With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
“Race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a particular audience in mind. His son, Samori, freshly –turned fifteen, is the intended recipient of this polemic, written in present time, in this land of racial upheaval. He would like his son to know where his heart has been as well as feel the punch of reality. His eyes opened long ago and he wants to lift the veil of innocence in his only son, for his own good.
“Here is what I would like you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body- it is heritage… There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible- that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.”
The body. The body of black folk in its beauty and complexity, laid bare by mere sight as grounds for extinction. Nothing their body can do to prevent the onslaught of hatred or goodwill. Religion served as an example of such an assault, done in the name of, out of their supposed inferiority: Christianity will enrich the backwards Negro or their sinful ways will hang along with their bodies.
Coates deals in the visceral not the celestial, therefore placing emphasis on the brutality inflicted on black bodies. It may be his atheism propelling him to consider Malcolm X rather than Martin Luther King Jr. when he writes these words:
“Black-on-black crime is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel… The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, (of Philadelphia) were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them. There is great deception in this. To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
It is frustrating to him when the truth is immediately smoothed over by hope, like the shooting of an unarmed teenager re-envisioned in a video of a cop embracing a young black boy. Awwww… there is hope. See? Can we all get along, as Rodney King said back in 1992? Are you fucking kidding me? I’m angry. So we can all imagine how angry Coates is and has every right to be.
Coates lists the recent destruction of black bodies (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown…) even sharing a more personal tragedy of an acquaintance, also killed by the police. He does not have an issue with the individuals who destroyed these black bodies. He knows they were most likely following orders. He wants Samori to be mindful that America is made up not of rogue cops, a few bad apples, a small sampling of the police force but rather, a calculated system of dehumanization passed down from generation to generation and administration to administration.
“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much’. These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket… No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.”
Black bodies are under attack and have been under attack since they were first brought here. The American Dream was borne on the backs of black bodies and the re-envisioning is that it was not that bad. He takes Samori to Gettysburg to further puncture the myth. He comes face-to-face with the ugly truth, the stoicism and pride of the South in their attempts to preserve their way of life. “Just some good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm…” The Dukes of Hazzard just the tip of the whitewashing of history.
Coates is going deeper than “the people who believe themselves white” and their imagination of the American Dream. The orchestrators of the Dream must also carry some responsibility. The foundation of suburban utopia and urban ghetto was not a lucky accident. It was constructed and paved on the backs of black bodies and not merely the result of “grit, honor, and good works”. It is “the Dreamers” of today who perpetuate the myth.
Coates briefly recounts the ugly legacy of New York City and the Financial District, in the buying and burying of slaves. He then describes the overflowing patriotism in the same area when two planes crashed the Twin Towers.
“But I did know that Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city. I never forgot that. Neither should you.”
Black bodies live daily in the visceral world. Malcolm X speaks more to the living, breathing struggle: “Don’t give up your life, preserve your life… and if you got to give it up, make it even-steven.” This is the revolutionary reality in Coates question: Why were only our heroes non-violent? Why does the preservation of our bodies not warrant primary concern? Why are we passively espousing fantastical ideas of hope while the boot presses down on our neck? The question and subsequent extrapolations bring this contradiction in focus.
Coates tells a story years ago involving him, his then four year-old son, a white woman and a deliberate shove. In those tense moments, Coates refused to be the better man and turn the other cheek. In those moments it wasn’t his life he was preserving, it was Samori’s. In those moments he was endangering Samori’s life, and his own. In those moments he forgot the edict that must be obeyed by all black folk at all times in America: “One must be without error out here.”
In the same way black folk have to be extra careful and ‘twice as good as others’ in America, they are currently under attack within their own family. The Dreamers now dictate in an astonishing display of audacity how black bodies are to be handled by their own families. To black folk, hugging your child is the same thing as whipping your child. The love felt for their flesh and blood’s black bodies is matched only by the Dreamers’ nose- butting ignorance. Coates takes issue with this hypocrisy while clarifying his role as a father.
“Now I personally understand my father and the old mantra- ‘Either I can beat him or the police’… 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.”
Coates neither condones unlawful behavior nor appreciates America’s dream of the passive nigger. He trucks with the truth and just because it is bitter and hard to swallow doesn’t make it any less true. The Dreamers are the individuals, those who believe themselves white, even now, who wish to close their eyes and mouths upon being presented with the pill. For them, it is a choice. For Samori, it is an imperative.