This is thin ice for me, a well-assimilated Asian, reading and commenting on the African-American experience of disenfranchisement.
I’m currently immersed in the world of West Baltimore: ‘powerdisking’ seasons of The Wire, amazed at the lingo, the culture, the down-and-out police and detectives who get up every morning to face the jungle, in a world where the jungle is clearly winning.
And in the middle, the black man. A powerful, yet powerless figure. The games, the chess moves, the subtle alliances, the backstabbing, the occasional yet vicious executive liaisons of violence. (I originally wrote ‘explosions of violence’ but maybe autocorrect understands something I don’t).
And now, Mr. Coates writes this book: a letter to his young son. One letter, one book. It is a quick, searing read. Indirectly, it addresses ‘the men who believe themselves to be white.’ And with this phrase he lays bare the bias underlying so many assumptions of American culture.
Coates is an educated African-American man with command of the language, a deep understanding of the powerful forces shaping American history, an unflinching eye toward the shameful treatment of blacks in America, in past centuries and including now.
And he sadly has to pass on his cautions and his learnings to his son, who even today, is not safe, for all the same reasons.
As an Asian-American, this is not my fight. I carry neither the inherited guilt of the Southern plantation owner (but did enjoy watching the Dukes of Hazzard when I was growing up: sorry), nor the chromatic guilt of appearing ‘white’ (although it is true that I was labeled ‘white’ at high school graduation*).
This book amazes me: that a black man in America spends his entire life knowing that, fundamentally, he, and his body, are never safe: he could be detained, arrested, or killed at any time.
Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, recently said that since moving to the U.S. that he has been pulled over while driving, more than 50 times.
Although such systematic bias and discrimination against Asians existed in my father’s time, and more in decades and centuries past (Chinatowns built to house and segregate workers for the railroad, epithets that spoke of ‘a Chinaman’s chance,’ meaning that the Chinese worker who was lowered down in the basket with explosives to carve the railroad tunnels out of rock would likely die), I have fortunately not often been subject to those pressures, those glass ceilings, those verbal taunts and those mortal risks.
America does have a checkered past. Indeed the present is also checkered. We are by no means out of the dark tunnel of our chromatic biases. But it is the conversation and powerfully articulated voices, like those of Mr. Coates and the empathy and compassion of our melting pot society that might move us forward.
*True story: I was getting ready to graduate high school in Tallahassee, Florida, part of a senior class of about 600, about 1/3 black and 2/3 white, and one Asian. Honestly, having spent more than a decade growing up among these same friends, I did not feel isolated or apart.
I was approached during the week prior to graduation, by the registrar of Amos P. Godby High School, who informed me:
‘I hope you don’t mind: I made you white, otherwise I would have had to put two more columns into my report for the numbers of white boys and girls, and black boys and girls. I would have had to type up Asian boys and girls. Just because of you. So I made you white.’
What did she want me to say? Perhaps ‘thank you?’ Or maybe ‘no thanks, I prefer to be black?’ It puzzles me to this day.
CMIO’s take? This CMIO has no take.