A necessary heretic
Last week, the long-awaited new book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates finally hit shelves. Its release was moved up from October to July in light of recent events yet again raising the ongoing concerns of race in America. After the book’s release on a Tuesday, Wednesday through Friday the internet became a cottage industry aimed at generating clicks through critical reviews of the book. Everyone had a hole to poke, though relatively few hit their mark. Perhaps the most tone-deaf of these came from New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks. His response was written in the form of a letter to Mr. Coates, whose book was written in the form of a letter to his own son. Somehow no one at the New York Times recognized that this was a bad idea. In the letter, Brooks tells Coates that he engages in something called “excessive realism.” The content of that specific offense is unclear, but it appears to involve making white folks uncomfortable.
The book itself is an extended meditation on inhabiting a body racialized as black in America. Coates is a remarkable writer and has gained a wide following as one of the most perceptive authors on race in America. His work at The Atlantic, including the award-winning “The Case for Reparations,” has garnered him a dedicated following. But the book at its heart is not a magazine article or a blog, the media by which he has gained that following. The book is a letter to his son. And while clearly this work is intended to be published well outside of the Coates household, it maintains an intimacy and vulnerability that opens space for readers simply to listen.
Coates’s pointed realism is on display – “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” But this realism is not excessive. Coates has considered the facts. He has lived with both the threat of disembodiment and the ongoing evidence that such disembodiment of black persons is a consistent feature of American life. He has struggled to find a voice that can articulate a deeply examined experience of living with this threat in his body.
Readers quickly note that the book keeps returning to the body. For Coates, the body is all anyone has. It is all his son has. And the vulnerability of black bodies in America means that the threat of being disembodied looms at any moment. This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that black bodies can be destroyed legally and without punishment. “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers rarely will be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
The unrelenting focus on the body raises the question of religious belief. His is an atheistic argument, which Coates acknowledges in the book and has often been questioned about in interviews. He states it clearly: “I have no God to hold me up. And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything….”
The differences between me and Ta-Nehisi Coates are significant, beginning with the fact that I was taught to believe I am white by the world I live in. Some, though not all, of our differences are important. Here is one difference that matters to me: I believe, in the words of the creed, “in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Coates does not believe this. He is, in his own words, “a heretic” and “an atheist.” But regardless of what Coates calls himself, I think we (I mean here “we white Christians”) need to listen to him. Not just listen, but take him seriously. Not just take him seriously, but to act in a way that will protect the body of his son and of every son or daughter who could be the next Trayvon Martin or Rekia Boyd, the next Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland.
Here is one reason I think we must take Coates seriously: I grew up in a Christian denomination that started over an argument about whether Christians could own slaves. This should never have been a discussion, unless one also believed in the moral goodness of rape; in the kind of family values that sells children to homes far from their mothers; in brutalizing and beating and degrading certain bodies; in declaring that a child of God is three-fifths a person. My childhood denomination was not alone in its guilt. In fact, it was terribly normal. Which means that heresy has been tacitly accepted as a normative part of our churches for longer than any of us can remember. One way to justify the destruction of black bodies by people who believed they were white was by a belief not unlike the ancient heresy Docetism, which denied that Jesus was in bodily form hanging on the cross. There was no physical reality, no real suffering in the crucifixion, they said. In the theology of white supremacy, those black bodies were not real anyway and some glad morning they would be taken up to the sweet by-and-by. With that in mind, their earthly treatment did not matter. What did matter was their economic value as property. We still rest easy with that heresy, while the devalued bodies of our brothers and sisters are born into poverty at unconscionable rates and then are shamed for being born into a poverty they did not choose. They are locked up in cages in the system of mass incarceration that seeks to control their bodies. The systems are different. The results are appallingly similar. In the face of silent pulpits and anything short of a moral uprising, it will be hard to convince our brothers and sisters of color that we’ve made much change. If we are conscious, we won’t be able to convince ourselves we’ve made much of a change.
This is why Ta-Nehisi Coates is a necessary heretic. He has allowed us to listen in to an intimate conversation. The only thing to do is to listen. There is no need to argue or correct, nor to try to convert. Only listen. And listening, to remember that we each inhabit bodies which can be destroyed. We all fear this, Coates points out, whether we believe in the resurrection of the body or not. We know our creatureliness. Forgetting a name we want to remember, feeling the fragility of lungs and limbs, knowing the tremble of hands and the flutter of heart: this reminds us that our bodies can be taken away. A chapter can be closed, whether we anticipate another to follow or not.
These fragile vessels are the only means we have to enter into the life of the Divine. They are the only way we have to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. We long for our bodies to be secure because we recognize their essential nature to our being. How else to explain air conditioning or fried chicken or soap?
And yet we are confronted with the weakness of our love, the fear that our bodies might suffer. Though we know that perfect love casts out fear, we still let some bodies suffer more than others. We still let our history go unreconciled. We know that greater love has no one than this: that one would lay down one’s life for a friend. The pain of change, the pinch of reparations, are too great a fear to let that kind of love capture our imaginations and move our feet. The by-and-by is good enough for people of color crying for justice, but not for those of us who profit from the racial caste system. We want our Dream, and we want it now.
This is, of course, that same old heresy. And those of us who believe we are white don’t recognize that we are not the heretics we need.