This book, which takes the form of an open letter from author Ta-Nehisi Coates to his young son, is without equivocation the most beautifully written non-fiction work I’ve read in a decade. Unfailingly insightful in its dissection of troubling facts, as well as in the explication of the depth of feeling experienced as a direct result of those same facts, Coates’s voice presents hard emotional truths with peerless clarity and directness.
Much of the power of the work is derived from the author’s ability to find a way of viewing the universal through the lens of the intensely personal. The bridging of this dichotomy is exemplified in the fact that the text’s argument is centred not on something as intangible as the concept of ‘Liberty’ but on the more concrete half of the habeas corpus equation: the body. Coates returns time and again to the effects upon the black body of the rules, systems, histories, and environments he examines. No injustice is so abstract that it cannot be characterised—at least partially—by way of its effects upon the body. And no system can remain entirely impersonal when it is considered in relation to its effects upon the person.
Coates' interrogation succeeds primarily in the building of his argument fourth-dimensionally: the construction of a palimpsest which brings into focus the contemporary results of historic injustices. He calls out causal connections where they are too often forgotten or denied, and instructs the reader in the re-framing of slavery not as a discrete period of the American story but as part of a multi-generational and multi-national narrative; part of the narrative of capitalism; part of the narrative of “progress” in the first world; a colossal human endeavour with real and lasting effects in the present day. Here too Coates takes on the task of navigating between talk of people and talk of institutions. His gift is in relating one to the other: a conglomerate nothing more than an amalgamation of numerous individuals; individuals peculiarly susceptible to the unique power of collectives, and both in thrall to their inheritance of history’s lessons and codes.
That Coates has chosen to write this letter to his son as an open one is a gift to us; it’s our privilege to read it. I could not help but read it partly as a continuation of the autobiographical project in the vein of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) (with which it shares interesting considerations of the authors’ contemporary Chicago, and of their atheism). However, there is something immediate and important in reading a record of one’s own time and recognising in it the truth of the injustices of which it speaks.