Rating: 4 stars
This was a compelling read that hooked me in and made me concentrate. Coates’s logic is lucid, his argument articulate. His analysis of his own experience as a black man and a full history of black experience since slavery began amplified things that I, in my whiteness, think about how black people are treated.
It starts with an incredible declaration.
…the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.
The enormity of that statement. I’m not black. The worst there is in my ancestral past is subjugation as a labourer, someone expendable who can help a rich man turn a bigger profit. The worst in my ancestral past does not include being stripped of humanity. My ancestors, for all that they were cogs in the capitalist machine, were at least recognised as human by the people who subjugated them.
That statement, that black people have a past and a present which denies them the right to their own bodies, is enormous. This lack of ownership of their own bodies is the lived experience of people and it is based on the colour of their skin. This is a black man speaking. His experience can’t be denied. Unless you subscribe to denying him the right to his own body.
The catalogue of black people killed by police is not unfamiliar, but in the context of a black man stating that black people have no right to their own bodies it becomes something different. Something popped into my timeline on Facebook not too long ago, a meme liked by one of my friends. I found it shocking.
I’m not going to post the picture. Follow this link and scroll down to number 2 on the list. This is a meme originally shared by a Tea Party member in 2013, according to that debunking site. Its message is that Irish people in America have also been treated like slaves but they rose above it instead of crying about it. The meme shocked me in a couple of ways. The first that any group of people that has been oppressed should attack another oppressed group of people rather than show solidarity, especially a group that has escaped its oppression. The second that anyone with the least amount of knowledge of the history of African slavery could think that black people have the same opportunities to “rise above” their subjugation.
Coates’s description of the American Dream never being available to black Americans, because “the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” reminded me of that meme, which in turn proved Coates’s point. Although Coates also goes on to consider the period in Western history when the Irish were reviled and denied dominion over their own bodies, leading him to question what ‘black’ actually means.
Coates recognises that the world he knew as a teen, the 1980s world, was a less connected one in comparison with his son’s world. His son has access to more information through social media and rolling news. His son also has the experience of growing up under a black President. And yet, his son’s experience is no different. Access to more information about the world and America’s place in it, having a black man in the White House, does not change anything. His son has no more authority over his own body than he has or generations of black people have had. For his son, however, there is a greater awareness of lost opportunity whenever another black person is killed.
The inter gang violence that Coates describes in 1980s Baltimore fascinated me. To be so subjugated by society that the only way to feel in control is to fight the people you should feel solidarity with is a tragedy. It’s unimaginable to me that I could ever feel so let down by the society I live in that, rather than fight the oppressor, I would fight people from my own background.
Coates talks about the violence that underpins the history of the USA and the expectation placed on black people that all their heroes must be nonviolent. He talks about the language of intention being nothing more than exoneration, allowing white America to say they made mistakes in the past but they meant well.
“Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.
He talks about questioning why this should be, and how his parents pointed him to books to find his own answers, and to question his motivations when he behaved in a way that got him into trouble. He talks about not finding satisfactory answers but instead refining the question.
That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” – as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.
It made me think about the easy access we have to information today, but how unreliable it is because the source is often obscured. Take that Tea Party meme above as an example. How can Coates’s son question in the same way as him when objective fact is hard to come by?
Coates acknowledges that
The world, the real one, was civilisation secured and ruled by savage means.
Violence underpins everything. We are a violent species. What fluke of nature meant that my cultural heritage became the one that inherited the earth? This is a similar question to one Coates pursued at Howard University. He set off to find himself a myth of his own, that spoke of black power, black kingship. As I read, I was reminded of the people in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God who believed that being white was the goal black people should aim for. I loved the experiences he had at college that made him face his own prejudices, and the honesty with which he describes them. We are all human. We are all capable of oppressing. Which doesn’t alter the fact that black people continue to be the oppressed within societies built on the back of slavery, but changes the story of how to respond to oppression and the lack of control over your own body.
Coates uses the first section of the book to set out his themes, then weaves them through the experiences and advice he offers up to his son, as preparation for being a black man in America. He relates case after case of black Americans being brutalised by agents of the state. He articulates the fear he lives with every day, made sharper because he also has to fear for his son. He is reasoned and fair in his assessment of his own experience and the experiences of others across time. I expected to be emotionally upset by this book and was surprised when I wasn’t. That is testament to Coates’s skill as a writer. He doesn’t pull emotional strings. He states the facts as he sees them and leaves the reader to react as they see fit. Pages 103-105 came closest to making me cry, as Coates breaks down for his son the murderous, dehumanising basis on which America was built. Perhaps I wasn’t upset because I’m a historian in a British city built on the cotton trade, so I know what happened. Perhaps also because I believe that white Western society should own what it did for what it was – theft.
What I felt while reading was enlightened, angry, saddened and frustrated. I wanted to feel hopeful but, along with Coates, I am aware that for change to happen America and Britain and the whole of Western capitalist culture, built as it has been on the backs of slaves, has to acknowledge that what was done to black people was a crime, and that the tradition of destroying black bodies isn’t heritage, isn’t a right. It needs to stop. Given what has been happening in America recently, I don’t think change will come any time soon. The world is looking at the way America treats black people and still it goes on. I found a reason for the lack of hope in Coates’s summing up of what needs to happen for change to come:
…the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.
There’s too much invested in the way the world is now to hope that those who cleave to the American Dream will ever wake up.
It’s not on the same scale as America, but black men in the UK also have a lack of authority over their own bodies. Most of the time in the UK it takes the form of stop and search, where police disrupt the daily life of people on the merest suspicion that they might possibly be thinking about committing a crime. The majority of people stopped are black or Asian men.
In the UK, an organisation called INQUEST focuses on monitoring deaths in custody (police, prison, immigration detention, and deaths of detained patients). They have compiled some statistics on BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) deaths in custody.
It’s in the news a lot at present, but there were three articles that I read while reading the book that chimed with its message. On July 14 The New York Times published an article about white beliefs about equality. Coates has responses to many of the issues raised by Nicholas Kristof.
The day I started reading the book, there was an article in the Guardian newspaper, a piece about black intellectuals and the tradition of liberal whites seeking authentic tales of blackness and black intellectuals to interpret black experience for them. While reading this book, I have been wanting to ask Coates a question: Had he always intended this book to be for his son, or did he consider it as a means of articulating black experience for a white audience? My gut instinct was no, based on his telling at the start of the book of an experience he had being interviewed about the book, and based on my own sense that this was an honest account without any hint of having been sanitised for a non-black audience and all the more compelling for it. The writer of the article, Matthew Clair, writes of Coates “that he never “set out to accumulate a mass of white fans,” going on to observe that when black intellectuals have sought to interpret for white audiences, they have often, seeking not to offend, done so in a way that obfuscates more than clarifies their understanding of racial injustice.” This confirmed my gut instinct, and made me glad that Coates isn’t seeking people like me for his audience, because we then get a better experience when reading his work.
The day I finished reading the book, an unarmed behavioural therapist who was trying to help an autistic resident of the home where he worked, was shot by police in the leg while lying on the ground with his arms up. The man is black. He has survived. He asked the police officer why he shot at him. The officer didn’t know why.
These and other stories are why Coates’s book is important. I asked my local library to buy the copy I borrowed. I hope more people borrow it and are changed by it.