I read this months ago! But I have not gotten around to reviewing it because it is so good (and you always want to do justice to something great). (I mean. Listen, Toni Morrison saying it’s required reading is enough incentive for you to run & read it.)
After the publication of this book people were calling Ta-Nehisi Coates the new James Baldwin. I have not read enough Baldwin but I can understand why people express that similarity. Both these writers express the pain of being Black in America with such tenderness and such pain. Their anger is not blind fury. The pain of their personal written excavations are not without incredible insight. This last part is important because a superficial, obvious rendering of systemic racism is pretty easy to learn and then regurgitate.
But what Coates does is to reveal how anti-Blackness is an inevitability in a country where its dominating systems have from the beginning been one that proceeded from the violent oppression of Others. And more importantly, he includes the violence of the state into the equation, which not enough people do in their current critiques. (Criticisms of the state is often something that is mostly done by people further left.. communists, socialists, anarchists, & is therefore for most liberal-centrists a little too ‘radical’). But it’s important if we want to understand the ‘systemic’ in ‘systemic racism’. Anti-blackness is not a failure or a glitch in the system, it is the system in operation.:
“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”
But to problematise the state is not to treat the state as a detached entity separated from its people. Coates also points out that the system is a product of democratic will. Which means it is a system that is continuously voted into continuation, a system that continuously propped up by an affirmation of its values by its citizens, etc.
You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.
Yes, and a further point, he refers to White people as ‘people who think they are White’. He doesn’t really explain this but I think it’s a short and amazing way to show how Whiteness is an identity that was something that one has to, in a way, claim, re-affirm, aspire to. To be ‘White’ is to believe in the ideal of this identity that the nation had fabricated. Of course there is a material basis/reality to this identity, where you will be conferred with privilege regardless of whether you choose to relinquish your allegiance to such an ideal. Still, the idea of Whites being superior, as if it is an a priori fact, is a fabrication, is a lie that has been sustained.
Another thing I wanted to mention was the stylistic choice. The book is essentially a letter that Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing to his young son who is realising the extent of anti-Blackness in America. The reality of racism, its intricacies, the question of responsibility, is one that is often subjected to fierce debate. It is often contended, in serious terms, with serious intellectual rigour (though the common invalidations that Black people face are often unintellectual). But the truths that were spoken in this book is not up for debate because it was not constructed within the paradigm of debate. It is a personal letter. Part of the power of this book was its uninhibitedness, its clear declaration of the fact without having to subject itself to the respectability politics that is often demanded of the marginalised in order to be taken seriously by their oppressors. And part of the power of this book is also its tenderness. Like I said earlier, it is not merely blind fury.
In talking to his son, the book others those who are not part of part of the intended audience, in a way. This book is primarily, for his son, and for other Black people who have had to deal with the trauma of being Black in America. He is talking to his son, and this mode allows him to be completely honest, completely open, and without a need to be defensive. It’s not up for debate.
To situate the conversation on anti-Blackness in the realm of the personal is to humanise suffering. A lot of times, the discourse around social issues that is grounded in the very real, material, tangible fact of human suffering, can get lost in abstraction. One of the biggest pains I have with the current mode of discourse is that it can get lost in abstraction. Yes, intellectual rigour is important, but often times I have seen how intellectualisation of suffering has utterly left behind its subjects, de-personalised them, and talked about them as a mass to be debated about. This review is running a little long but I’d like to end with my favourite part from the book, which is also an articulation of the kind of politics I always want to have (one that is grounded in lived, material reality):
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.”
Read this book please. 6/5.