African-Americans have struggled to acquire their voice in American culture. We have had uncertain biographies and stories written by others; in the last century we had the eruption of Harlem when black voices began to be more fully heard.
It’s still difficult to write those stories, but more and more black Americans are telling their lives, not to justify them or to make their unknown presence known, but to say “I am here and this is what I think and feel. Take me on my own words; accept me for my own values.”
Mr. Coates’ autobiography is of that vein, giving of himself in this, his first nationally known book. We see the life of a young black man in America in the 80s, like any kid simply trying to exist in a universe that is inexplicable and hostile. He is not creating a grand arc of history: he is simply saying “This happened. To me. To my brother. To my father. To my mother. To my friends, my family, my school, my neighborhood, my culture.”
There are the moments of grand explanation where he gives his insight as he tells his tale, and then their are moments of awful poignancy when he simply describes a boy living in the pages of a book surrounded by the chaos of urban violence and decay, a world that is collapsing around him but shored up by ordinary people who struggle to make sense and to keep order.
This would be a good book solely for the writing alone: Mr. Coates is a extraordinarily gifted writer, quick, insightful, laugh-out loud funny at times with a wry turn of phrase, or disquieting when he slips into code to speak at us rather than with us.
But it is a great book because it is simply a man describing what it is to become one. It is the struggle of ordinariness, it is the beauty of accomplishment, it is the story of that moment when a man says “I am.”
It is an awful thing, really, when someone reaches across the pages of a book and touches you, when he says “Hear me,” when you open your eyes and say “I see you.” There is such humanness in this book, such artful play, such ardent passion about being alive.
I do not buy many books outright, but this is one I was more than happy to purchase because I wanted to give back a little to someone who has given so much in the writing of this book.