The memoir gets its title from a poem by Richard Wright about a lynching. It foreshadows the direction in which the memoir will lean. Of course the heartbreak, brutality, and unfairness experienced by people of color, because of inequality, is horrifying, and joined with the complete and utter one-sided targeting of a particular group of people, is also outrageous, but how to assign blame and how to counteract such evil is an entirely different subject. Mr. Coates has written a very compelling case about discrimination, in the form of a letter to his 15 year old son. In this letter, he undresses his own personal views on racism in America, and he presents his approach to dealing with it. I found it a bit one-sided. However, there is a great deal of truth to most of what he presents.
In a very brief, essay type narrative, he summarizes the history of racism in America. My conclusion, from what I read, is that he believes our country’s racist history is shrouded in a fantasy made up by the white establishment to make them feel more comfortable with the idea of its past racism and its continued existence. This then, allows these “dreamer”, upwardly mobile whites, to rationalize their continued destruction of black communities and their concerted effort to eliminate black people, while they continue to think of them as less than, and as unworthy, and while they remain free of guilt.
The author believes that Blacks must learn to live in their own bodies, to embrace them, before they can prevent the “white world”, the world of those “dreamers”, from taking away their bodies at will, from taking not only their lives but from also murdering their spirits. He cites many wanton murders and many abuses of black men and women. He believes that the issue is not about color alone, since he identifies humanity as not white, but as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, immigrants, and people of all stripes and cultures. It is simply that those in power define themselves as white.
He relates an incident in which his 4 year old son was pushed by a woman distressed because the child was moving too slowly. I would have been distressed too. However, impulsively, he pushed the woman back. A man then threatened him with arrest, although he made no mention of how the woman mistreated his son. The woman and the man should have known better, but they were “white”. They thought they were in control and able to make threats against him without fear of reprisals against them. I think that he believes that the whites believe they are still the masters and the blacks are still simply their victims. He believes it is a trait handed down generation after generation.
He brings up many of the recent tragic events in which black lives were snuffed out, but he does not make any distinctions between those that appear to have been justified and those that were not,. For him, they are all abusive acts, all unjustified, regardless of the reckless behavior or lawless behavior of the victim. If it is indeed, that one race is treated more unjustly, then that is a legitimate issue, but if some of these abuses would not have occurred if the law was respected, some responsibility has to be placed on the shoulders of the victims, as well. This is not to justify the abuse, but to try and explain the root cause of much of this unjust treatment. If there is no justice for black people, that must be corrected, but it cannot be corrected by demanding injustice for others or for those who enforce the laws. Laws must be respected, because without law enforcement we have chaos. Until his presentation became decidedly one-sided, without accepting responsibility for the bad behavior of those who were disregarding the laws and without recognizing that not all of the incidents he cited were actual abuses, he had my full attention, but then I realized that if I disagreed with anything he said, I was going to be branded a racist, rather than a realist, because that is what he believes. It is so easy to change the narrative, in this racially charged atmosphere, by placing blame indiscriminately on the shoulders of anyone who disagrees with you, by calling them names, by insisting that they must be racist, but that is, in itself, racist!
I do not believe that murder is justified in any case, I am not even sure I support the death penalty for certain crimes, but I also do not believe that it is okay to resist arrest or run away from law enforcement, without expecting dire consequences. I believe that when an officer issues an order, it should be obeyed. It is a case of which came first the chicken or the egg. Are the cops over zealous because the blacks disrespect them, are they afraid, or are the blacks over reacting because the cops disrespect them, are they afraid? That is the dilemma that must be dealt with and the problem that must be solved.
Black people do not own the issue of discrimination. I know, as a Jew, that Jews have been under that gun for far longer, and although the idea of warning children to be extra careful when a policeman stops you or of having to work twice as hard to succeed is being claimed by the blacks as their own, they are not the sole owners of that advice. As a Jew and a female, my parents gave me the exact advice, the exact warning. As a female, I could not hide my sex any more than a person of color could hide their color. I could not get into the school of my choice, just because I wanted it. I could not get any job I wanted, just because I decided I should have it. I had to work twice as hard to achieve anything I desired and sometimes, I didn’t get it anyway. I didn’t expect anything for nothing. I worked to earn the money I needed and I got paid less for what I did because I was a female. My daughter did not get into the school of her choice because there was a Jewish quota. Today, blacks have the advantage in that arena. They have special privileges. Regardless of how frustrated I was, or of how oppressed I might have felt, for one reason or another, I would never have considered disobeying a law enforcement officer, because the larger picture is this, if we all decided to run, or disobey and confront the police, there would be complete pandemonium.
