It is not often that you read books that make you want to read it again the moment you finish it. But this was one such a book.
Addressed to his 15-year old son, Coates talks about what has made him the man he is. Growing up as a black boy, having to survive on the streets and at school, being told he should be twice as good as anybody else, being loved by parents who feared for his well-being. It is not a world I know. I am not American. But I am brought up with the ideas Coates talks about, with the idea of whiteness.
I cannot claim I fully understand every part of it. But I do share some of the experiences he write about. About visiting Paris, feeling free for the first time. Being amazed that there is a world out there that is so completely different, almost unrelated to him. Where he is an outsider as well, but where he doesn’t have to fear for his life. Even though he does, because that is what ideology has done to him.
This is what this book is mostly about for me: ideology. Ideology is a specific lens you use to look at the world. We all have such a lens, anyone who pretends they don’t, are dead. Anyone who is alive will need to make sense of the world around him, will need to make decision, decide about what is real, what is good. And this is based on an underlying sense of the way things simply are: this is ideology.
But the fact that you think certain things are natural, doesn’t make it so. I really loved this quote regarding this very fact:
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
~ Ta-Nehisi Coates
Racism is built upon the idea that there is something called race. Race is the making of distinctions between people based on their physical heritage. And it is because of making this kind of distinction, which is racism, that the concept of race truly takes shape. Without this significant longing to create a hierarchy between people, there would have been no place for race in this world.
I might not be American or black. But I am white, and Dutch. And the Dutch were those who shipped slaves, who measured the noses and heads of people in Indonesia to prove they were less intelligent and less human. If I get to live without a daily reminder of being born as a descendent of those people, then Coates and his son and so many others around the world should also be able to grow up without being reminded of that, of being looked at through difference. As if this difference first of all makes them who they are.
And I wanted to share one last quote to show how this book is about so much more than race and racism. It is about living. And finding out who you are.
“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
~ Ta-Nehisi Coates