The book is in the form of an extended letter to the author’s son Samori. He begins with “Son,” and divides the book into three parts.
Coates begins by telling a story of how he was interviewed for a popular news show and asked what it meant to lose his body. The host did not say that specifically, but he is used to the question. The actual question was why he believed the progress of America was based on looting and violence.
He writes of America’s deification of "democracy;" America has never betrayed its promise of “government by the people” but has had trouble figuring out what it means by “people.” Americans also think they understand race, believing it is a “defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” (7). However, race is the child of racism, he writes, and “white people” are also a new concept. They achieved their whiteness through slavery, flaying, pillage, and oppression. This is not singular to America; it is a part of human history. However, America has always viewed itself as exceptional, seeing itself as a champion of democracy. As such, Coates wants to hold America to this exceptional moral standard.
It is his son’s fifteenth year. This year saw the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, and others. Their destroyers are not held accountable and police departments seemingly have power to destroy black bodies. In this way, racism is made visceral, rather than limited to just words; actual bodies are destroyed.
The news show host asks about hope and Coates knew he’d failed. He always knew this. He felt awakened from the gorgeous American Dream of driveways and strawberry shortcake and Cub Scouts.
This week Coates’s son learned the killers of Michael Brown would go free. He heard the verdict and went to his room and cried. Coates could not comfort him, but only tell him he must find a way to live in it all. This world is goal-oriented and full of big ideas, but Coates has never ascribed to magic or religion. His big question – how do I live freely in this black body? – can only be answered by his reading and writing.
He is afraid and always has been afraid. He saw fear in “the extravagant boys of my neighborhood” (14) growing up in Baltimore. Their clothes and demeanors asserted their attempts to possess themselves. He saw their fear in their customs of war and in the music he heard. He saw fear in words and hard gazes. He felt his father’s fear when he was beaten with a belt. He remembers how once, when he slipped away at a playground and was found by his family, his father said it would be him that beat him or it would be the police. Childhood in Baltimore was being “naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease” (17). The law could not protect him.
He remembers how one day he saw a group of older boys yelling at a younger boy his own age; this was a war for the boy’s body. He saw the boy pull out a gun and realized for the first time that his own body could be extinguished in an instant. The boy looked at him and made him feel his place. He knew that there were places where boys did not fear for their lives. They thought of baseball cards and toy trucks. He obsessed over the space between their world and his own. It seemed like a “cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty” (21).
He knows his son’s life is very different from his. His son knows the grandness of the world; he has grown up with a black president and social networks. He thinks of injustice as what happened to Michael Brown, not the larger reality of racism in America.
Before he could escape the streets, Coates had to survive. He understood the thrills of street life and saw how the crews were loud and rude to feel secure and powerful. All they wanted to do was prove their bodies were inviolable. To navigate this world, Coates learned the language and rules of the street, using much of his brain to figure out how to do this. This made him feel robbed of something – time or experience, he muses.
These are not essential to his son though. His son does not know these rules, but intuitively sees how he could be Trayvon Martin.
Coates writes how he also had to learn about the schools. He resented schools more than the streets because their rules were vague and purposeless. How did what they learned have any relevance? The administration was only concerned with compliance. School was presented not as a place of learning and self-discovery, but as an escape from death and prison. There was no truth in these places; if kids were kicked out or left they saw that the world stayed the same outside and they were doomed to the same cycles.
Coates felt he could not get out. He was smart but afraid; he wondered what was “behind the smoke screen of streets and schools” (28). He was an atheist and could not believe in dogmas for explanations. He was curious because his grandmother raised him to be so. He remembered how she would make him write down explanations for his bad behavior in school - not to make him better behaved, but to probe his own consciousness and learn to interrogate himself.
He began to read his grandfather’s many books and study his father’s Black Panther materials. He resented the annual school tribute to the Civil Rights Movement, wondering why “were our only heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality” (32). The whole world was savage, so why should he valorize people whose values society scorned?
