Black Body and Soul

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi often refers to himself and other black people as bodies. The central fear of blacks in America, he says, is and has been that their bodies will be destroyed. The fear pervades both the bravado of black youth and 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 human attributes, parts of the combination that is present in us when we live and that is gone when we die.



Coates surprised me when he argued for the thoroughly bodily nature of spirit and soul. Atheism and materialism are familiar topics to me—this blog is about the history of bodies—but Coates immerses them in a new context. Coates writes of the underside of a subject that I’ve been contemplating mostly from above and from afar.

Coates himself is not entirely comfortable with his reduction of life to the physical, however. He writes to his son, to whom the whole 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)

There is indeed, I think, something in the black church beyond the mere physical that Coates sees and yet overlooks. It is the value of the collective support of believers for each other. Because they call for the sharing of beliefs and rituals, religions have been good for the well-being of their followers. This psychological effect is more than merely physical but certainly less than supernatural. And it characterizes political activism as well. Coates 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). The joy of the shared struggle may be small consolation for pillaged bodies, but for this writer of racial tragedy, it is worth something.

Police Brutality and the Brain

The brutality against Michael Brown, Eric Garner, the prisoners tortured by the CIA, the inmates on Riker’s Island in New York, the noncombatants executed by the Islamic State—I find myself asking the old, naive question, how can people be this brutal to one another?

For these are not the brutalities of one person attacking another to rob or rape or murder. Nor are they the horrors of the battlefield, the war for turf. They are the brutalities of members of dominant groups who already exert control over apparent violators or actual captives. This brutality is not a power struggle. Power has already been achieved, or so it seems. So why the brutality?

Many believe that it comes from the dark side of disturbed cops or fanatical ideologues or even humanity itself, the fury of our animal brain that killed to eat or defend itself. The implication of such a diagnosis is that if we were better managed or trained or screened or socialized, the demons might step back. But the dynamics behind coercive brutality seem to be not so simple and not so correctable.

A helpful book is Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma by Malcolm D. Holmes and Brad W. Smith (2008). Their thesis is that police brutality is rooted in our emotions about groups, our own and others, as well as in our aggressiveness.

Tension (


Holmes and Smith point out that it is difficult to imagine two groups more opposite from each other than a group of police officers on patrol and the minority residents of the neighborhood they are patrolling. The police see themselves as safeguarding society from its worst elements, with the tacit approval of law-abiding citizens. The residents of the ghetto or barrio believe that most of those citizens are biased against them and that they, the residents, are trying to hold the line against oppression.  Both groups have grown up learning the stereotypes of the other, heard the tales of violence, and learned the signs of danger (the weapon, the uniform). “The police and minority groups members see one another as ongoing threats. They both believe that the other is a danger to them.”

“These subjective perceptions of danger reaffirm group identity and reinforce group cohesion” (502). Here is the essential situation that underlies each particular stand-off on the street: all humans are attached to, and quick to defend, the groups they belong to. Tightly knit, organized groups are a unique human achievement. They evolved over several million years when the more casual linkages among earlier primates were no longer adequate for finding food and protection. Our brains evolved to provide nuanced social emotions such as loyalty to hold groups together and prompt them to organize. The result is football teams and nations, businesses and religion. And universally, people have the same basic emotions about groups: they favor members of their own and denigrate and often dehumanize members of competing or opposing ones.

So a police patrol in a minority neighborhood is a situation deeply primed for violence. It is surprising that it does not explode more often than it does. Police are restrained not only by regulations about excessive force but also by the risk of losing control of a tense situation. So what is it that finally triggers a gun shot or a chokehold?

It is the sequence of aggression. Smith and Holmes describe two types of aggression, and brutality results when one follows the other. Emotional aggression is immediate, passionate. It is a lashing out that arises from a surge of fear, anger, or frustration. The other type of aggression is instrumental—aggression that achieves a purpose. An assassin may calmly kill for pay. A husband may beat his wife in order to establish dominance.

