This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.
Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.
Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.
The big message:
“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
Race is a social, not a biological construct:
“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
No sudden moves:
“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”
“Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”
“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”
“We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”
I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.
By Tony Horwitz
Think you understand the Civil War? Think you understand its causes and the influence it still holds on America? This book may cause you to think again, especially about why some folks can’t let it go, 150 years later.
As a boy, the prize-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War, particularly the books of old photos he studied with his Jewish immigrant grandfather. That passion is rekindled when, after returning from assignments in Bosnia and the Middle East, he is awakened one morning by the musket fire of Civil War re-enactors just outside his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those shots signaled the beginning of a quest.
Throughout his travels, Horwitz demonstrates his curiosity and courage, his sense of humor and of history as he introduces readers to a host of characters including a band of “hardcore” re-enactors who diet just so they can look like starved Confederates and who spoon to keep warm on long cold nights. At every stop, he chats up bartenders, bikers, store-clerks, elected officials, teachers, home-schoolers, park rangers, as well as the staff at small museums and visitors centers. He even embarks on a marathon odyssey (dubbed a “Civil Wargasm”) from Antietam to Gettysburg to Appomattox with the super hard-core Robert Lee Hodge (pictured on the cover) as his guide. Horwitz covers a murder provoked by the display of a Confederate flag. He searches for Tara and meets a young woman who makes a living as a Scarlet O’Hara look-alike. He spends a day with Shelby Foote, as well as time with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
What emerges defies easy description.
“In the neo-Confederate view, North and South went to war because they represented two distinct and irreconcilable cultures, right down to their bloodlines. White Southerners descended from freedom-loving Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Northerners—New England abolitionists in particular—came from mercantile and expansionist English stock.”
“For the past several weeks people had been talking to me about ‘heritage.’ But like the flag, this obviously meant very different things to different people. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans I’d met in North Carolina, it meant the heritage of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. For <others> it was the heritage of segregation and its dismantling over the past forty years. Was it possible to honor one heritage without upholding the other?”
The result of Horwitz’s inquiry is a complex mosaic–sometimes funny, sometimes frightening–full of irony and contradiction. He sees a hardening of attitudes on both sides from the mid-1980s onward. They are more contentious and less interested in facts. While this book is nearly twenty years old now, the conflicts Horowitz exposes resonate even louder today. Modern battlefields are “classrooms, courts, country bars” where the past and the present rub up against each other, in sometimes deadly ways.
“While I felt almost no ideological kinship with the unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War—race in particular—remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1862, this was a regional dilemma, which it wasn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles—even a common language—seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime.”
After this last election, the half of us on the losing side can perhaps feel at least a little empathy for those who can’t let it go. Americans again face a bitterly divided country. Friends and family members find themselves at odds. And once again our survival as a free nation is at risk. That alone is worthy of our consideration and a look back at what happened last time.
At twenty-six, Jean Louise Finch comes home to Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit with her adored father, Atticus. He’s seventy-two now, quite crippled with arthritis but still mentally sharp and practicing law. In Scout’s mind as in the minds of readers who read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the perfect father as well as a fair, courageous, and honorable man. He is the archetype of the parent we wish we had and the person we wish to be. His character has achieved mythic status.
But Scout’s world is shaken when she overhears his racist, ungenerous and patronizing remarks made at a citizen council meeting. She is devastated and made physically ill by the thought that she could have been so blind to his true colors. She feels betrayed by everyone in Maycomb, everyone she trusted.
“…You confused your father with God.”
Some of the remarks I’ve read regarding the book are critical of Atticus’s words and beliefs. Readers themselves perhaps feel betrayed by what they perceive as a failing in this father they have come to know and love. Their hero didn’t live up to their expectations and has toppled off the pedestal. Hmmm.
Harper Lee is under no obligation to the reader with regards to Atticus’s character. It is fiction, after all. The Atticus in Watchman is more complex and certainly a man of his time and place. And isn’t it also consistent with normal human development that it’s not until her mid-twenties that a somewhat naive Scout comes to terms with the reality of her father and not just the myth she idolized as a child? Our parents are human, not divine. The world is not black and white. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the same issues as Scout. Perhaps this is our own coming-of-age story as well as hers.
Well-done, Miss Lee.
Aah, the final book in Ken Follett’s epic Century Trilogy. The audio version of this one sustained me through several long car and plane rides this summer. In it, Follett continues to follow members of the same five Welsh, English, German, Russian and American families beginning in the turbulent 60s and culminating with the election of President Obama. This is a huge, compelling, global story, covering the rise and fall of communism, women’s rights, civil rights, political upheavals and scandals. If you are American and were a fan of Nixon and Reagan, you may not agree with some of the Welsh author’s views. I found them enlightening. Nonetheless, while I appreciate the scope and arc of this series, I found the length of this final chapter grew tedious with too many detailed descriptions of cars, guns, clothes, music and food. But this is the era that the Follett knows best, having lived through it. I just don’t think it needed the extra padding. I recommend the series to anyone interested in the roots of the social, economic and political issues facing us today.