It is hard to articulate my feelings while reading this book. At moments I recall feeling such as this, this is why there is writing, authorship, publication, and reading; to evoke truth in language that eviscerates the mythologies by which we all live, to expose the underbelly of our biases, and to engage with reality at its most raw. This is literature. I am deeply grateful for this book, and the gift of transformation it has made in me by reading it.
The tragedy, that will be committed by some, is to conclude that this book is about “black people.” It is not. It is a prophetic commentary and call on our American existence to which we all need to consider deeply. I am reminded of John McCain’s concession speech in 2006 when he said, “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight,” to which I wrote the following:
While true on many levels, and while I don’t believe saying that statement was wrong, I was hoping for McCain to add (and emphasize) that this historic election has special significance for all Americans. For the ideas of this nation are not simply “African-American” ideas, nor should this victory be relegated to being merely a “Black” victory. It is a victory for all. While the oppressions in this country fell greatly to those of African (and other) descent, this victory not only furthers the freedoms of their liberties, but it also takes great strides in liberating others from their prejudices, bigotry, and racism. And that is a win for all.
I feel similar thoughts with this book. If seen simply as an additive to the “black lives matter movement,” or a balm to a racial minority, we will have completely missed, and thus defamed, the spirit of Coates’s writing.
Below I offer some of my highlights and underlined portions with which I wished to engage with further. My regret is that I could not have cut and paste the entire book. It is that good.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. (7)
This to me was a profound shifting point in thinking about the philosophical genesis of racism, and how it continues to emerge.
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. (10)
This is perhaps the most powerful underlying sentiment of the book. When often the conversation gets heady, philosophical, analytical, Coates reminds us–and it is a shame that we need to be reminded–that this is an assault on flesh and blood. He is incarnating racism. Well done.
In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live–specifically, how do I live free in this black body? (12)
I really appreciated how “acceptance” precedes “freedom.”
But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker. (17-18)
This kind of analytical indictment is a powerful rhetorical jab, one where our true selves are exposed to either be affirmed, or shunned. Either way, it cannot be left in the dark.
Before I could discover, before I could escape, I had to survive. (21)
Here is where we continue to get visceral…
We could not get out. I was a capable boy, intelligent, well-liked, but powerfully afraid. And I felt, vaguely, wordlessly, that for a child to be marked off for such a life, to be forced to live in fear was a great injustice. (28)
“To be forced to live in fear was a great injustice.” Yes.
My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box. (28)
This nod and respectful rebuke of MLK’s famous statement that the arc of the universe is “long but bends toward justice,” is what evokes the power of Coates’s writing. This is not inspiration. This is not hope-mongering. This is not a rallying cry. This is, what the Hebrew prophets call צעקה (tzeakah), an “outcry.”
It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense–ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. (33)
This is so important. “Intentions” are secondary.
“Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream. (33)
Black is beautiful–which is to say that the black body is beautiful, that black hair must be guarded against the torture of processing and lye, that black skin must be guarded against bleach, that our noses and mouths must be protected against modern surgery. We are all our beautiful bodies and so must never be prostrate before barbarians, must never submit our original self, our one of one, to defiling and plunder. (36)
While I appreciate the sentiment, and agree, there are some questions that have arisen in my mind regarding the subject of beauty and race that I believe need further explication. Is the acquisition of standards of beauty or aesthetics a laying down of oneself “prostrate before barbarians?” Do not all cultures acquire some forms of augmentation from other people groups? Could not the attributions of certain aesthetics affect a disarmament of some sorts as well, a benefit to the cause of reconciliation?
We did not choose our fences. (42)
Perhaps one of the most poignant statements in that the sovereignty of “choice” is a principal essential to freedom.
My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft. (56)
The phrase “invention of racecraft” just stuck with me for some reason. It is both concordant with his thesis, and indicting of “the dreamers.”
Hate gives identity. (60)
I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness. But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else–that love could be soft and understanding; that, soft or hard, love was an act of heroism. (61)
“Love” as “an act of heroism.” Beautiful.
There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound. (64)
You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. 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. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope. (70-71)
Paragraphs like these are what made this book so powerful. These words don’t just speak. They pierce.
You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold. (71)
Truth should never be silenced, even in the midst of redemption.
I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh. (79)
The way Coates marries the natural and supernatural, the physical with the metaphysical, is one of my favorite themes of this book. It is a reunion of things that have been split apart, and for too long.
Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra–“Either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all–the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. (82)
This was no doubt one of my “aha” moments. As someone who has thought seriously about the raising of children, the diverse expressions of corporeal punishment has perplexed me. This segment brought a new experience of visceral clarity for me that touched and burdened me. I am so grateful to have this understanding, further, deeper.
For a young man like me, the invention of the Internet was the invention of space travel. (84)
I just liked the image.
It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. (91)
And time is perhaps what is most precious, which makes the destruction of bodies so heinous.
A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals. “It only takes one person to make a change,” you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.
The fact of history is that black people have not–probably no people have ever–liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts. In every great change in the lives of African Americans we see the hand of events that were beyond our individual control, events that were not unalloyed goods. (96)
This is such an important point. It speaks to a communal responsibility and call, to us all regardless of color.
But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. (97)
“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” – Solzhenitsyn
Here is what I would like for you to know; In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body–it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor–it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. 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. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn. (103-104)
I am once again distraught at the inhumane behavior of our predecessors.
…a democracy independent of cannibalism. (105)
Another powerful image and metaphor. Or is it really a metaphor?!
You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. (107)
I was struck by the heightened consciousness of this statement (and of the entire book), in that part of the power of these words is Coates’s ability to articulate what is more clearly seen, that there is a “pan-awareness” that is more cognizant than the vast majority of the population. Oh, that more of us would be this aware.
Disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all our lives and, like terrorism, this distortion is intentional. (114)
And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me. (115)
Something about this moved me. First, though he self-describes as “godless,” his heart beats like the Hebrew prophets who give voice to the misery, an outcry to the silent injustices. Second, “awe” is what connects us all, “godly” and “godless,” and for that, I find kinship with Coates.
I wanted you to have your own life apart from fear–even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next. I think of your grandmother calling me and noting how you were growing tall and would one day try to “test me.” And I said to her that I would regard that day, should it come, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all. (125)
Wow. A profound rebuttal of fear, and a really powerful parenting lesson that charges us all, parent, and persecutor.
Remember your name. Remember that you and I are brothers, are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic. (128)
They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. (149)
And even here, there is hope. Not the same fluffy inspiration of mere hopefulness, but the grounded grit that comes from determination to not just make right, but make being black holy and sacred.