As good as everyone says it is. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this as a letter to his fifteen-year old son, trying to explain how he has grappled with being considered the bottom of the pile, the other, the non-white. Growing up in the streets of Baltimore, Coates finds it hard to shake the constant awareness necessary for survival, but is proud to bring his son up in NYC, exposed to more hope and expectations (don’t be twice as good, but expect twice as much like the Masters of the universe he strolls the Manhattan sidewalks with). Coates finds community in the Mecca of Howard University, and gorges himself on books about everything he’s ever wondered.
The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly I was discovering myself.
He decides that he learns more outside of college than in, so drops out to focus on writing, becomes a journalist. “Now I could call and ask people why a popular store closed, why a show had been canceled, why there were so many churches and so few supermarkets. Journalism gave me another tool of exploration, another way of unveiling the laws that bound my body.”
Coates brings his son, aged 10, to Civil War battlefields where he’s greeted like a “nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books.” There’s an ugly run-in on the Upper West Side after a viewing of Howl’s Moving Castle, where a white woman shoves Coates’ son (then aged 4) on the escalator for not moving fast enough. His wife travels to Paris for her 30th birthday and Coates wishes he dreamed that big, finally goes for himself to feel what it’s like to be freed from the heavy overtones of race in America. I’m doing a horrible job recounting this– just read it.