Let’s imagine that we resuscitated W.E.B Du Bois and asked him to rewrite The Souls of Black Folk to fit the modern experience of the black American. What would that piece look like today? In my opinion it would no longer be a balanced, patient and restrained form of social criticism. Instead, it might look a lot like Ta-Nehisi Coate’s Between The World and Me: a dark, restless, angry, accusing, forceful, lamenting and powerful call to action. It would now shake America by the shoulders, and ask, exacerbated, “Why the hell haven’t we changed this yet?!”
Photo by: @vitalwritersblog
In his historic text, Du Bois famously uses the metaphor of ‘the veil’ to illustrate discrimination. This ‘veil’ is the thing which shrouds itself over black citizens, barring them from certain societal privileges. Like Du Bois, Coates’ piece begins with an abstract analogy. The title seems to reflect on the metaphysics of identity; he aims to analyse the various social constructions which stand ‘between’ the black citizen and the rest of the world, preventing a ‘normal’ experience of American life. Coates’ title alludes specifically to a poem by twentieth century black writer Richard Wright. Echoing the narrative of Wright’s poem, Coates begins with an abstract focus, but moves on to muse over the violent crimes committed against the black population. His work stems from a rumination on the recent victims of police brutality: Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Marlene Pinnock, Michael Brown. Such instances of relentless violence shape the main subject of the book: the black body.
However, I am reluctant to describe the black body as the ‘motif’ of this narrative. This is because Coates does not simply use it as a recurring, airy-fairy literary theme, but as something to repeatedly impress upon his readers the dangerous physical reality of the black citizen. Amongst all of the academic, philosophical pondering on race in America, it may be easy to forget the overwhelmingly violent effect racism has on black people. Thus, Coates uses the body to remind readers of the very real physical threat to black people in America, which is too often obscured by language in political debates. This is neatly summarised by Coates himself:
‘But all 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. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.’
Coates presents his ideas in the form of an educational and cautionary letter to his son. This creative structure distinguishes the piece from other forms of black literary criticism, as it endows his narrative with the personal quality necessary to understand the urgency of Coates’ situation. For instance, readers come to see that his overwhelming need to catalyse social change in America is derived from his fear of the threat racism poses to his beloved son.
Coates discusses various social issues in an anecdotal style, taking us through his own personal experiences and journalist cases. For Coates, all issues are rooted in this problem of the black body. For example, Coates hints that gang violence is fuelled by young people’s paranoia over their bodily protection:
‘I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body’.
Likewise, Coates believes that black domestic violence is derived from the terror that comes with a lack of bodily ownership:
‘Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra—“Either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all—the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied…’.
This explanation connects today’s societal conditions to the same primal fears which existed under slavery. For example, in the well known case of 1856, Margaret Garner, a runaway slave mother, killed her infant daughter rather than see her return to a life of enslavement. Although today’s experience is much less extreme, Coates still subtly demonstrates how the screams of slavery still quietly echo into the modern era.
Furthermore, Coates’ piece takes a refreshing glimpse into some intersectional prejudices; he pauses and ruminates on homophobia and women’s rights. Although his commentary is brief, its inclusion is still noteworthy as such important discussions are too often overlooked by the general body of black literary criticism.
Coates also questions the hypocritical nuances of modern education. He describes his discovery of Malcolm X and wonders why America allows its population to remember its violent white heroes, but denies violent black figures their place in history;
‘Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality’.
Following on from this thread of thought, Coates poignantly exclaims:
‘All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much”’.
Overall, Coates’ bold rumination on race should land this piece a prominent spot in the canon of black social critique. His unapologetically blunt declarations reveal the ugly truths of American society – a wholly necessary reflection in the current political climate.