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.