I put up this book review last week before all the protests. It didn’t get much traction because it’s so much easier to pay attention to some little meme than something like an actual book.
Anyway, go read this book. My review is below. That is… if you want to take the time to understand the African American community rather than just share some meme to seem woke because it’s cool right now.
If I hear one more middle-class raised white person tell me how I should act and feel about African-Americans in an attempt to be “woke” I might scream. They don’t know. I don’t know.
I’m obviously not black. I do have white privilege. No amount of empathy will ever let me truly know what it’s like to be black. I won’t ever know what it’s like to be looked down upon because of my color.
But I do know what it’s like to be looked down upon because I was WITH black boys. I know what it’s like to be thrown on the ground by cops with a gun to my back because I was with black boys. Twice actually. I know what it’s like to be housed in the same slums, fed shit food, and provided medical care by the government just like those black boys. I went to the same schools where we were beaten up, drugs were sold, and guns were often found. We suffered from the same exact socio-economic plague. The author goes into great detail talking about these problems unique to black communities. What he doesn’t mention is that within those black communities a few white people are trickled in. I was one of those white people. As a kid, I had the same fear of violence and had to live by what he calls “the law of the streets.” For me, everything was the same. Everything except the color of our skin.
Growing up in the slums and Section 8 housing of North Charleston, South Carolina was rough. I lived much of the black life. But I was not black. I was one of three or four white families in our apartment complex. The author states that the fundamental difference between whites and blacks is that whites will never live in a black body thus they will never know what it’s like. He’s right in part, but I also know a bit about what it’s like because I was treated the same way because I was with them. On other occasions, I saw it with my own eyes. It’s real. Stop denying it.
The bigger point of this book is the author’s argument that the American Dream is really a white dream that black folks do not have equal access to. White America was built on the backs of enslaved African Americans. We then released the slaves and gave them nothing. They’ve been trying to play catch up ever since but they never will catch up as a community because they lack equal access to everything from education to healthcare. On top of that, they are actively fought through racist acts such as profiling or police violence, as we’ve repeatedly seen, including this very week. All of that is correct.
I have one big problem with this book. The author, who himself fought the odds and succeeded, is telling black youth that they are stuck, which I believe is a recipe, if not an all-out excuse, for failure. He says to “not struggle for their conversion,” meaning white people. He writes that no matter what, the American Dream will always be for white people because success is defined by white people. A black person will only be “a successful black” and not equally successful. Frankly, he makes a damn convincing argument. He tells the story of a friend who made it out and was still gunned down by police in a traffic stop. You may tear up hearing the words of the man’s mother. It makes sense that giving in would be his answer. But what if Martin Luther King, Jr or Jackie Robinson threw up their hands and said “well it’s always going to be this way?” He believes that white supremacy will never be beaten, so just give in.
I call bullshit. If that’s the case, why even write this book? Why share all the images of George Floyd? Why are people rioting right now?
We act because by acting we can change the world. The author doesn’t seem to like America very much and really, I get it from his point of view. Black men are killed and the killers walk free. But if anything this nation has proved two things – first, it’s the greatest nation on Earth and willing to put itself and its people on the line for doing what’s morally right. Second, it’s willing to change, even if that change is slow. In one chapter the author says that things have gotten better and then in the next, he says that there’s no changing it. That just doesn’t at all make sense.
This book is beautifully written by an obviously brilliant man. While I don’t agree with his conclusion, he does a great job of summarizing what being black in America is like. It should be read by everyone so that we can have more empathy and love for our black neighbors rather than just share memes and graphics. Then we can come together and fix this nation, even if Coates doesn’t think that’s possible.