This is a tough and powerful read: it’s intellectually challenging, and, at times, emotionally draining. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Coates puts forth his philosophy of life and what it means to be black in America. Within the first few pages he questions not what Abraham Lincoln meant by a “government of the people,” but what the word “people” actually means because–as he asserts–America’s progress was built on looting and violence by those Americans “who believe they are white” (6). Wow. I had to read that sentence several times. Not white Americans, but Americans who believe they are white. What does he mean by this? I think he means that being white allows me to live a white life, but the phrase “white American” is not strong enough or angry enough to convey the privilege and the freedom that comes with that life .
He spends much of the book talking to his son about living in a black body–again, not living as a black man but living in a black body. Emphasis here on the fact that the black body has encased him in a frame that allows others to suspect him, trail him, harass him, shoot him. And so his question to his son is “how to live within a black body within a country lost in the Dream”(the dream being the American dream which was built on the backs of slaves). Ultimately he says that the question is “unanswerable, though not futile” (12). I have to say, though, that the tone of much of the book makes it feel futile–and yet, Coates intersperses this grim reality with a hopefulness at times. He wants his son to understand the reality of their world and their black bodies, especially since his son has grown up in a different world from his father’s streets of inner-city Baltimore; thus, he feels his son has more to lose. He follows this with, “I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of black bodies, which, somehow will always be assigned to you” (71). That’s the line that hit me hardest, and when I hear white teenagers at school say “if we just stop talking about race, we’ll all get past it” it’s because they have never lived in a black body; thus they will never know what it feels like to carry that responsibility every day of their life.
This is a must read. Coates made me think and reflect in a way that I have never pushed myself before. Others need to do the same.