The essay below appeared in much shorter form at Christian Courier three weeks ago, and was paywalled. As always, if you like my work, consider subscribing to this wonderfully trend-averse enterprise, which also features the writing of my BFF Adam Petty, among many other good people.
UPDATE: Brian Bork, the piece’s editor and my dear friend, assures me that he ran all 3100 words, and not the cut version I also offered him. Now that is a commitment to longreads.
I fidgeted a lot about this piece. I worried about the parade of real names in the first paragraph—was I invading the Titusians’ privacy? But without real names, was I reducing them to the identityless specters of blind anecdote? I worried about the fact that when a Christian writer considers a determinedly atheist book within his own terms, it can look like co-opting, no matter how much hesitation you inject into your sentences. I worried that all that hesitation was making the piece boring. I worried about being accused of whitesplaining, though I didn’t worry much, since I’m reviewing Coates’s book, not hogging the microphone at his speech. (This simple distinction is one that users of the various -splaining neologisms don’t always remember.)
Why do I mention all that here? Mostly because it’s so nice to have the piece appear now, when such worries don’t matter. The book came out seven months ago. The world has moved on and nobody except maybe Adam Petty and Matt Hunte gives a shit what I think. Marginality, when it doesn’t also involve oppression, can be quite liberating! So here goes.
Last June, as I read about the Charleston church massacre—the kind of event folks call “senseless,” and perhaps after all are not wrong to do so, because even in spelling out the logical consequences of white supremacy it only finishes insanity’s sentence—I thought of the years I spent as one of the only white faces at St. Titus’ Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. I thought of my friends in the choir, of Ramon, the underpaid and quietly brilliant educator who led us, of Dr. Armstrong, the pediatric heart surgeon who played along on the organ, of Devonte, her son. I thought of the several children who so enjoyed instructing me in the art of giving dap that I played up my ignorance just for them. I thought of Alexine, who, on learning that I was willing to serve on the vestry but had never enjoyed proper Episcopal baptism, volunteered to be my sponsor. I thought of Mrs. Willis, who still sends my wife and me an anniversary card every year, and of Murphy Jenkins, who never forgets a visitor’s name. (He keeps a notepad in his pocket for this very purpose.) I thought of Ms. Spencer, always the face of decorum till someone mentioned a certain tennis player (“My Roger!”), and of Ms. Mack, who taught middle school to several generations of Titusians and who, at 94, still ran vacation Bible school. I thought of Chuck, one of her students and now a beloved middle school teacher himself, who, noticing that a large group of neighborhood children had started attending the service unaccompanied, urged all of us adults to sit with them and welcome them. I thought of Linda, the youngest of those children, who, one week, for the first time actually registered the words of the liturgy—“He suffered death and was buried”—and looked up at me and gasped, “He what?!”
I suppose that I am trying to render these saints—none of them unlikely to be found in that building on a Wednesday night—as vivid in their goodness, their lovability, as I can, as a protest against the ease with which their lives and goods can be taken, their dignity effaced. Black and other writers have pursued such a strategy for centuries. Results are inconclusive. And you run the risk of sentimentality, of reducing black people to dashboard saints. I saw, in my time at that church, plentiful evidence that the Fall has spared no one, alas (ask me about our vestry meetings sometime!). But I also saw lived out what statistics in fact confirm—that there is no demographic group in the United States more devoted to Christ than African Americans. I often wonder how the US church would look if it distributed its great wealth and influence accordingly; if white Christians turned for wisdom to Lucia McBath (Google her if the name’s not familiar) as well as to, say, Oswald Chambers or Anne Lamott. If the megachurches, determined to strengthen ties among members, sought (and paid for) the advice of those who build communities where the world intends only ghettos—Murphy Jenkins would have some tips. If, showing up for some weekend prayer workshop, you encountered, not a white woman with a “certificate in mindfulness,” but Ms. Mack or Doctor Armstrong, who know the world about prayer.
