In Between the World and Me, last year’s celebrated epistolary memoir, Ta-Nehisi Coates centers the bodies of black folk and their struggle against the grain of America’s racial cosmology. Written in a posture of intimacy, Coates reflects on the hypervisibility of his raced body: “by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request.
Beneath his own struggle, Coates questions what the inheritance and heritage of an anti-black world means for his son—a world everywhere determined against his body, marking it as vulnerable and exploitable: “what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable. ” The affective intimacy of the father-son epistle prompts broader criticisms of the world that render bodies racially vulnerable. In Coates’s story, struggle and strain against the world that refuses black belonging are the first and final remedy.
Indeed, struggle is in his son’s very name, Samori, after Samori Toure, who resisted French colonialism in West Africa in the late-nineteenth century. As a memoir in the black literary tradition, as Imani Perry has pointed out, Coates’ essay stands in a genre directly shaped by the slave narrative. One of the traits of this canon is that it reveals the perspective of black women and men from within the terrors of enslavement. But not only terror: this collection of sacred texts also gives testament to the reclamation of bodies and the resilient hope for emancipation.
While terrors of damnation may constitute the world of the enslaved, the body’s pulse for salvation is never undone. The genre expectations of this literary tradition have raised questions about Coates’s essay, specifically, about its exhortation to struggle without prospect for progress. If Coates bears acute witness to the latest terrors and trauma of American anti-blackness, he seems to do so without belief in a future where bodies will be reclaimed from the zones of racial abandonment.
Consider this passage to his son where struggle, the cardinal virtue, is set in opposition to hope: truggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope. Such a view contrasts with the structure of hope one finds, of course, in Martin Luther King Jr. s theological of history, but also in theological readings of the slave narratives like that of M. Shawn Copeland.
For Copeland, Christian eschatology begins with the task of dangerous memory, of obstinately refusing to forget or look away from suffering. Memory makes possible the reclamation of the bodies which suffered the social death of enslavement through an affirmation of divine solidarity; God’s presence with the injured becomes a promise for a there-and-then without racial vulnerability and domination.
The crucified body of Christ is networked to the crucified and enslaved body, and anticipates an otherwise future. And such anticipation energizes praxis in the meantime. An eschatological future thus is the condition for agency in the present. While Coates, like Copeland, prescribes the need for a steadfast historical gaze that risks dangerous memory, Copeland’s theological reading of the slave narratives, like other notions of soteriology or redemptive suffering, are rejected in Coates.
So he writes to his son: You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end.
In making an antinomy of struggle and hope, and in summoning dangerous memory as the refusal of teleological narratives of all kinds—whether in the register of theological, political, or racial redemption—Coates leverages the wreckage of history to preclude guaranteed or mythologized futures. Reacting to this picture, critics have said that Coates’s dangerous memory gives way to dangerous pessimism which ontologizes and makes immutable white supremacy. While appreciating the literary merit of Coates’s essay, Melvin Rogers writes that, for Coates, “white supremacy does not merely structure reality; it is reality.
If “the meaning of action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us,” this ontology leaves “one’s sense of agency [inescapably] constrained. ” In other words, if, like Rogers and Copeland suggest, an open future is the very condition of agency, then Coates’s text has crucially fallen short, fatally disempowering those whose well-being depends upon dismantling this world. In response, Lester Spence charges that Rogers mistakes pessimism for political realism.
Spence insists that Coates sees white supremacy as created and maintained in institutions, but that these realities are yet changeable. If Coates draws on natural metaphors to talk about white supremacy, which might be suggestive of ontology or immutability, the metaphors are actually used rhetorically to evoke the visceral toll of racism on the body. It is not that dangerous memories and an accounting of racial vulnerability foreclose the possibility of other futures; instead, it is rather that such memories and institutional racism make change difficult.
There is ground for hope, but such hope must reckon with the racial longue duree. “We can’t predict the future, but we do know change doesn’t occur without struggle. ” According to Spence’s reading of Coates, black institutions, like Howard University, compliment the struggle of individuals and are the crucial counter to the power wielded by the enduring legacy of white supremacist institutions. Evoking the many valences of struggle in Between the World and Me, Spence writes, “[s]truggle provides Coates profound insight and joy.
His realism also enables him to see the wonders of black life. ” Rogers, by way of rejoinder to Spence, restates his position on Coates: “Here, then, is what this all comes to. If one holds out hope of awakening white Americans from their complicity in white supremacy, then one cannot also believe that it will never be okay. ” This line alludes to a moment recounted in Coates’s memoir. After the predictable—but no less searing—non-indictment of the killers of Michael Brown, Coates tells about consolation withheld:
The men who had left [Michael Brown’s] body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 P. M. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you.
