Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Debut Novel Mingles History and Fantasy

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Debut Novel Mingles History and Fantasy

Coates explores how the system was upheld by a willful ignorance, the dehumanization of black people perpetuated through a deliberate lack of empathy. To understand is to begin to see a commonality, and to allow such a sentiment to creep in would bring about the downfall of the whole system: “To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive then anointed with salt water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed.”It is also true, however, that this is a first novel, and reflects some of the inconsistencies of first novels. The writing occasionally lacks vibrancy, despite its great excitements; the dialogue is heavily expository. Almost without exception, when Hi meets a new character, that person recounts his or her own personal history at length. While we’re told early on that people mark Hi as a listener and are compelled to tell him things, these disclosures still feel strained and unnatural.But the novel’s few weaknesses are offset by its enormous strengths. When Hi returns home, he feels a kind of estrangement from his birthplace: “It was a funny thing, seeing the country again from this angle. To see the woods I had sometimes raced through, and all the geography I had navigated during the rigors of training. I could see all the birches, ironwoods and red oaks alive in their beautiful fans of russet and gold. The mountains just beyond us, with their overhangs and clearings where the world opened up and you could see the bounty of this deathly season clear for miles. But in my heart I felt the fear of having returned to slave country and that this world now had eyes on me.”Home, for Hi, ceases to be a place, and becomes a condition, located within those who love him. “I have so rarely been afforded the right of farewell,” Hi thinks, summarizing the tragedy of human entanglements for the enslaved. True intimacy is impossible because the loss of a loved one is inevitable. One loves without possession. But this, Hi suggests, is perhaps for the best — for a human being must never belong to another, not even for selfless reasons.[ What are Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 10 desert-island books? ]In the end, Hi discovers that despite his own notions of what freedom is, it is not up to him to define it for others. He can’t force his version of liberty on them, even when it appears others are electing to stay in cages. All people must act out their own dreams of freedom: “Ain’t a matter of if they want out,” says one character. “All want out of this. It’s just a matter of how.”Though Hi reaches a measure of peace, a shadow remains, a bitterness at what will continue. Even an otherworldly power cannot guarantee agency on earth. It cannot undo or correct centuries of injustice. It cannot create a lasting equality.


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