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.
The sooty details of what has happened to the man in the poem, to what happened black people, to what continues to happen to black people, and how their experience continues to be different from others in this country despite any laws, any cultural changes, are what keep Americans separated. Slavery was replaced by Jim Crow and has been replaced by housing projects, predatory loan sharks, voting laws, inequitable education and other shams.
But it's not just legal structures, or the way banks handle loans or companies hire people without "ethinic-sounding" names. White people still cross the street to avoid black men in suits who are still followed in stores. Black women are told by boutique clerks that they cannot afford pricey clothing. Black people who do not become shining models of making it (Coates calls them the Jackie Robinson elite) are told it's their fault, despite any obstacles in their way.
When Coates took his son to a movie on the Upper West Side and they were coming off an escalator too slowly, a white woman pushed the child for going too slowly for her. When Coates yelled at her for pushing another person's child, a crowd gathered and a white man got in his face and, when Coates dared to push him away, was told: "I could have you arrested." Coates writes he felt shame for endangering his child and himself by the act of standing up for them.
This is an essential point to this work. Because those of us who are not black cannot have the same experience, any of us who care about the state of the country need to find out as much as we can, to educate ourselves. This is an eloquent, thoughtful and honest work to use in the pursuit of knowledge that may, in time, become wisdom.
It is a point on which Coates frames this entire work. His thesis acknowledges that the powerful always work to keep those without power from gaining it. But America, he notes, was supposed to be different. America says so:
Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, ...
"I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.
Acknowledging that exceptional moral standard means recognizing that individuals operate under the burdensome belief of American exceptionalism. It also means that those who expound this belief in exceptionalism need to apply it not only to other individuals, but to the society as a whole. For in that application is the possibility of a new understanding of what means to have those sooty details affect every aspect of an individual's life.
He quotes Solzhenitsyn in this regard:
"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 inconformity with natural law." Coates notes this is the foundation of the Dream that he refers to throughout. It's how a black police officer could shoot Prince Jones, how black officers could take part in Freddie Gray's death.
Coates says that he has continued his studies, in part, to try to find the right question to ask. The "gift of study", he adds, is "to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers." That questioning is a gift he passes along to his son and other readers.
The killing of Prince Jones, the murders that continue, the sorrow that Coates's son felt when learning that Mike Brown's killer received the same treatment as the killer of Prince Jones, form the backdrop to the final words Coates has for his son.
While Coates is reluctant to aspire to hope, expressing the need to be honest, one statement toward the conclusion of this work is something on which hope can be built:
They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.
Taking pride and celebrating that pride sounds like an honest way to live with eyes that can see into and beyond sooty details, not ignoring them, never ignoring them, because, as Coates tells his son:
...there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else's country, but in your own home.
©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission