Locating ‘The Black Body’ in Class & in History: What Ta-Nehisi Coates took from Richard Wright

Since appearing last summer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me has sparked enthusiastic discussion, from Democracy Now! to the Daily Show, from The Atlantic to Facebook, from classrooms and hallways to street corners and barbershops.  The text has become a NYT #1 best-seller, has now won the National Book Award for non-fiction, and has no doubt been largely responsible for earning its author a prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant.

Among the many questions being widely discussed is one of literary lineage:  Is Ta-Nehisi Coates the new James Baldwin?

Toni Morrison prompted this question with an exuberant back cover blurb, perhaps singlehandedly guaranteeing that Between the World And Me would climb the best-sellers list.  As Morrison wrote, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” adding, “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates…This is required reading.” Cornell West promptly contradicted the Nobel Laureate, posting a “blistering takedown” of Coates on Facebook.  Writing “In defense of James Baldwin”—perhaps a bit hastily—West ran down a list of the stark differences between the two writers, offering sharp criticism of Morrison, and by implication of the black cultural leadership class in general, for allowing a mere “wordsmith with journalistic talent” to be crowned as Baldwin’s heir.  The Morrison-West kerfuffle was then quickly joined by Michael Eric Dyson, whose essay in the Atlantic ,“Between the World and Me:  Baldwin’s Heir?”, answers the question affirmatively, while granting Coates his own unique voice and taking a few characteristic shots at West along the way. Others have joined the debate since.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, for her part, in a sympathetic but critical review of Between the World and Me for the NYT, articulated her core critique of Coates by repeatedly citing Baldwin against him. “Like Baldwin,” she wrote, “I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human btwnworldbeing or society to become just or moral [as Coates does]; we must believe it is possible.”  As she added, “Believing in this possibility — no matter how slim — and dedicating oneself to playing a meaningful role in the struggle to make it a reality focuses one’s energy and attention in an unusual way.”

We will return to the substance of Alexander’s criticism— and to the question of Coates’ ‘pessimism’—soon enough.  For now, the basic point is that even those criticizing Coates are doing so via Baldwin.

It is not my intention in this essay to resolve the question of whether Coates is “the new James Baldwin.”  I would rather like to question this question, problematizing the premise on which it rests.

For whether they agree with the likening (Morrison and Dyson) or disagree with it (West and Alexander), it has been largely taken for granted that the proper touchstone of comparison with Ta-Nehisi Coates should be, in fact, James Baldwin.  No doubt there are reasons for this beyond Morrison’s back-cover blurb.  But whatever the reasons, there are also problems with situating Coates narrowly as  a kind of ‘new Baldwin.’

For starters, this frame has prevented us from seeing Coates in relationship to another key black radical literary forebear whose imprint is all over Between the World and Me, beginning with its very title.  This title comes not from James Baldwin, but from Baldwin’s crucial predecessor, Richard Wright.  And yet to date, Wright’s name has been largely absent from the unfolding debates around Coates’ literary accomplishment.

Perhaps it is time to change that.


Between “Between the World and Me” and Between the World and Me

We are not revealing some hidden secret. Coates acknowledges his title-debt to Wright at the get-go, excerpting the opening of Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me,” as the epigraph to his own blistering epistle:

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,  /Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by the scaly oaks and else. / And soon the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me…

“The thing” encountered in Wright’s poem is the skeletal remains of one who has recently been lynched.  The “sooty details of the scene” include the human remnants of that lynching, from the charred clothes and bleached bones of the lynched to the cigarette butts, peanut shells, and used lipstick of those would-be whites who have made this murder scene into a site of celebration.

Wright’s solitary speaker “stumbles” upon the aftermath of the killing, and in contemplating the scene, comes to identify—quite literally—with the murder victim. “Through the morning air the sun poured yellow surprise into the eye sockets of a stony skull,” our speaker states, and, by staring at the skull, he becomes “frozen with a cold pity for the life that was gone.”  In a surreal moment, he is sucked into the scene he contemplates, transformed into the victim on the verge of lynching, relaying to us a vision of the horrid deed; he is tarred, feathered, and burnt alive.

