First, a backdrop, or rather one of the backdrops to this book, an abstract, literary one - not the context of daily institutionalised violence, minor hostilities, the need to be - in Coates' words - "twice as good".I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio.
Toni MorrisonWho is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? ... I'd be glad to read him.
Saul BellowTolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus--unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.
- Ralph Wiley
These voices are a part of the debate on, among others, universal vs. exclusive nature of human experience. Coates, who claims to be in Wiley's camp, writes for blacks and whites alike - unlike Morrison, if I understand her words following the quotation cited correctly - yet he communicates something a white person in America is neither brought up nor educated to understand:
They were utterly fearless. I did not understand it until I looked out on the street. That was where I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.
And now, Tolstoy himself:All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
It transpires that Tolstoy, after all, does not capture the universal properties of mankind; there is a particular kind of unhappiness, a burden, that black families and black people seem to share. The fear that someone will think you misstepped against the authority and you will end up shot. The fear your child will speak too loud, talk back to a police officer, refuse to turn down their music, mix with the wrong crowd - and will end up shot. The fear that you yourself will crack under the strain and will end up shot, raped, with your skull cracked against the wall.
This is the mother of a student who was killed in a shady police operation:
She alluded to 12 Years a Slave. “There he was,” she said, speaking of Solomon Northup. “He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.
Coates describes the wearisome experience of growing up black in the States. The redlining and the daily expenditure of energy on navigating the streets of the redlined districts; the imperative need to walk in single file, work quietly, pack an extra number 2 pencil, make no mistake
at school; be always on guard, be twice as good, twice as patient as the whites are, to get the half of what they are getting.
It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. ... It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.
Coates' relief at escaping this for a while by a temporary move to Paris - a place where he was not a part of the equation, a place where, as he writes to his son, “[we] are not their niggers”, where he was not identified as black, but an American - was enormous, and reminded me of the relief felt by Helga Crane, the tragic mulatto heroine of [b:Quicksand|78257|Quicksand|Nella Larsen|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1386924645s/78257.jpg|27633], when she exchanged yet another locality within the U.S. for Copenhagen – a place which didn’t know “the dreaded race question” because it did not know black race. (And yet, very soon, Helga discovers she is being paraded by her uncle and aunt in an attempt to move into the coveted artistic circles, an exotic human trophy.)
All in all, a very memorable read.