2015, 176 p.
This is only a small book – an extended essay really – but it positively burns with anger. It is written in the form of a letter to the author’s fifteen year old son Samori. Samori had been watching television with his father, when it was reported that no charges would be brought against the Ferguson police officer who killed the unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Samori left the room, not wanting his father to watch his response.
This letter is a two-way framing device. On the one hand it echoes James Baldwin’s opening letter “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” that prefaced Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time – a book which strongly influenced the author. On the other hand, Coates is drawing on his own bafflement and anger when his own college friend Prince Jones died at the hands of the police years earlier. This is the letter that he might have wished he had received when he was younger.
This is not an easy read: there are no answers for Coates’ son, and no answers for us either. Coates admits that his son’s experience will be the same as his own: after all, his son had grown up seeing a black President (something that would have been incomprehensible in Coates’ childhood) seeing Afro-American women on television, and knowing real-life women who didn’t straighten their hair (as women did in Coates’ childhood). But, he asserts, deep down nothing has changed. It is a violent book, in its emphasis on the pain and degradation meted onto the black body, presidents and hairstyles notwithstanding.
There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible- that is precisely why they are so precious….It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through tongue and ears pruned away…It could only be the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights, or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation (p. 75)
And this violence on the body is not a thing of the past. It was not cleansed by the Civil War or expunged by the civil rights movement, or muted by Barak Obama. Instead, the construction of white identity and the Dream of white American life (“perfect houses with nice lawns”) is based on this same, present-day violence on the body. It’s not just adolescents with their hoodies and sagging denims; it’s the four-year old Samori, pushed from an escalator by the white woman behind him. The swaggering insolence on the street is a cover for fear, because all the power lies with White America.
The book weaves together memoir, polemic, history and literature, and it is relentless in its argument. There are no exhortations to action, just the heavy weight of inevitability and impotence.
I read this book after I read his most recent collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power, which is probably not the way that most people would approach Ta-Nehisi Coates. Having read the most recent book, which comprises essays and blog posts written over the years of Obama’s presidentship, I can see that he has integrated ideas developed over eight years into this essay. It’s not that he has copied-and-pasted; it’s more that you can see the origin and continuity of his ideas.
I also read this book in the midst of the Serena William cartoon controversy, at a time when there was overt and much-discussed emphasis on the black body. It made Coates’ analysis ring even more true. I don’t know how to rate this book. I feel complicit and condemned because, although I live on the other side of the world, I too am part of the White Dream .
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library