity. I would also like to talk briefly about Coates’s reflections on his time spent in France. There was not a whole lot about that section that felt as moving or even as important as the rest of the book, but I would say it was potentially the most interesting piece. The way race does and does not cross cultures when one is a tourist was something I had never considered before. Finally, the comparison that Coates draws between the history of race and racism and the current global warming crisis is stunning. At the risk of toeing the line I drew for myself just a paragraph ago, I found this Coates argument about the white (or people who believe they are white, as Coates describes us) culture of domination dooming the earth to be quite compelling, if fatalistic.
One final note that I have—I would very much likely to see the spiritual successor of the same caliber coming from Coates’s symbolic son. Not that I want to be a total jackass and literally demand that Coates’s actual son write a memoir in conversation with his father just so people can compare, but that I would like someone who has lived a life relatively similar to Coates’s son to write a reply in conversation with Coates. Obviously, Coates is one person and no one person can write something that reports the experience of a whole group. But, beyond that limitation, Coates himself acknowledges that he has lived a specific type of black experience which further narrows his voice. More than once he wonders at the ways in which his son’s childhood is different than his own, both safer and broader, and I wonder how a “son’s” interpretation would differ from Coates’s and how he would address those disagreements in conversation. Of course, this is merely wishful thinking (or perhaps such a book exists and this is merely ignorance) but I do think it would add a valuable layer to what Coates is trying to do both inside and outside of the black community.
Quotes: (Per my own failure, quotes are pulled from GoodReads with no page numbers or timestamps as opposed to my actual favorites)
“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.”
“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.”
“One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”
“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
Essay Ideas: As I said, this is not a book for me to be debating and dissecting and therefore this is not a book for me to write essays about. If anything at all, I would cite this book in an essay on something else. But that’s an at most.