A look at racism that’s only skin-deep

By Kiese Laymon
256 pp. Scribner. $16.

The book’s synopsis tells you that this is a “powerful,” “provocative,” and “genre-bending” read. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find it to be any of these things. But yes, it was “heavy,” in the sense that the subject matter was unpleasant. It’s depressing, but the most depressing thing is how uninteresting it all was.

This is another in a string of recent books I’ve read (Where the Crawdads Sing and Circe are the others) that have received fantastic reviews from the usual media outlets but that failed to leave any sort of mark on me. 

“Heavy” has the same great reviews, but in this case the reason is clear — it’s the subject matter. A book by a black author talking about racism practically demands acclaim from its primarily white readership. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates has made a fantastic living as the media darling and current star of this genre of writing, which is to say a genre led by authors who perceive racism as existing everywhere and who write almost singularly on the subject in books that are adored by a largely white readership.

Coates wrote a book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy that could have passed as a hagiography of Barack Obama. In Coates’ worldview, because Obama is black, Obama is good. Coates never stops to examine the fact that, once in power, Obama’s policies failed to address the actual issues affecting the black community. Obama did little to change racist laws that disproportionately affect black Americans and to address programs that disproportionately affected other minorities (for example, the US drone program or mass surveillance).

As a straight white man, I feel I should stop here and say that I am no “MAGA” hat wearing buffoon. I despise Trump and all that he stands for and I admit to, somewhat regretfully in hindsight, voting for Obama twice (what other option was there?). All that said, books that fail to address the power dynamic in America are not genuinely tackling racism, they’re only looking at the issue skin deep.

Likewise, Laymon’s book may be “Heavy,” but it’s a weight that can be easily lifted and forgotten about. It doesn’t do the painful work of pointing to the idols white liberals idolize as largely working on behalf of the same racist system.

For an author that tackles issues of race and power with far more eloquence and poignancy, I recommend James Baldwin or Cornel West.

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