On the street, in the heat of the moment, a police officer who feels threatened, who thinks he or she sees a weapon, feels a surge of aggression towards a man who is arguing. A few seconds or minutes pass by and the impulse may dissipate. Or, on the other hand, it may strengthen; roughing up the guy may serve a purpose; it may, in the mind of the officer, reestablish authority at the scene, defend the status of the police, dispense “justice” that the courts failed to deliver, or send a message to the community (1644). Brutality results.

When we think of coercive brutality, we usually picture two individuals—Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, a prisoner and his CIA tormenter, the hooded ISIL figure and the kneeling victim. But it is really the ingroups and the outgroups that are at work more than autonomous individuals. We are passionate about the rightness of our own groups and callous about the ones that challenge ours. Ingroups are a triumph of the human mind, one of the jewels of evolution, but when the tension is high, when a figure looks threatening and there might be a weapon, when violence seems justifiable, brutality happens.

“The reckless, the degraded, and the vicious”: Was Darwin a Bigot?

If you’ve generally felt positive about whatever you know about evolution and natural selection and Charles Darwin, you might want to take a deep breath before reading this passage:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The passage is from the fifth chapter of The Descent of Man, published in 1871. The scientist who so impresses me with his vision of the common struggles of all species, humans included, sounds like a hard-core racist here. The comparison to animals reinforces the impression. The final two sentences seem horribly emphatic. The Social Darwinist movement that grew from Darwin’s ideas, a movement that fostered both American sterilization of the mentally deficient and the Nazi genocide, seems to have taken its cue directly from the great scientist himself. Lots has been written to defend Darwin here; his contemptuous attitude was characteristic of his social class at that time, and so forth. But still.

North Carolina, 1950. Board approval for the sterilization of a "feebleminded" woman. (

1950, North Carolina. Board approval for the sterilization of a “feebleminded” woman. What would Darwin say?

But if we look more closely at the chapter where the passage appears, we might feel, if not comfortable with it, at least less revolted. The second and third sentences—about medicine, asylums and other social efforts to help the poor and ill—are part of Darwin’s argument throughout the chapter that human sociability, inherited from animals, is the foundation of our most civilized achievements, including human closeness, compassion, and morality. And a few sentences after the passage above, Darwin writes, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent [possible, uncertain] benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.” In other words, we would lose more—our morals—by abandoning our scruples and ignoring those who suffer than we might gain by reducing the numbers of the poor and sick.

Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, "If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind."

Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”

This point certainly has relevance today. Think of the debates over whether government should actively help the poor or whether, on the other hand, it should assist as little as possible and let the poor sink or swim. Darwin’s position would probably be that even at the risk of encouraging some dependence on government, in the long run our society will benefit the most—will “advance” the most—by acting compassionately.

Still, there is a problem. Among all species, Darwin argued, evolution favors those who have the greatest number of surviving offspring. It’s a matter of hard numbers. Among the people who live in “civilized societies,” those who are poor and “reckless” marry earlier and collectively have more children than members of the higher, “virtuous” classes who are careful of their resources, marry later and have smaller families. So, why haven’t the children of the poor taken over society?

Because, Darwin wrote, natural selection is not the only force at work. It is “checked”—modified—in many ways. The offspring of the poor are fewer than one might expect for several reasons.   The poor die young, relatively speaking, especially if they are unmarried males or if they migrate to the living conditions in cities. And although many of the poor have large families, those who are very, very poor have few children.

So Darwin understood that the issue of what to do about people in poor mental and physical health was complex. The consequences of moral inaction are real. And biological propagation among humans in different social classes is not easy to predict. He wrote, “Development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only tentatively.”

Darwin’s controversial passage is shocking, I think, because he is describing the tension over whether and how to assist the unfortunate in the sharpest and starkest terms. On the whole, I don’t think the debate has shifted fundamentally. We agree with Darwin that high rates of poverty and disability are “highly injurious” to humanity in that any nation with such conditions is a degraded and dismal place to live. And like Darwin, we feel that the moral imperative for social action, despite  imperfect results, is not one we can permanently ignore.