For Coates, the schools and streets were the same. The intentions of educators did not matter, the intentions of Americans who did not think they were racist did not matter. The violence of those whom the heroes of the Movement fought against and the violence in the phrase “Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?” (34) are related somehow.
In this period of study, Coates found Malcolm X and admired him greatly. In the early 1990s, he listened to all his speeches and admired how Malcolm X said you should preserve your body because it was just as good as everyone else’s. Black is beautiful, he read. Malcolm never lied, he was a political pragmatist, he would not turn the other cheek or be someone’s morality.
Coates remembered Malcolm’s phrase, “If you were black, you were born in jail.” He remembered his father’s generation, remembered crack and black flight, remembered the phrase “keep it real.” Maybe that phrase meant they should go back to their own world, their own Mecca.
From the moment Coates begins his work, his tone and language are driving, passionate, stark, and unequivocal. This will not be a work of inspiration or optimism. It is not written for white people - not written to comfort them, placate them, pat them on the back for their occasional acknowledgment of racial problems. It is a deeply personal, incisive, and unrelenting work and one that does not shy away from calling out those who created, promote, and benefit from the racial hierarchy in America. Coates does not lecture his son but ruminates, explores, and advises.
These first few pages set out the major themes of the work: the falseness of the idea of “race”; the Dream; Coates’s coming of age; America’s history of destroying the black body; and the vulnerability of black bodies today. Its title comes from a line by Richard Wright: “And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly / Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks / and elms / And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves / between the world and me…” This is the epigraph to Coates’s work. He explains he wants to find out what actually exists between the world and himself.
He begins by asserting that America has always had a problem with race, but not quite in the way people assume. Racism created race, not the other way around. American history is rife with examples of people who were once not considered white – the Irish, the Jews, the Russians, Catholics – but now are. Race is not an indubitable reality; it has been constructed, altered, and reinforced. Whiteness is not just skin color or hair color; it is fashioned out of “the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs, the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies” (8).
America isn’t the only country to do this, of course, but what is so problematic is its hypocricy. It puts on the mantle of exceptionalism, morality, heroism; it claims to be a champion of democracy. This is reminiscent of Frederick Douglass’s searing words in his famous Fourth of July speech in 1852 in which he lays bare the country’s hypocrisy.
“Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill… You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country.”
What reinforces the false racial system is the Dream. The Dream is the comfortable and noble American life of suburban houses and expansive lawns, cookouts and PTA meetings, baseball games and pool parties. It is something Coates desired to have as a kid and could not understand why there was such distance between it and himself. It is what white Americans think they deserve and aspire to, but it requires a great deal of willful ignorance and blindness. Whites think of racism as an unavoidable natural force rather than something they participate in. It manifests itself in police departments’ brutal law-and-order policing, the construction of ghettos, the fervent claims of “I’m not a racist!” It is sustained by pushing blacks below.
Coates delves into his own history for Samori, acknowledging that they have had different black experiences and Samori’s has been softer, more privileged. Coates writes of the streets of Baltimore and the codes that developed to help black men navigate them. He writes of the deplorably anodyne school system that offers no real solution to this world except hopefully avoiding death or prison. He was obsessed with the world of the Dreamers and had a difficult time coming to terms with its distance. What started to trickle into his consciousness was the ridiculousness of the Civil Rights Movement leaders having to be passive and nonviolent, as well as the rightness and authenticity of the voice of Malcolm X.
As he grew up, Coates began to see the utter fragility of the black body. It could be destroyed in the streets, but it could be destroyed out in the wider world as well; in fact, the wider world was more indifferent to its destruction. The Dream is sustained by the destruction of black bodies, as aforementioned, and the black person must figure out how to inhabit a black body.
Inhabiting a black body seems particularly fraught these days, as Coates suggests. He mentions several recognizable instances in the last year of black people killed (most by the police) for doing virtually nothing illegal – Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, and Eric Garner. Since Coates’s writing of this work and the publication of this study guide, there are two new names to add to the list: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Coates’s prescience is notable but not altogether surprising; after all, it is his main point that the Dreamers are unlikely to wake up to the injustices the Dream requires to exist.