they can't kill us until they kill us
Enthusiastic book review
they can’t kill us until they kill us: 5/5 stars
Isn’t it funny how nothing really ever changes? We think the things we deal with now are new, but if you read books from hundreds of years ago, the thinkers of that time were discussing the very same issues we’re talking about now. We talk about how we need to stop hiding behind irony, which feels so easy with Twitter at our fingertips. But did you know Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about using irony as a defense mechanism way back in 1903?
“Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it, especially not in uncreative moments… Cleanly used, it too is clean, and one need not be ashamed of it; and if you feel you are getting too familiar with it, if you fear this growing intimacy with it, then turn to great and serious objects, before which it becomes small and helpless. Seek the depth of things: thither irony never descends…”
Basically, sometimes irony is good. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, most of the time, it’s a crutch for us to get out of doing the hard work of being honest. But it’s not just trivial issues that never change. The issues facing us in America now are the same issues that we have always faced. Though I think we can all agree it’s felt particularly unbearable since maybe 2015.
In They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif navigates all of these issues, and the impossibilities of having to be human on this earth, through music. And this, in all honesty, is why I fell in love with this book. He articulates exactly why music is so integral to our lives. Music teaches us that every feeling is universal. That every person feels the same things and that’s why we can all dance to songs together, despite everything else.
There are essays on everything from Migos to Carly Rae Jepsen to Fleetwood Mac, from punk rock to the underground rap scene. There are essays on his mother, on kindness, on staying, and the first time he was pulled over by the police. And throughout them all, Hanif threads together that feeling, the same feeling you get when you go to a live show - that just maybe we’re all going to be okay.
In one of my favorite essays titled Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years and The Great Suburban Narrative, Hanif writes about what it was like to grow up in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Ohio right next to a white suburban neighborhood. How, at the time, he couldn't understand how anyone living in that neighborhood could ever be sad. The essay is centered around The Wonder Years' third album, Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing. It's about finally understanding, as all of us learn when we grow up, that sadness is universal. Hanif writes:
“Home is where the heart begins, but not where the heart stays. The heart scatters across states, and has nothing left after what home takes from it. I know the suburbs best by how they consumed the kids I knew in my teenage years: the punk kids, the emo kids, the soccer kids, the kids who came out to the basketball courts with the black kids to play the way they couldn't in their backyard. So many of us, especially teenagers, strive to be something we're not. Escape is vital, in some cases, as a survival tool. Once, I never knew how anyone who lived in a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood could be sad. Sometimes, when you know so much of not having, it is easy to imagine those who do have as exceptionally worry-free....
I understand what it is to be sad, even when everyone around you is demanding your happiness - and what are we to do with all of that pressure other than search for a song that lets us be drained of it all?”
I don't know if I'm really selling it, because sometimes there are books you simply cannot explain. They sit too close to your heart. They Can’t Kill Us is that book for me. In a time when America is confused, hurt, disillusioned, angry, I don't think there's a book we needed more.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is the first essay book I can recall making me cry. Because that’s what the best books do. They make you feel seen, heard, hugged. The best music does that too.