I don't feel confident reviewing this slim brilliant epistolary memoir because what does a moderately well-educated white lady such as myself have to add to the conversation being had by people with greater wisdom and nuance than I have at my command. But I review what I read, and like so many others was profoundly affected by Coates's coming-of-age in racist America story.
I referred to the book as "slim," not as a commentary on its contents, but because I didn't expect such a lauded masterwork to weigh in at 150 pages. I bookmarked more than 30 of them because of passages that moved me.
Much of the book is informed by the rash of non-indicted police murders of Black people. Coates laments that his son, after him, has to live in a world where Black bodies are at the mercy of "despotic police." He talks about Black History Month lauding to captive students the Civil Rights Movement--freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, Freedom Summers and "the glories of being beaten on camera" and how "[the marchers] seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat at them, the terrorists who bombed them." He wonders, "Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent." School seemed to be withholding information, and Coates doesn't want that for his 14-year-old son.
The book unfolds in three chapters, addressed to Coates's son, trying to help them both understand and cope with a world where the killers of Michael Brown go free. He goes on to talk about the trope of education as a means to freedom for Black people (yep, he acknowledges the women killed, too), rather than education being a reward itself for Black people, as it is for people of privilege.
I don't want to choke this review with the 30+ passages that moved me, so I'll tease some of them in case you're not already convinced to read BtWaM:
- "Americans deify democracy"
- at the time of the Civil War "America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world" but only because of who it counted as people
- "racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake...But race is the child of racism, not the father."
- how Black people raise their children, perhaps more harshly than people of other races in America do, fearing for the children's lives
- "police reform" and how police violence is an embodiment of American racism. "The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs."
- NYC's slave auction block and then burial ground later fittingly becoming the city's financial district and the site of a department store
- prison labor-Black bodies as "a natural resource of incomparable value"
Coates himself has a friendquaintance from college who was murdered for no legitimate reason by a "sword of American citizenry," as I suppose many Black people do, so while he's an intellectual and a talented writer, he's also and always writing as a broken-hearted human and as a father who wants, impossibly, to protect his son's heart. He paints the loss a parent feels by detailing the large and small acts and expenses that go into raising a child--school tuitions, carpools, lessons, games attended, sleepovers supervised, birthday parties thrown, family photos, holiday gifts given, private jokes, and dreams shared.