I am a white male in my 30s. Written as a letter to his 15 year old son, this is a memoir of being black in America by a 39 year old man with a life wholly different from mine.
I point this out not to argue that this book has nothing to offer me, but to acknowledge that I am coming to this book with a different set of tools – a different language, even. The context I use to make sense of the world around me is different from that of Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is, perhaps, best exemplified by his repeated usage of the phrase “people who think of themselves as white.”
This phrase not only bewildered me, but prevented me from fully comprehending his message. It wasn’t until I Googled it and read the James Baldwin essay from which it originated that I realized how much of this book went over my head. “What it means to be white” brings with it a host of meanings about how we identify both ourselves and one another. Without understanding this basic phrase, I don’t think it’s possible to understand this book. I don’t think it’s possible, in fact, to understand the black experience.
I am not white because of my skin, I am white because my ancestors needed to create a “white race” so that American slaves (also known as “blacks”) could be given a name. They were the other, held in bondage due to their skin color, with chains passed down from one generation to the next like it was part of their DNA. Prior to American slavery there was no “white race”. People were Irish, or German, or Norwegian, or Russian. Prior to American slavery, there was no “black race”. American slavery created the white race, just as it created the black race.
So we call ourselves “white”, but that is only a recent creation. We have divested ourselves of our community so that we could subjugate others. And, in so doing, we have lost our ability to define who we are. We just call ourselves “white”.
This was, perhaps, embarrassingly revelatory. I have a degree in anthropology, so the idea that race is a purely cultural concept instead of a scientific one isn’t new to me. But what James Baldwin argued (and Ta-Nehisi Coates reiterates) has shaken the foundation of what I perceive race to be. And given what I know, or should know, about human culture, I’m ashamed that it’s taken me this long to see it from this angle.
Which is no easy thing to admit. I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent guy, well-versed in history and reasonably comfortable acknowledging my privilege. But I was not ready for this book, and, having read it, I can’t say I grasped everything he was going for. But the error here is mine, not his. In essence, I lack the framework to fully embrace what he’s saying, here. It’s not that I am ignorant of American history, nor that I’m ambivalent to white culpability in the broken promise of our national mythology, but if the very language Coates uses to express himself is unfamiliar to me, how can I even begin to grasp the truth he has clearly explicated for the world?
I’m not going to give this book a rating because I don’t feel like I’m qualified. But I do plan on doing the reading I should’ve done before picking this book up. And I think no higher testament can be paid a book than to say that it has opened your eyes to the amount of work you have left to do. I do highly recommend this, however, to anyone prepared to take it in.