Reduced to bones before the murderous smiles of the lynch mob, the speaker offers a reversed version of the earlier eye-socket line, “Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in yellow surprise at the sun.”  Through the text, Wright suggests how such ‘things’ viscerally affect not only those killed but those who must view their remains, and live on, haunted by the ghastly aftermath.  Indeed, even prior to the imaginary merging of the living speaker with the dead victim, Wright suggests the way that the living material world is colored by the knowledge of the violence that haunts it.  “There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt finger accusingly at the sky,” he writes, near the start of the poem.  “There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves (emphasis added).”  The natural world here takes on the features of the body that has been lynched; the slain victim is personified in the scene that has taken his life, just as the living speaker is petrified, reduced to object status through his imaginary identification with the victim of that scene.

Wright’s poem emphasizes how the living world appears transformed in the shadow of spectacular racial violence; objects are brought to life, and living people reduced to petrified objects. “Between the World and Me” is thus not only a poem exposing the brutality of lynching, but a poem about how engrossing and paralyzing it can be to “stumble suddenly” upon such a horrifying “thing.” In Wright’s depiction, such violent scenes threaten to strip life not only from the slain, but from those still breathing as well. The speaker ends the poem literally petrified, lacking a sense of what can or should be done, without a grasp of how such things come to be.

It is not difficult to see connections between Wright’s poem and the best-selling, award-winning book that now bears its name.  Coates’ Between the World and Me is similarly anchored in a scene of brutal racist violence “stumbled” upon by a newly initiated black subject, namely by Ta-Nehisi’s his own son, Samori Coates.  The book opens by recounting Samori’s distraught response to the killing of Michael Brown, or, more precisely, the televised announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for Brown’s murder. Indeed, Coates’ own dilemma as a black father in this moment—to console or not to console his son, in light of his simultaneous desire to protect and to enlighten him in the face of the prevailing social conditions—sets the tone for much of the book.

A second example of what Wright calls “the thing” lies at the origin of the book itself: the killing of Coates’ Howard University classmate Prince Jones at the hands of the Prince County Police Department, an event which Coates recalls reading about in the papers during the very moment when he himself had just become a new father.  Between the World and Me (BTWM) is thus a text whose opening and whose origin both center on such brutal scenes “stumbled upon,” a book haunted and shaped by the vulnerability of the black body that such “things” imply.

The Black Body”?

The “pillaged” black body and its long shadow is arguably the central unifying trope of Coates’ best-seller. It serves a dual purpose; it both captures the immediacy—what Coates calls the “visceral” experience— of racism and white supremacy, and simultaneously offers a metaphoric means of projecting this visceral immediacy into a more general account of American history and society.  Between the World and Me thus emphasizes how the “destruction of the black body,” far from being a mere string of isolated instances, expresses the root nature of a rotten society.

(The example of Tamir Rice looms large as this essay goes to print.)

For Coates the American economic and political systems appear inseparable from the systematic destruction and exclusion of black bodies. This “pillaging” is not just a series of bumps in the road of American prosperity, as Coates put it in an extended Daily Show interview; this destruction constitutes the road itself.  In this sense, contemplating the corpses of black victims of state-sanctioned violence becomes a lesson in not just localized corruption or individual cop racism, but in the very nature of the American political-economic system. The site of “the thing” stumbled upon becomes a privileged site of study, the particular horror from which the general history can be extrapolated. It is the singular site from which son Samori can and must begin to grasp the nature of American society.

But of course it is not just Samori Coates being addressed here.  Samori’s distressed—even despairing— position, ‘stumbling’ upon the desecrated black body of Michael Brown (via TV) offers a point of access for many of Coates’ readers.  Samori here represents a potential point of identification for many many people across the US: all those who have been shocked and horrified at the recent string of publicized cases where American cops have ended the lives of unarmed black people, often with legal impunity, from Tamir Rice to Eric Garner to Sandra Bland and beyond.

Coates’ book in a way works to peel back the contradiction in this horrified position. For righteous as such horror may be, the surprised, shocked state Samori (or the Samori-aligned reader) occupies is also a naive position, a position that has not yet come to see this destruction of black bodies as a predictable—or even an inevitable—consequence of how the American system ‘works.’  Such a position implies a persistent belief in a myth of ‘America the Free and Equal.’

Meditation on the black body and its pillaging thus becomes in Between the World and Me a kind of symbolic key to unlock the painful truths of America and the horror of its history. Coates aims to move his readers from shock and horror at the particular stolen bodies of individual black people to a critique of American history itself as one long pillaging, and of dominant American ideology as a kind of Dream that forever aims to cover over this undeniable reality. Between the World and Me seeks to illuminate American society by the light of its lynchings. All this amounts to a profound provocation.

And yet a third, more problematic effect of Coates’ use of the trope of “the pillaged black body” is that it tends to conflate the situation of very different black bodies: that of Michael Brown (resident of a poverty-stricken, police-occupied working-class black exurb of a post-industrial US city) and that of Prince Jones (college-educated member of the black upper middle class, “mistaken” for a “criminal” by a police force serving a wealthy black suburb).  There is powerful poetry in the way that Brown and Jones become merged into a kind of synecdoche for the oppression of Black people in America more generally.  However, this visceral immediacy—and the extrapolation from this immediacy—tends to strip police violence of a crucial explanatory dimension by suppressing consideration of the very different geographic, and class positions that different victims occupy. The danger of losing site of this social class dimension of racist violence was one that Richard Wright was well aware of.  (Part to of this Red Wedge essay will explore this further.)

Back to Wright: the traumatic teachings of racial violence

Certainly on one level, Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me” can be read as a narrative of revelation, with a formerly uninitiated speaker or reader—someone who does not yet know the full meaning of what it means to be “black” in a white supremacist society—“stumbling” into brutal knowledge of lynching and its petrifying implications.  The subject of the poem here learns a vital and violent lesson about the world in which he lives—as does the reader beside him.  Wright’s black speaker is compelled to reimagine his own life and the world at large from the standpoint of the lynching victim, as if he were looking out from the eye-sockets of a scorched skull.

And yet, at the same time, the subject of the poem is not so much learning about the world as he is shocked into a kind of paralyzed fixation upon its violence.  The spectacle of death creates a kind of frozenness in life.  If the violent scene stumbled upon is the forced entry point for knowledge of the world, it is also presented by Wright as forming a barrier between the world and the speaker.

Crucially, the barrier here is not just the repressive barrier of white supremacist  violence—placing a barrier between “whites” and “blacks” and between Black people and their freedom and equality— but also the epistemological and psychological barrier created by the shock of being confronted with such brutal violence in the first place.  The barrier here is not just objective, but also subjective.  It is not just something *external* to the black subject, but *internal* to that subject: a barrier between experiencing (or witnessing) terror and grasping its meaning.

Thus, for Wright, the scene of “the thing” is a doubly dangerous pedagogical place.  The spectacular violence of the recollected lynch mob ‘teaches’ the speaker his ‘place’ within Jim Crow society, but it also threatens to replace his living eyes with the empty sockets of a skull.  The sudden encounter with a scene of brutal mob violence, while it does indeed present a new site of experience, one that sheds a terrible light over the world itself, does not in itself offer the speaker a way to grasp that world or its violence; indeed the very all-subsuming, petrifying immediacy of the scene threatens to make such critical reflection more difficult, even impossible, as the horrific scene threatens to pull the speaker-observer into a kind of petrified imagined identity with the slaughtered skull he looks on.  Wright’s “Between the World and Me” is thus a poem that ends in stasis rather than movement, with the “frozen” speaker assuming the standpoint of the corpse he has stumbled upon. Staring at the “stony skull” threatens to turn the subject himself to stone.

Published in 1935, Wright’s “Between the World and Me” represented the beginning and not the end of Wright’s critical and creative engagement with the force and fear-bound position of the black body—and black subjectivity—within American society.  For Wright, this project would be mediated by not only the historical conditions of the Great Depression, Jim Crow, and the rise of international fascism, but the political and cultural space made available by the existence of a militant class-conscious labor movement, and by an active international Communist Party, in whose literary magazines these early writings first appeared.  Across the range of his major works, including especially Uncle Tom’s Children (1938/40), Native Son (1940), Twelve Million Black Voices (1945), and Black Boy/American Hunger (1945/77), Wright would insist in many registers that racial violence needed to be seen in relationship to the project of class exploitation and class struggle, just as he would insist that focusing on economic class issues without attending to white chauvinism and racism would leave the movement for freedom half-blind, and the world’s toiling masses in chains. Indeed, even at the moment he penned the poem that Coates excerpts, Wright was already insisting that the scene of lynch mob terror he dramatized in “Between the World and Me” needed to be seen in relationship to the domination of capitalism, for reasons historical, political, and existential.  As we will see in my next piece, considering these early writings of Wright sheds fresh light on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ breakthrough volume.