This is probably one of the most talked-about books of 2015, and it’s a quick read, and I think everyone should read it. It has important things to say about the issues of race in the United States, and you don’t have to be American to appreciate it and learn from it. In the wake of the past year’s string of fatal incidents involving US police officers and African-American men, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates frames this book (really three long essays) as a series of letters to his teenaged son about his own experience growing up as a black man in the United States and his hopes and fears for his son.
This book is by no means an easy read with easy, comforting answers for us white folk. Coates is unsparing in his criticism of what he calls “the Dream of Whiteness” and the systemic violence it has inflicted upon black people. This book is astringent and angry and raw in places, and it’s always thought-provoking.
As a white person living in a place that doesn’t have a long history of white-vs-black racial discrimination (only because of lack of diversity in the population, not because we’re any better than other people), it was important for me not only to learn about how at least one African-American man views his country’s racial divide, but also to put what Coates says into the context of other forms of discrimination. For example, a lot of what he says about growing up in the slums of an American city grows out of not just racial but class prejudice: some of his experiences, I know, are common to people from poor families in poor neighbourhoods all over North America, regardless of race. And at least one experience he describes — dining out with a new acquaintance on a trip to France — made me reflect that perhaps his experience as a black man made him able to appreciate a little of the wary vigilance with which most of us women always approach the world (“Yes, you’re being very nice and friendly to me now, but I’m still on guard against the moment when you might turn against me and attack me”).
But though there is much here that is universal, this is (I think) not intended to be a universal but a very particular book — writing about the particular experience of being a black man in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some parts will be hard to read — for me, these parts included Coates’s rejection of Martin Luther King’s status as an icon and of the practices of nonviolent resistance. As a hardcore pacifist (an oxymoron, I know) I have, of course, admired King and those he worked with in the civil rights movement, but it was important for me to pause and think about how double-edged and dangerous it is for those of us in positions of power and privilege to recommend non-violent resistance as a strategy for the oppressed. If you commit to using only non-violent methods to defeat racism, does that make me feel safe while I enjoy the benefits of that racism, in a society built upon generations of violence?
As I said, there’s a lot here to think about. Many people are reading and talking about this book this summer, and they should be: this is a lyrical and thoughtful examination of issues that need to be examined.