Five stars, read in November 2015.
All I can do by way of reviewing this book is quote it extensively. I really don’t feel like I can say anything about it—a feeling which, to embark on a small rant, also applies to what I’ve seen others say about it—e.g. Ryan Holiday, the poor, dejected white writer who “desperately wanted to love this book,” but as much as he wanted to he just couldn’t, not that he didn’t try, because he really truly did, but even though he is “humbled at the way that Coates makes you think, makes you question your assumptions, and makes you see the inhumanity and disgrace of many of this country’s laws and politics,” the fact is that Holiday doesn’t like Coates’s style, and therefore the book “is not the masterpiece we hoped for.” Because Ryan Holiday knows, as all white people do when black people speak, that how you say something is more important than what you’re saying.
I was going to mention a few more comments from his condescending review, but it turns out I just don’t want to, because the more I look at that smug garbage the more furious I get. “The problem . . . is that it often feels like it was written by a writer who has fallen in love with their own voice,” Holiday laments. “The result is that this book seems to rarely come out and say anything. Or at least, say directly what it means.” Except that this book says EVERYTHING, you self-satisfied bastard. It says everything, and a reader has to be completely in love with the sound of his own voice to be so unable to hear it.
The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.
This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores and earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
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.
Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month [of February] could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality. Back then all I could do was measure these freedom-lovers by what I knew. Which is to say, I measured them against children pulling out in the 7-Eleven parking lot, against parents wielding extension cords, and “Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?” I judged them against the country I knew, which had acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery, against the country whose armies fanned out across the world to extend their dominion. The world, the real one, was civilization secured and ruled by savage means. How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?
I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and send back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see those two arms in relation – those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.
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… No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass throughout history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.
The first section I quoted begins on page two, which is already one page past the point at which I knew how important this book would be. If I were to share all the passages I feel I need to share, I would reproduce at least a third of a book that is only 150 mass-market-paperback-size pages in the first place. All I can say is that you need to read it.