I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. For Rogers, if change in the racial networks that have constituted and continue to constitute America is possible, then one cannot maintain hopelessness. But Coates finally is only attentive to his body’s wounds, which prompt him to prohibit freedom dreams of change or the capacity to comfort his son for fear of reproducing mythologies of progress. What Rogers before called fatalism, he now measures as despair, which “black folks cannot afford. ”
II This is not despair: A Galaxy against the Body The dialogue between Rogers and Spence, although not quite on the mark, gets at important dynamics internal to Between the World and Me: namely, how the body struggles and dreams, or rather, struggles without dreams. Particularly, the conversation unearths the relation between Coates’s account of America’s racial cosmology and the possibility for a different future. The particular structure of hopelessness for Coates, in other words, is the product of, and also deployed against, the racialized world.
At the heart of American society in Between the World and Me is the production of racial vulnerability. The problem with hope and dreams in America—even dreams for as yet unrealized justice and equality within civil society—is that they take their shape within the same reality that wounds bodies. The condition of binding social life is wounding black life. Or, to change the terms, for Coates, the reality of race endures with such force because American political theology naturalizes race, its god uses it as the central hierarchy for organizing social life, violently creating a people who “believe they are white.
Initially, then, Coates writes about white supremacy as contingent phenomenon. White supremacy is a principle that binds people together. But it is a constructed notion, not “an innocent daughter of Mother Nature. ” Yet the effects emanating from such a racial regime are not represented purely in phenomenological terms. If the essay opens emphasizing the contingency of white supremacy, it quickly moves towards, and remains preoccupied with, its materiality, its visceral effects on the body.
Indeed, Coates suggests there is a certain bodily disavowal in dominant analytics race, writing that: ll our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. Racism and race cannot be understood primarily in terms of the social function it plays. Such accounts abstract from the breaking and exploitation of bodies.
Whatever else they involve, they have to be an interpretation of the body. For Coates and his son, “first and foremost, [racism denies] you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. If racism is to be theorized and resisted, one must begin for Coates (as for Hortense Spillers), at “that zero degree of social conceptualization,” which is to say, the body and its flesh. Coates’s letter dramatizes the difficulty of struggling for one’s body (which is also to struggle for one’s self ) within occupied territory. What is the territory for Coates and what is it occupied by?
First, it is West Baltimore, where Coates bore in his body the tolls of racist housing policies and segregation, as well as the ceaseless threat of violence during his childhood. The local territory of Baltimore is almost immediately given cosmic context: “[t]o be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. ” But it is not just Baltimore: I came to understand that my country was a galaxy, and this galaxy stretched from the pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting grounds of Mr.
Belvedere. I obsessed over the distance between that other sector of space and my own. I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.
The source of the body’s pain is not these localities themselves, but its enslavement by gravity. Racist fabric, energies, laws, and elements occupy and operate the American milieu. After the opening reflection racism as a construct of American political theology, the galaxy metaphor for understanding American racism permeates the letter, making at least twelve more appearances. What emerges is not a strong phenomenological account of race and racism—as in Coates’s essay on reparations, or as other race theorists have recently put forward —nor even an account of how race (materially) lingers in the landscape at the local level.
Here, race not only “takes place” but is generally embedded within place, having seeped into the very fabric, energies, laws, and elements organizing the world. Given such facts of life—the nightmare of history and galactic forces angled against black bodies—it is clear that Coates is not, as Lester Spence suggests, a political realist who is simply reckoning with the difficulty of progress presented by institutional racism. His understanding of race as an elemental force suggests a material and ontological notion more fundamental than institutional arrangements.
It then is also no wonder why Coates is pessimistic about the prospect of progress in the American cosmos. Yet, this pessimism should be distinguished from quietism, as well as from the despair or fatalism that Rogers attributes. “This is not despair,” Coates insists, because struggle is still possible. But struggle is only possible when all forms of mythology and dreaming—all forms of believing that the American galaxy can reconstitute itself without violating black bodies—have been undone.
The condition of struggle is the world laid bare in the light of dangerous memories and patterns of violence directed against black bodies. Thus, from Coates’s view, the fatal position is Rogers, who articulates his own kind of despair—a despair unaware of its own despairing (in Kierkegaard’s diagnosis)—by holding out for the progress that would enable black people to re-possess their bodies within the existing anti-black world. Rogers proceeds “[a]s though our hands were ever our own. As though plunder of dark energy was not at the heart of our galaxy. ”