This is a beautiful book that serves both as a commentary on contemporary American society and a memoir. Written in the form of a letter to his 15-year old son, Coates explores his experiences growing up as a black boy in Baltimore, going to Howard University, and "making it" as a writer.
I'm confident that I'll pick up new nuggets of wisdom with each revisit of this book. This book summary covers the following key ideas that resonated with me on my first read:
(1) On race and racism
(2) On the dangers of the American Dream
(3) On tough vs. soft love
(4) On trans-generational communication and understanding
(5) On the meaning of education
We've all heard of the phrase "race is a social construct" - there are no biological differences across races that make one race inferior or superior to another. Here's how Coate's expresses it.
Americans believe in the reality of "race" as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism...inevitably follows from this inalterable condition...But race is the child of racism, not the father... Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
An important theme in the book is the idea of the "American Dream" and those who've bought into and aspire to this dream (the "Dreamers").
What is the Dream?
It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.
The last line of that passage points to the duplicitous nature of the dream: it smells fresh like peppermint but once you've had a bite of it you learn that it's something else. Coates isn't saying that that something else is bad (who doesn't like strawberry shortcake?), but rather that it's dressed up as something it's not. Coates argues that this Dream is a mirage for black Americans and he himself has been fooled by this mirage:
And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.
Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?
This perils of the American Dream is nicely summed up by the dialectic between authors Saul Bellow and Ralph Wiley that Coates encounters while he's at university. American-Canadian Bellow allegedly said during an interview in 1988 with the New York Times Magazine:: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him." This quote, hinting at the inferiority of African literary culture compared to white literary culture, occupied Coates. Later, Coates discovers an essay by Ralph Wiley in which he responded to Bellow: "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership."
The exchange between Bellow and Wiley helped Coates come to the realisation that:
Bellow was no closer to Tolstoy than I was to Nzinga. And if I were closer it would be because I chose to be, not because of destiny written in DNA.
There is nothing written in our DNA that makes the literary culture of certain races or ethnicities inherently inferior to white literature. To believe so is an act of violence and racism.
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.
That passage succinctly sums up the perils of the American Dream. It shifts the burden of racism onto Black people and asks them to work harder and be more like the Dreamers. It erases decades of historical injustices and struggle that Black people have gone through that put them in a more difficult position to achieve "Dreamer" ideals. So the "Dream", while a lofty ideal for many, ends up sweeping racial issues and black struggles under the carpet.
I love this idea of a "racecraft". If a spacecraft is used for travelling to space, then a "racecraft" is used for traveling to race. But if race is a social construct, then there's nothing to travel to.
How do you love, raise, and protect your child in a world that is violent to them because of the color of their skin?
Growing up, the only model of parental love that Coates witnessed was harsh love infused with fear.
I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness.
Soft love, presumably, is seen as ineffective if you want your child to be resilient enough to live in a world that holds "black bodies as lesser".
In such a world, Black children grow up fearing the means employed by their parents to protect them. Such fear infuses into mundane daily activities like crossing the road with one's mother:
She would tell me that if I ever let go and were killed by an onrushing car, she would beat me back to life.
This mode of parenting is common among his school friends. Because it's the norm, questioning this method of "protection by instilling fear" doesn't even cross your mind. Instead, you find ways to cope by dressing up this fear with humour.
We, the children, employed our darkest humor to cope. We stood in the alley where we shot basketballs through hollowed crates and cracked jokes on the boy whose mother wore him out with a beating in front of his entire fifth-grade class. We sat on the number five bus, headed downtown, laughing at some girl whose mother was known to reach for anything—cable wires, extension cords, pots, pans. We were laughing, but I know that we were afraid of those who loved us most. Our parents resorted to the lash the way flagellants in the plague years resorted to the scourge.
At Howard, Coates is exposed to the idea that love can be soft.
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.
If writing this beautiful book to your son isn't an expression of soft love, what is?
How do you talk about race and racism to the next generation who experience race relations in a different way?
Coates recognizes that each generation's experience of racism is different:
You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was.
In fact, his son's life is much more "Dreamer"-like than his. While Coates' primary concern growing up is survival and safety, his son's generation can aim for loftier goals.
Your route will be different. It must be. You knew things at eleven that I did not know when I was twenty-five. When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body. My life was the immediate negotiation of violence—within my house and without. But already you have expectations, I see that in you. Survival and safety are not enough. Your hopes—your dreams, if you will—leave me with an array of warring emotions. I am so very proud of you—your openness, your ambition, your aggression, your intelligence.
Coates wants to remind his son not to take these things for granted.
My job, in the little time we have left together, is to match that intelligence with wisdom. Part of that wisdom is understanding what you were given—a city where gay bars are unremarkable, a soccer team on which half the players speak some other language. What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body.
After a visit to France where "We were not enslaved", Coates writes:
If there is any comfort in this, it is not the kind that I would encourage you to indulge. 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.
What is the purpose of an education? To teach you to ask the right questions; to learn to be comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty.
The wrong way to teach:
To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly... Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were created to represent... Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom?
Teaching in this way means that schools as an institution "did not reveal truths, they concealed them". For this reason, sometimes the institution of school and classrooms is antithetical to amassing knowledge.
The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.
Coates grew up in a household where he was encouraged to reject secondhand answers.
My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty
He concludes that the point of an education is not to fulfil the American dream of going into higher education, get a good job, a nice house in the suburbs, and 2.5 kids. Rather, it is to teach one to challenge and question whether that should be the dream.
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 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.