This book is written as a letter from the author, an African-American journalist to his teenaged son, in this era of frequent discussions about racial relations and the recent killings of black people, by law enforcement officers. The book is a gift, a gift to his son, as the author explains his view of the world which was molded by where and when he grew up and how he became the man he is today. The letter cautions his son as to the realities of life, but also expresses a father’s hope for his son and his people and his country. The book is also a gift to those of us who are not black (or not black and male) to understand what it has meant and what it still means to be a black man in today’s society. For me, it is an invitation to another world and yet I found much in common with the author, as well. It is a short book, but not an easy read as it is quite painful.
Coates presents two major themes, early in the book, which he elaborates on throughout. The first is what race means. “ …race is the child of racism, not the father…the belief in the pre-eminence 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…The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.”
The second theme is the American Dream (which is available only to those who believe themselves white). “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub scouts…for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies…” Part of his job as a father is to help his son understand how to live in a black body in this country.
Coates grew up in inner city Baltimore (picture The Wire). His body was not safe wherever he was, on the streets, in school, or at home so his first priority was his safety and much of his energy went into preserving his life. This fear for his body and for his son’s body has (not surprisingly) never left him. At home, his parents beat him, to keep him safe. And he learned the rules of the streets. His world was quite constricted, though he did have TV to show him that other (white) people lived differently, not only with more wealth but with less fear. Coates attended Howard University. There he learned the diversity of black culture, black socioeconomic status and black people. But he also learned that the fear, the lack of safety for the body, was universal, no matter what other advantages the other students might appear to have. This fear for his body, his very life, permeates the book. As his son was raised in a multicultural environment, not in the inner city, he had some hope but also skepticism that he could protect him from the world. With recent events, and then the acquittal of the police in the Michael Brown case, Coates painfully witnesses his son’s realization of the unfairness of the world, based on skin color.
It is hard to do justice to the language of the book so I will end with some poignant words to his son:“ My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own. You can no more be black like I am black than I can be black like your grandfather was.” “I wanted you to have your own life , apart from fear—even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next……We are entering our last years together and I wish I had been softer with you. Your mother had to teach me how to love you—how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night…And that is because I am wounded….I am so very proud of you—your openness, your ambition, your aggression, your intelligence. My job, in the little time we have left together, is to match that intelligence with wisdom.”
It was hard for me to read this book to think of all I take for granted both for myself and for my two sons. (despite being small and female, which confers a different type of fear for the body, and Jewish—which has been very dangerous at certain times and places and is still dangerous in many parts of the world). Coates so powerfully points out that each life is precious and that each person has a whole community from his/her nuclear family to his neighbors and friends, invested in him/her and that taking that life is like taking a world.
The hopefulness of the book, to me is two fold, one that another generation is being raised, hopefully with less prejudice and maybe more awareness of our commonality than our differences. My other hope is that if others of us, who believe ourselves white, read this book, maybe we can question our basic assumptions and make our country better for all who live in it.
I highly recommend this book, as one man’s honest description of his life and his experience of America.