"The craft of writing as the art of thinking."
I feel as though I have been waiting my entire life for a voice like this one to appear. Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, would be the first to demure. He cites his influences in James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, Lucille Clifton, Nat Turner, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Harriet Tubman, Charles Drew, Kwame Ture, Kenneth Clark, Chancellor Williams, Eric Williams, Carolyn Rogers…the list is nearly endless, and the names spike this narrative composed of a father's letter to his son. “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know I have never achieved anything alone.” The form is immediate, urgent, and intimate.
Jill Leovy’s 2015 book Ghettoside carefully illustrates that the crime in black neighborhoods cannot be explained except by looking at how we got here. And that is where Coates has come down as well. American history, no matter who writes it, bears witness to what the lives of black folk have been. It is brutal and dispiriting, and Coates is not the first to see and speak the bald horror of it. But somehow his voice is reaching us, finally, from this short book in the form of a letter to his son, and from a series of long articles published in The Atlantic magazine.
Prior to listening to an interview with Coates by James Bennet, his editor at The Atlantic, I was going to say something about how Coates seems to have recognized his historical moment. But he didn’t. He has been shocked by the response to his book. The truth is that Coates is riding the historical moment because he had been working for years to hone his writing skills, his understanding of history, his grasp of where he fits in the canon. Coates wrote this book quickly, in between his long, heavily researched articles for The Atlantic, illustrating that the creation process for an explosively meaningful piece of work is not necessarily in the actual writing, but in the preparation.
The work is compulsively readable, painful and exhilarating at the same time. He talks of his upbringing in a section of Baltimore where mostly what he felt was fear. Leovy and Coates both mention the fear: the fear of walking home from school, the fear of crossing an invisible line on some block, the terror awaiting the unwary or the young. He, and now we, realize it is a crime to have an entire race of people fearing for their lives on streets they cannot escape in a country of such plenty. Policies, deliberately crafted and enforced, have prevented entire groups of people from living well in this country. Those policies, "the product of democratic will," have been and are killing our young men.
I listened to the Random House audio production of this title, read by Coates himself. It is completely mesmerizing to hear him read this long letter to his fifteen-year-old son. Coates did not live in a time of slavery, Jim Crow laws, or civil rights protests. He lived in a time where every black child or man knew where the boundaries were in his neighborhood and took their lives in their hands every time they walked their own streets. And yet he knew that it was important to write this down, to bear witness, and to invite his son, and us, to bear witness.
There was not a moment in this recitation that is not deeply memorable, from the challenge in his opening lines “those Americans who believe they are white,” which he acknowledges is James Baldwin speaking. These things have been said before, but they have achieved a kind of resonance with the repetition that is almost physical, like a wave. The rules and laws that govern us created this idea of race as a defining characteristic rather than as a descriptor. The “one drop of blood” rule separates us artificially, and makes “other” of our countrymen.
Coates manages to survive his youth and a deadening experience at school, and shares with us his experience of leaving his hometown Baltimore, for university in Washington, D.C. Awakened to the wide variety of people that gather under the aegis “black,” his education and learning did not always take place in the classroom. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University preserves one of the world’s largest collections of Africana, writings on or about African Americans and the Africa diaspora. It is here that Coates really began to awaken to his place in the world. He captures those moments of lift-off, and we feel his velocity.
Coates’ language is fluent, relentlessly logical, and insistent. He describes his "intellectual vertigo" at university:
"It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream [of a better life in a quiet, leafy suburb] but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. There was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this."He talks about how he had accepted “racecraft” and how he “could no longer predict where [he] would find [his] heroes.” The way he intones and repeats throughout his narrative “my body…my body…my body” makes us realize that we may hurt his body, but we will never get his mind. That is his own, and he sees the injustices, and he will speak of the injustices.
He marries, and moves with his family to France, where he could raise his child without the fear. His experience of discovering a different world abroad seals our fascination with him. He highlights moments of breakthrough understanding, of what it means to be alive in the larger world, speaking a new language, away from the terrible yet comfortable environment of home. He sees he is American, not just black. That black was a label someone gave him and had used to define, not describe him.
Coates’ letter to his son is a terrifically moving and important addition to our understanding of how we in America define race, and how we use race to define ourselves. Other countries do not have such definitions, so it is America who has to examine her own history, her own soul. This book goes some way to helping us to do that, but it does not stand alone. So many other experiences must be examined, other books must be read likewise, in light of what we have learned here.
Below, I wanted to embed the Oct 14, 2015 James Barret interview with Te-Nehisi Coates, after Coates won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction for this title, but I could not get the link to work. Watch it. Coates has a magnetism that makes it difficult to look away. His success is not merely an accident of moment, but is rooted in his sense of justice, in his intellectual curiosity, and in his humility. Despite his stated desire to “be the best writer of his generation,” we suspect that he knows just what that will take and what it means. And we want him to succeed. We should be very glad he survived those mean streets.
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