The broadly Christian character of black American life has made a strong impression on Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he has paid it the great compliment of incomprehension. His new book Between the World and Me—and it is a brilliant book, fully deserving of its saturation-level press coverage—is notable, within the canon of African American literature, for its outright refusal of Christian language and comforts. (James Baldwin, who bitterly reviled Christianity as he experienced it, couldn’t leave its music and metaphors alone. Zora Neale Hurston was an atheist, but you’d never know it from Their Eyes Were Watching God. And W.E.B. DuBois, a self-described “heathen,” wrote one of the century’s finest Christian parables in “Jesus Christ in Texas.”) The book, a series of open letters to Coates’s son, is an examination of what it is to bear—he would say to be—a black body in America. In another writer, this emphasis on the body might merely function to save the book from the kind of mollifying abstraction that mars so many official discussions of racism—to remind us, in Coates’s words, that racism “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth … that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” (This brutal passage is also a digest of Coates’s brilliance as a prose stylist. Those parallel subject-verb phrases—cracks bone, breaks teeth—fall like a hail of blows. The pause, “with great violence,” before the final phrase is like a policeman gathering strength for one last ragged kick.)
But Coates’s use of “the body” is a philosophical choice. You are your body; it is all you have. “My understanding of the universe was physical,” he writes, “and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.” In a passage that will shock some readers, he describes the scorn he felt as a schoolboy, sitting through filmstrip after filmstrip of civil-rights marches:
… The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?
Nonviolence makes little sense if all you are is a body—if it is your “one of one,” as Coates puts it. Absent King’s “arc of the universe,” it just looks crazy, as enacted Christianity often does look. (Though I should note that the book consistently conflates several distinct claims: that there is no afterlife; that there is no God; that there is no separable soul; that there is no teleological progress within history. This is no criticism of Coates. Christianity itself in its various forms often conflates these claims.)
All of this makes Coates both a literary and a sociological outlier, as the writer Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out in an excellent series of essays. (Though, full disclosure, I’m biased: Cottom is one of the few people whose conversation I prefer to an even halfway compelling book.) She writes: “From the way we dance … to how we laugh and fight for citizenship—it has all always been tied up in a particular brand of religiosity. Part of that is the focus on the afterlife. The appeal to the ‘by and by,’ the post-corporeal inheritance of earth, and the crown to replace your cross—these form the rhetorical foundations of black hope in literature, life, and politics.” For “black people who don’t church,” she writes, Sunday morning is not only (as King said) “the most segregated hour in America” but also “the loneliest.” You hear some of that loneliness in Coates’s memories of the funeral of his friend, Prince Jones, murdered by police in 2000. (They were looking for a dreadlocked drug dealer. Jones, short-haired and nearly a foot taller, “fit the description.” Black men have a way of fitting descriptions.) At the funeral, as Jones’s friends and family call for forgiveness of the man who not only murdered but, in his attempts at cover up, outrageously slandered their son and brother and friend, Coates feels “great distance from the grieving rituals of my people.”
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. Prince Jones was a one of one, and they had destroyed his body, scorched his shoulders and arms, ripped open his back, mangled lung, kidney, and liver. I sat there feeling myself a heretic, believing only in this one-shot life and the body. For the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones, I did not believe in forgiveness. When the assembled mourners bowed their heads in prayer, I was divided from them because I believed that the void would not answer back.
Coates doesn’t come across in this book as hostile or disrespectful to Christianity as such. That is partly, I suppose, because only a moral idiot could fail to be impressed by some of the Christians who appear in the pages of this book. But it’s also because he is targeting a very different religion: that of “the dream,” which seems to be Coates’s term for the combination of white supremacy and American exceptionalism. He writes, for example, “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” And, much later, he writes of the “forgetting” that is a “necessary component of the Dream”:
They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. … To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
Imagine those words coming over the Fourth of July speakers.
Coates’s attack sticks in part because he admits his own fallibility, wrestling in one chapter with his own youthful sexism and homophobia, his attraction to doctrines of black supremacy. But much of the disturbing power of Coates’s book, and of his writing more generally, comes from his ability to tie white supremacy not only to what is worst in American history, but to what is best:
“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.”
How much of American democracy—which truly is a great and unique historical achievement, the destruction of intra-European class and race distinctions that must have seen as immovable in their time as white supremacy does now—rests on racism? Democracy costs money, for starters. “As slaves, we were this country’s first windfall,” Coates writes. “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when eight percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white.” All of this is bitter in the mouth. Even my hero Marilynne Robinson, who has written beautifully both about the greatness of this achievement and about the snake-in-the-garden persistence of white supremacy among men as good as John Ames and Robert Boughton, has a tendency to write about slavery and racism as exceptions to the democratic rule, rather than as the exceptions that permitted that rule. Perhaps she’s not wrong. Perhaps Europeans, stepping off their different boats, could have learned to see each other as human beings even without positing a second category of person onto which they could project their hatreds and fears. We can’t know; that is another, sweeter history. This one is ours. And Coates sees it pointing insistently at destruction. “The people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of our private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more,” he writes, and, a few pages later, in the book’s last sentence, he sees the rain “coming down in sheets.”
