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Black Body and Soul

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates often refers to himself and other black people as bodies. The central fear of blacks in America, he writes, is and has been that their bodies will be destroyed. The fear pervades the bravado of black youth as well as the steely hope of the elders. Instead of using an I or we or you, Coates writes such sentences as “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” and “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” (103).

In the middle of the book, this theme of the body takes a turn.

“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” (79)

“I have no praise anthems [in memory of the deaths of slaves], nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton.” (103)

For Coates, soul and spirit exist as mortal, not immortal, attributes, present in us when we live and gone when we die.

Coates surprised me when he argued for the thoroughly bodily nature of spirit and soul. I have had the luxury of holding secular views of life without having to worry about the destruction of my body or the bodies of those close to me. But Coates puts aside the consolations of the supernatural despite knowing that the bodies he cares about are never safe from violence. I’ve never been put to that test.

Coates is not fully comfortable with his secularism, however. He writes to his son, to whom the book is addressed, that he, Coates, worries about having “missed something” by rejecting religion.

I thought of my own distance from an institution that has so often been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. (139)

But Coates also finds a type of transcendent hope and wisdom in a different collaborative setting, outside the church. He writes to his son that his life has essentially been happy, “that I drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you” (115). Perhaps the shared purpose and collective energy of political activism fulfills a portion of what he fears he missed by rejecting religion. If so, I think his son has the message.

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