The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 4, A Body More Fragile

For me, the most powerful parts of Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me were his reflections upon the vulnerability and fragility of the human body.

Specifically, throughout Between the World and Me oppression, inequity and injustice are consistently described as the degree to which some bodies more than others are exposed to violence and risk. Injustice is this uneven exposure of bodies to harm and death.

For example, reflecting on growing up in West Baltimore Coates writes (p. 17):
To 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. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy...
And later in the book Coates writes to his son (p. 137):
 "[Y]ou are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country."
That's a notion that I think a lot of white people might struggle to get their head around. What does it mean that the body of a healthy black teenager is "more fragile" than any other body in the country?

In the book Coates shares a powerful story that illustrates a part of what he's talking about. In the story Coates had taken his son, who was about five years old, to a movie at a theater on the Upper West Side, a rich part of New York City. After the movie father and son were descending a crowded escalator. Coates's son was moving slower than the rest, a child struggling to keep pace with the adults. And a white women, impatient with his pace, pushed the boy and said, "Come on!'

Coates's temper flared, as every parent can can identify with if a stranger pushed your kid right in front of you. Coates turned and confronted the woman. A crowd gathered and a white man began to yell at Coates, "I could have you arrested!"

As Coates reflects on this event what he's most ashamed of is the error he made. And what error would that be? The error of a black man confronting a white woman in public on the Upper West Side. Coates's reflection, speaking to his son (p. 95):
[M]y greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.

"I could have you arrested," he said...I had forgotten the rules, an error as dangerous on the Upper Wide Side of Manhattan as on the Westside of Baltimore. One must be without error out here. Walk in a single file. Work quietly. Pick an extra number 2 pencil. Make no mistakes.

But you are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn't. Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson--not even Jackie Robinson was always like Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you that it is for your countrymen...

...I am ashamed of how I acted that day, ashamed of endangering your body. But I am not ashamed because I'm a bad father, a bad individual or ill mannered. I am ashamed that I made an error, knowing our errors always cost us more.
I don't know if this story will help people in white America gain some empathy for the outrage expressed within the black community over that many incidents that took place over the last year, to say nothing of all the years before. But I found the story very helpful. The issue isn't if in any given situation the black person did or did not "make a mistake." They very well might have made a mistake. As Coates notes, we are all human and we will all make mistakes.

So the issue isn't the mistake, the issue is the uneven cost of the mistakes. And the fact that the cost can be death. A black person making a small mistake--running away, refusing to get out of a car, yelling, stepping away, non-aggressively refusing to obey an order--with white people at the wrong time and place can be lethal. This is a part of what Coates means when he says that black bodies are "more fragile than any other in this country."

Compounding the cost of the mistake, as mentioned in the first post in this series, is that Coates doesn't share the Christian eschatological imagination, doesn't believe in the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the dead. Our body is the only lifeboat we have. The loss of our body is final and irreversible. Once dead the body gets no second chances. And for Coates this is what makes each body so valuable (p. 103):
The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible--that is precisely why they are so precious.
Elsewhere Coates describes the body as a sacred vessel filled with "holy contents," the love, time, care and affection parents, friends and community pour into a body. The body is intrinsically precious, given its biological precariousness, but so are the "holy contents" each body carries. A body carries all the love and care that has been poured into it. Thus the deep and tragic loss when a body is broken and its sacred and irreplaceable contents--the blood along with the freight of love--are spilled onto the ground.

Thus the moral scandal that our society is so organized that some bodies are exposed to harm, injury and death more than other bodies. The scandal that some bodies are more fragile that other bodies. That some bodies--precious and breakable--are placed by society closer to the edge of the table where they are at greater risk to fall, shatter and be lost forever.

Incidentally, how Coates's atheism affects his view of the body is a part of the reason he struggles with the non-violent witness of the American Civil Rights movement. A view which is related to the pessimistic tone the book. Specifically, if there is no guarantee that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice and no hope for resurrection, why would you allow your precious, irreplaceable body to be beaten and placed at risk of death? Why would you give your one and only body to save America, especially given how America has treated you? Why take a beating to save a bully? This is why Coates encourages his son to keep his body clear of the fight. It's too precious to be lost, even in the struggle for justice.

This isn't the place to adjudicate these questions, but I did want to raise the issue. As many Christian thinkers have noted, non-violence flows out of an eschatological imagination. So if you lack or reject that imagination Coates makes a powerful point: Why waste your one and only body to save or convert your oppressor?

On that question Coates and Christianity may part ways. But it should also be noted that there are places in Between the World and Me where Coates expresses admiration, while still perplexed, for the capacities faith creates.

And while there may be important points of contrast here, I do believe Christians will resonate with Coates's claim that being close to our frailty and vulnerability is the route to claiming and recovering our humanity. If anything can convert white America it will be in confronting and embracing our shared vulnerability. In what I think is one of the most theologically profound passages of the book Coates writes to his son (p. 107):
Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerabilities become real--when the police decide that tactics for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities--they are shocked in a way those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast in a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.
If you've read any of my three books you know I've written a great deal about this connection, about how a "denial of death"--living as if we are immortal--is associated with a "denial of the body," a lack of empathy for human frailty, weakness and vulnerability. This is why some bodies are pushed out of public view. Black bodies. Aged bodies. Handicapped bodies. Malformed bodies. We lack empathy for these bodies, we blame them for their failures as bodies, because they remind us that we also have a body, that we are not angels, that we are not gods.

In short, there is a connection between love and vulnerability. This is why the kingdom of God is always found among "the least of these." The kingdom is found among those whose bodies are more fragile not because these bodies are more virtuous, holy or saintly. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.

No, the kingdom of God is found among those whose bodies are more fragile because, as Coates writes, vulnerability brings us closer to the meaning of life which, for Christians, means closer to the meaning of love.

Part 5

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