Through the framework of a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates teaches readers what growing up black in Baltimore involves. But he doesn’t stop with a simple narrative. Acknowledging and accepting the reality of being black in America gives Coates the freedom to study his world and understand why things are the way they are. He explores the historical, philosophical, and sociological elements at work in his experience, hoping he can prevent the perpetuation of fear onto his son.
One of the strongest parts of the book is Coates stating this is how he grew up, not what he wants for his son. He fights against passing on the burden of blaming the victim. It makes no difference how careful, respectful, or prepared. A black body is at risk just by nature of being, so why corrupt the minds of children to avoid a fate too random to be avoided?
Being raised black as he was compares to the language of poverty. Its rules fill your brain until you have nothing left for the rest. For poverty, escape is called “getting out,” but how do you “get out” of the color of your skin? I don’t normally put quotes in my reviews, but this book demands them.
I have no desire to make you “tough” or “street,” perhaps because any “toughness” I garnered came reluctantly. I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things.
This is both memoir and sociological dissection, but never distanced or impartial. To not act on lessons beaten into your skin is another kind of courage. To give his son the chance to learn a new way.
Don’t expect a comfortable read with easy places to take a break. This is a powerful narrative you must rip yourself free of. Some elements are common to a broader experience, but others exist only to keep those who grow up black in the U.S. controlled. At the same time, the memoir is not a grim telling either. He experiences frustration, anger, and pain, but also moments of community and connection that spring from the same source. While being black meant living under the shadow of making a fatal error, his color tied him to a brotherhood with a culture and language all its own.
We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.
Coates’ memoir, in combination with his study of the events, promises to spark necessary discussions far beyond his son and the black community. He examines race and racism not as complementary facts, but as deliberate lies told to create a separation and denial of personhood. Systematic racism, laced into every aspect of American society, allows people to look away from injustice as though justified. Coates’ exploration of the underlying structure and exposing of the rot beneath the American Dream may bring about genuine change if enough are willing to learn.
I think it’s important in my review of such a work not to speak for someone who has lived a life apart from mine despite parallels. This quote encapsulates why I connect with the book better than I could restate anyway.
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.
Through a mix of memoir and philosophy, each reflecting on the other, Coates offers a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, accounting of growing up black in the United States. It’s something we can learn from, whether part of the black community or separated from it. We, too, can enter the state of being where questions break down walls. We can reject the false mythology of the American Dream being equally available to everyone that stands ignorant of the past and of the costs it extracts in the present.
I’ll leave you with a final quote, a wish for non-conformity when conforming offers no safety and only hinders the path of change.
You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle.