When Coates discusses what race in America feels like he is not talking to black readers. Neither does he seem to be talking to his black son. Instead, he is talking to white readers. In those moments, it was easy for me to forget that his son was the intended audience. And it made it very easy for me to start looking for myself, my experiences, my eyes in the text. The friction of shifting audiences is smoothed over by black readers’ graciousness. I know Coates’ body shots aren’t aiming for any blind spot I would have but he has to throw them anyway. It is the toll black writers frequently must pay.
The first text re-emerges throughout the book and is most compelling near its end. That is when Coates merges the letter device (and the fictive son audience) with that of readers, both with and without black bodies to carry. His description of contemporary capitalism is one of my favorite examples of when this really works:
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.
Read that aloud. There are no gaps. When Coates is landing lines like this he is, like Wu-Tang Clan, nothing to fuck with.
In the second text, Coates is a black parent of means raising a black son who will never have his father’s “Baltimore eyes” or worldview. Coates accepts this—but he is still afraid. Or, he is afraid because he accepts this. The Faustian bargain of “making it” is that your success necessarily destroys that which may have made you successful. Coates writes of his “hard household,” the beatings given when his parents could not control the world that would kill him for sport, and the black-male posturing that fits like a cheap suit but also gives black men a lingua franca. The suffering may be the point of it all but what, then, if his son will not suffer as he did?
You would be a man one day. And I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed. And I could not save you from the police, from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns. Prince Jones, murdered by the men who should have been his security guards, is always with me, and I knew that soon he would be with you.
My mother once told me that black progress meant fighting for your children to never know you. Coates knows his son’s body is vulnerable but he worries first here about his son forgetting. He is afraid of losing his son to the “new black” of multiculturalism that absorbs blackness and spits out beige history, beige politics and beige faiths. Coates is not trying to get into heaven but in this he has found a reason for faith. He puts his in history, the discipline and practice of history.