Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (II of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (II of III)

II. CONTENT

What is Between the World and Me about? It’s about how, in a bleak, blunt, literal sense Coates treasures the “black body” and urges his son to do the same. He says he learned this lesson from reading, among the many authors he names, (the pre-Hajj?) Malcom X.[1] According to Coates’ interpretation of Malcom, the meaning of life for black people in America is not survival of the fittest but simply survival. The aim of life for Coates is to preserve and protect one’s life, nothing more.

Throughout his book Coates repeatedly mentions, ridicules, and resents “the Dream,” a phrase that functions as a rhetorical device, referring both to Dr. King’s “Dream” speech and the general mythology of the American Dream. For Coates, to mythologize is to dream. To have hope in the face of counterevidence is to dream. [2] Dreaming is but a mental illness that leads to death. Waking life means mental health. These are the lessons he asks his son to learn.

I agree with his use of “the Dream” as a rhetorical device. To me mythology is also a form of dreaming. So is reading, for we are pseudo-conscious while we read and dream (as we learn in the first paragraph of Proust). All I do when I read is try to compare the things that stand out on the page at hand to things that have stood out on previous pages of previously-read books.

So in my reading and in my dreaming, I find the focus on the body as articulated by Coates seems to agree with Martin Buber’s call for humanity to “tend with holy care the holy treasury of our actuality.” [3] It might seem strange to compare (the nearly agnostic?) Buber to the adamantly atheist Coates. Buber has been accused of not regarding the Shoah with enough diligence, while Coates is almost exclusively focused on the consequences of American slavery.[4] But according to my dreams, as writers, both of them are engaged in philosophic anthropology—both strive to obtain a rigorous understanding of human culture. On the other hand Buber, who once declared “nothing can doom man but the belief in doom,” [5] might not have agreed with Coates’ fatalism that while the mind may dream the body can only die.[6]

(go to PART III of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] From Coates:

What did I mean, specifically, by the loss of my body? And if every black body was precious, a one of one, if Malcolm was correct and you must preserve your life, how could I see these precious lives as simply a collective mass, as the amorphous residue of plunder? (Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau. 2015. p. 49.)

[2] In contrast to Cornel West who holds: “I am a prisoner of hope. I can look beyond the evidence and create new evidence. I can make leaps of faith to try to energize and galvanize each and every one.” (“A Grand Tradition of Struggle.” The English Journal. (July 2000.) 39–44 at 44.)

[3] Buber, Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. pp.136–37.

[4] Rubenstein, Richard L. “Martin Buber and the Holocaust: Some Reconsiderations.” New English Review. November 2012. An earlier version of this essay was presented in German at the Buber Centenary Conference in West Germany, 1978, chaired by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Walter Scheel. An earlier English version was published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1979.

[5] Buber, I and Thou. 107.

[6] As Coates writes:

What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself. (Between the World and Me 11–12.)


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