I can’t remember the last time I finished a book in one sitting, one that had me bookmarking every other page and frantically scribbling down quotes. That is a true testament to this book – an in equal parts compelling and horrifying and searingly honest account that Ta-Nehisi Coates provides of growing up as a black man in America.
Written in 2015, Coates dissects the African American experience, and in doing so, pulls no punches. He doesn’t let the reader hide behind language, actively denies the academic distance such expressions provide. ‘All our phrasing,’ he writes, ‘– 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.’
‘The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.’
Coates, too, battles with the weight of history. Yes, his experience as a black man in America is different from his father’s, and different from his son’s, who has grown up under a black president – but America’s legacy when it comes to the treatment of black people is woven into the fabric of America itself. Systemic racism is a fundamental part of the structures that hold contemporary society in place.
‘To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.’
Even as Coates had the opportunity to attend Howard University, the place he deems a ‘Mecca’ for other black youth – this did not ultimately shield him and his classmates from the vicious reality of institutional racism. His friend Prince, the son of a respected Radiologist, is shot at the hands of police in a case of dubious mistaken identity. The policeman walks free. Decades later, Coates describes his teenage son crying when the policeman who murdered Michael Brown is acquitted. What changes?
Not only is what Coates writes so poignant and painful and real, but he also writes with such eloquence and humanity, that I can quite understand why Toni Morrison called this ‘required reading for the planet.’ For the planet, yes, but more specifically for anyone in America who has never had to confront their privilege in quite such a visceral and powerful way. This book wasn’t written to cater for a white American audience – but should absolutely be read by one.
‘The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.’