I wondered why Mr. Coates chose to consider Howard University his Mecca. Mecca is a place of importance in Islam, and many followers believe that unbelievers are infidels. Therefore, I am an infidel. In his desire for equality, does he want me to be less than equal or am I reading into this. The religion of Islam has as its stated goal to create the Caliphate, so I am hoping that I am wrong in my interpretation of his meaning. To replace one form of racism with another would be a futile exercise. Also, blacks do not own the problem of poverty or inequality or abuse. Perhaps more people need to be acquainted with Appalachia and its problems. Not all whites are upwardly mobile. That said, there is no doubt that blacks have suffered in this country. They were torn from their homes, brought here forcibly, abused and tortured, treated like animals, but that was then and there are many cultures that were enslaved. Jews were also enslaved. We all have to move forward and stop looking backward because, that too, enslaves us in our thought process.
Coates is right, even what we are taught about the Civil War is wrong. It was not fought for the right reasons, not fought to free the slaves. The economy was the driving force behind the war. He is absolutely right that the country was built on the backs of those captured slaves, but so too was the Middle East built on the backs of the Jewish slaves. I don’t see Arabs or blacks demanding that their brethren stop attacking Jews and stop demanding the annihilation of Israel.
I was very disappointed in the reaction of the author to the tragedy of 9/11. There is no moral equivalent between slavery and 9/11 or 9/11 and the Holocaust or any other genocide. It was an event unique and tragic, unto itself, and to try and equate it with anything else is to attempt to diminish its gravity. To say that NYC was always ground zero for blacks because of slave markets, is like saying Germany and the Arab Middle Eastern countries will always be nothing but ground zero for Jews. We must go forward and stop blaming past generations and their descendants for crimes they did not commit, unless they continue to perpetuate that heinous behavior.
His memoir simply felt too one sided as he painted the entire “white” population as racist. To me, that kind of makes him a racist. Although, as a Jew, i don’t ever intend to forget the victims or the tragedy of the Holocaust, or even my past as a slave, I do not blame the entire present German population or the entire past German population or the people of Italy or Russia where there were pogroms, or the entire Arab world for the sins of their forefathers, nor do I believe that anti-Semitism does not exist. I simply refuse to allow it to destroy me and make me just as evil as they are or were.
I can totally understand people like Toni Morrison supporting and praising this author, but their support is too monolithic, viewing the situation from only one point of view and disregarding that the blacks, in this way, are teaching their children to hate the police, resent the whites and not believe in the possibility of fulfilling their “dreams”. Like the madrassas that teach hate, this is a self defeating philosophy and I totally disagree with it.
I lived in an area of Brooklyn, close to the one the author mentioned, Flatbush, and I was not rich. I knew I had to fight harder if I wanted to go to college, and so I did. So did my sister, so did my brother, and we were totally identifiable as Jews by our last name. We were openly discriminated against. In order to become a teacher, working for the city, there was discrimination. Unlike today, when the king’s English is not required and accents proliferate that make it hard for students to even understand the teacher, we had to pass a speech pedagogy, to prove we did have a sing song Jewish inflection, or we would be failed and not allowed to teach.
So, I feel that some of the proclamations of innocence, protest a bit too much. I am not sure I like the bedfellows Coates keeps company with or admires. For sure, there is no dispute about the need to eliminate racism, but to encourage rebellion is something beyond the pale. I think the idea that black is beautiful is wonderful, but so is white, brown, yellow and red, etc. All cultures are different and all demand and deserve respect. All lives matter!
I was woefully disappointed in myself and in my knowledge of the books Coates cites, since it further points out the divide between the races is huge. I read so much, and if I am largely unaware of the things that are part of his culture, how can I understand any of the problems he faces, and how can I, therefore, help to fix them? There is a lot of work still to be done. Mr. Coates narrated the audio version of his book. I was disappointed, because someone so well educated should not mispronounce the word asked and ghettoize it as aksed over and over again, in much the same way that intelligent men and woman brutalize the pronunciation of nuclear by pronouncing it nucular. It confounds me. I respected the author’s views, but laws were made for all people to follow, not just white people. We cannot pick and choose the ones we like. There are consequences. One has to be responsible for one’s own behavior, regardless of color or religion. Calling all those who disagree with your view racist is nothing but an ad hominem argument. It prevents a sensible solution to any problem presented because it shuts down communication. You can’t correct injustice with another form of injustice. That is racism too.