Whether or not the reader fully accepts his larger conclusions—I am not sure how culturally specific is the tendency to destroy the planet—Coates’s book is an incredibly powerful corrosive to those of us for whom the Dream is an active temptation. Consider the much-quoted passage in which Coates and his son Samori visit New York’s Upper West Side:
As we came off [the escalator], you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, “Come on!” Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action. But I was not out on my part of Flatbush. And I was not in West Baltimore. And I was far from The Mecca. I forgot all of that. I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, “I could have you arrested!” I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.
Most white readers will react to this passage more or less as I did: with some combination of righteous anger at that white man and woman and sympathy for Coates and especially Samori. I wanted, frankly, to put that white man’s teeth down his throat. But coming at this point in the book, the passage also forced me to investigate even these reactions, because it is in precisely my shock and anger at the whites’ behavior here that the Dream threatens to reassert itself. First of all because—and pace the inevitable “I’m surprised you’re surprised” chortlers of the internet—racism of this child-shoving kind does surprise me, despite the history of the country in which I live. I can’t name any white women friends (maybe one or two acquaintances) who would shove Samori, or any child, in that way. Statistically, it seems almost certain that I do have such a friend, but I can’t think of any white women of my acquaintance to whom I would quickly attribute such personal ugliness. And that’s the problem. The woman’s meanness is so patent, and so silly, that I might simply fail to register it at all. Whereas Coates’s response to the woman would call up, irresistibly, a lifetime of TV imagery involving public spaces, sudden threats, scary black men. And there’s another piece of this that is almost biological—straight men, as a rule, love a chance to play Sir Galahad. Would I be, in the moment, quick-thinking enough to resist all that programming, in both senses of the word? I have no idea. And I don’t feel safe assuming the most flattering answer.
There are no flattering answers in this book, and little comfort. Nor should there be. I have dwelt, in fact, on Coates’s refusal of the afterlife and its comforts—his, forgive me, coatlessness in the void—because it has the useful effect of throwing into relief the brave absurdity of black Christianity. If one cannot be sure of ever seeing Prince Jones alive again, in any sense of any of those words, then forgiving his murderer is risking more than everything; it is a scandal. I want Christianity, I want me, to be more of a scandal in this sense. The Christian afterlife is not supposed to be a comfort, anyway, and for the freshly aggrieved, it rarely is one. You don’t care that you’ll “see them again”; you want to see them now. If there is an afterlife, it’s a mystery, a sudden upending. It is a subversion of a world in which—as much as we hate and deny death—we also depend on the threat of it to maintain social order.
I thought of all this when I came to the book’s strangest passage, one that I don’t remember seeing discussed in any other review.
I saw Prince Jones, one last time, alive and whole. He was standing in front of me. We were in a museum. I felt in that moment that his death had just been an awful dream. No, a premonition. But I had a chance. I would warn him. … I wanted to tell him something. I wanted to say—Beware the plunderer. But when I opened my mouth, he just shook his head and walked away.
This passage really exists. It’s on page 87. (I had to look it up twice to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.) What on earth to make of it? I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that Coates reneges on his naturalistic worldview here, not one bit. I have no wish to falsely claim Coates for my religion, much as I’d be gratified to see him in the pew any week. Though he doesn’t say so, I am sure that he regards this posthumous encounter (in the body!) as a case of projection, a hopeful misread of a strange face, a what-are-the-odds? run-in with Prince Jones’s double, or a waking dream. Whatever. In any case, it’s just one of life’s little imponderables, like the “voltage conducted through neurons and nerves” that, for Coates, constitute thought. (Science has thus far provided only intelligent-sounding deferrals of the problem of how and when electrical activity gets transmuted into consciousness.) Or, for that matter, like the mere existence of bravery, beauty, and goodness at all, in a world of greed and plunder that bends “nowhere in particular” and “ends in a box.”
But me being who I am, and not who Coates is, I thought of the original, starkly destabilizing end of Mark’s Gospel, in the earliest manuscripts, before someone added that stuff about the snakes: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing.” Trembling and astonishment seized them. The rain falls down in sheets.