This work by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Samori, is a treatise on his experience as a Black man in America. What Coates is doing here is what so many Black parents in America have needed to do: encourage their children to be cautious in order to preserve the sanctity and safety of their Black bodies. As he states on page 129-130, “When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body. … already you have expectations,… survival and safety are not enough.” And “What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body.” He is sharing his own past struggles as well as those around him, in order to communicate his concern for his son’s safety, while also communicating generally the plight of living in a body of color in this country.
Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock over the last few months, you have to be aware of the uncovering of the ongoing racism that we have been seeing in our country. I say uncovering because the racism is not new – no, it has been going on since White men arrived on these lands– but it’s once again being exposed for what it is on a national level. While I rarely quote in this blog, I find that Coates’ words are far more poetic and useful than my own here. He says, on page 17, for example, “To be black… was to be naked before the elements of the world… the nakedness is the correct and intended result of the policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.” This, I believe, says it all. This is the institutionalized, ratified, codified racist structure upon which our country was built. It began with the enslavement of a people, evolved into a Jim Crow structure and now exists in the form of a criminal “justice” system that is an entirely purposeful perpetration of a racist segregation of people based on the color of their skin. It’s all the same thing.
And it is our obligation to blow this apart.
I’m still struggling with how we, as individuals can make a difference, but the very first step is understanding how deeply entrenched the problem is. This takes looking both inward at our own implicit biases, which we all have, and examining the structural racism upon which our country has been erected. Understanding the deeply rooted fear of a child for his own bodily security, and then as he grows, for the safety of his peers and then for the safety of his children, as Coates relays here, gives an up-close-and-personal view of what it is like to live in his skin. We feel his terror and we feel his rage over having to feel that terror. This is where we start.
The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.