- I Have a Nightmare
Spiegel & Grau/Random House
152 Pages; Print, $24.00
In the lower-middle-class, black D.C. neighborhood where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, I lived two doors up from my great uncle Manson. During his retirement years, the phase of his life that encompasses my entire memory of him, my garrulous, country-raised uncle undertook a project whose oddness did not strike me until I was grown. In his backyard, Uncle Manson half-submerged the shell of a tail-fin car into the earth so that everything above the wheels and headlights—above where they would have been, rather—sat above ground. This portion of the shell, either pink to begin with or painted that color by my uncle, was the focus of a great deal of decoration. Uncle Manson built a cinderblock arch above the shell, and on both shell and arch, he attached all manner of little doodads that were, in their totality, as gaudy as any display of folk art I’ve ever seen in a museum.
I mention all this for two reasons. The first is to slip in the information that, like Ta-Nehisi Coates—the author of the best-selling, superbly crafted, and very powerful quasi-memoir Between the World and Me—I am black and grew up in an urban setting. I will come to the second reason in a bit.
Between Coates’s childhood and mine were forty miles, roughly half a generation (Coates was born in 1975), and the emergence of a figure who is not mentioned in his book but whose presence is felt there: Ronald Reagan. America’s fortieth president slashed funding for social programs and declared a war on drugs (some would cross out “drugs” and write “blacks”), two sustained campaigns that, along with deindustrialization, left many in communities of color either jobless or in jail. The desperation those factors created was a direct cause of the fear Coates knew as a boy, a fear felt by everyone in his all-black community, including “the crews, the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage” and who presented “the greatest danger” in those Baltimore streets.
That Reagan’s name does not appear in Coates’s book is not a failing or an oversight since the policies of the Reagan administration constitute but one episode in what Coates characterizes as a centuries-long, continuing assault on the black body—one that has not only profited the larger society but is the mechanism on which it depends. This is Coates’s overarching thesis, and arguing with it is very difficult to do. “As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom,” Coates writes, and if that seems to be the view of a person obsessed with the past, consider the current racial makeup of our nation’s thriving for-profit prison system. Race, more of a social construct than a scientific or physiological reality, “is the child of racism, not the father,” Coates writes. The very concept of race, in other words, is the result of a desire (need?) to construct a social hierarchy in which those on top derive both their power and their very identities from the fact of their not being on the bottom. Whites are, like blacks, “a modern invention,” Coates writes, and
their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jew—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.
If the continued and purposeful assault on the black body is Coates’s central theme, then his central purpose is to do away with a number of illusions—chiefly, that we as a society are progressing, however slowly and fitfully, toward some magical, mythical time when race will cease to matter and that the plight of black Americans is an accident or an act of the God, whom Coates does not believe in...