Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press, 2015)
A Body, Undone: Living on after Great Pain by Christina Crosby (New York University Press, 2016)
SON,” HE BEGINS. “LAST SUNDAY the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his second book, Between the World and Me, indicts many Americans, specifically those who believe they are white, for their willful ignorance of our country’s racist history and an unflinching commitment to what he calls the Dream. (Coates explains whiteness not as an intrinsic quality or even a description of skin tone but as a myth, a construction convenient for and foundational to promoting racist American ideologies.) While he could have begun his narrative with any number of questions, images, or metaphors, he chooses to start with the body. For Coates, a self-proclaimed atheist, the body is the first and the last. “I have no God to hold me up,” he writes. “And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything.” To lose the body is to lose consciousness, the soul, everything, forever. For him, there is no second chance, no reincarnation, no forgiveness, no resurrection.
Coates does not hesitate. He is a father speaking with authority and intention and a fear for his child that floods his words with power and trembling. The book is addressed to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori, to whom he explains, “before you, I had…nothing beyond my own skin in the game.” Something unmistakably sacred is at work as the father sends his dearly beloved son out into the world, a world that the father knows will try to destroy the son and shatter his black body.
On the one hand, this cultural moment couldn’t be more ripe for a book about America’s crisis of racism. On the other, a post–Civil Rights–era racial fatigue permeates the atmosphere as many “white” Americans plead weariness of conversations about race and its corresponding media coverage. These same citizens—whom Coates calls dreamers—often proclaim a post-racial society, longing for some utopic vision of a color-blind meritocracy that sanctions tuning out and turning away.
Like his first book, The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir published in 2008, Between the World and Me is highly lyrical, with language that awakens the senses. But unlike his first, Coates’s new book relies primarily on just a few central images and metaphors. Resisting overly theoretical jargon, he wants to pull back the curtain, to avoid heaping language upon language: “[A]ll our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” He goes on, “You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” He asks us to see what America has done to bodies like his own, to consider the visceral reality of each of these bodies.
While attending a memorial service at Howard University for his friend Prince Carmen Jones, who was a “good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good,” he recalls people weeping and speaking of Prince’s “religious zeal.” Prince was a father, engaged to be married, and a few months shy of his college graduation. He had been unarmed, twenty-five, black. It is the year 2000, well over a decade before the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile—the list goes on and on. Coates is angered, frustrated, and grieved on behalf of Prince but also on behalf of all the others who have come before and after, for the violence is not random or merely coincidental. He insists, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” What’s more is that America presumes itself to be “God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.” He draws a disturbing link between the often warped but dominant Christian belief in the spirit and soul—the “unknowable hereafter”—and its complicity in the destruction of black bodies.
Coates’s privileging of the body may run counter to many faith traditions for its apparent disregard for the eternal. Yet the idea of being without body is entirely foreign to us, even impossible to grasp. For we cannot imagine away our bodies any more than we can imagine away air or the earth or each other. On the one hand, Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Yet how many times do we turn to the notion of the afterlife, envision the dead in a “better place,” or pronounce that justice will be served in the End simply to palliate the racialized violence and brutal injustices in America today? Coates is not interested in criticizing the believer, but the accusation is implicit: “You must never look away from this.” He insists that too many people, believers included, have chosen to turn away from the body, the black body in particular. They have not chosen to see; they have not chosen to hear. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Early in the book, Coates describes “the most gorgeous dream. […] It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. […] The Dream smells like peppermint and tastes like strawberry shortcake.” To his son, he explains, “the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” The Dream is pure delusion, and I can attest to the fact that it tastes sweet and is so very beautiful. The Dream allows me to willfully turn away from all that is ugly or frightening or seemingly unstoppable. To turn away from the unavoidable and confounding sense of obligation that one experiences as a human when faced with violence against another human. The Dream does everything to validate a self-satisfying present, to maintain the status quo, to forget that Christ says, Take up your cross—that the cross was a mockery, total humiliation. To forget that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, the incarnation trumping every God-act that came before it. To forget just how much emphasis the gospels place on Jesus’s heightened, perfect attention to bodies—healing them, touching them, spitting and making mud for their eyes, blessing them, feeding them, giving them wine to drink and fish to eat, reclining and teaching and praying among them, making eye contact, saying their names. And then the words: Follow me.
Though he may balk at the comparison, like the Apostle Paul, Coates brings us back to the struggle. While Paul says the struggle is not against flesh and blood, Coates argues that “our world is physical.” While Paul says we are not citizens of this world, Coates says that the “Dream persists.” Coates struggles all the way from the streets of the Baltimore of his youth to the open spaces of Howard University, which he devotedly calls the Mecca, to libraries housing the heavy tomes of activists and poets and philosophers, to the pulsing cities of New York and Paris.
About the church he writes, “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.” But, he posits, “The struggle is really all I have for you because it’s the only portion of this world under your control.”
The atheist’s primary question is not unlike the believer’s: How do I live? How do I “live free”? How should one live? Coates, fiercely loving father that he is, exhorts us to consider the body, the atheist’s body, as we ask.
At the close of her ninth book, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson challenges this notion that there is nothing beyond the body. “But is there really such a thing as nothing, as nothingness?” she asks. Her title recalls a paradox in the ship from Greek mythology that changes all of its physical parts over time but retains its name, the Argo. Whether implicit or explicit, Nelson’s questions are not merely for the atheist or agnostic; they confound the mind of the believer as well. When the physical body ends—or changes—what, if anything, remains? In other words, despite appearances, is there some essential part of the self? “I don’t know,” Nelson responds to her question about nothingness. “I know we’re still here…ablaze with care.”
Like so much of Nelson’s work, this book is difficult to classify. Described by her publisher, Graywolf, as “autotheory,” it resists categorization. On the opening page alone, Nelson integrates quotes from her lover and partner Harry Dodge, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, an encyclopedia, and the memory of herself tumbling out I love you in the middle of a sexual encounter, her “face smashed against the cement floor of [Harry’s] dank and charming bachelor pad.” She moves with incredible ease in many registers: from the language of her personal life, of giddy love, of abounding happiness in the presence of her child to the borrowed voices of philosophers and theorists to frank discussions of the sexually explicit to the avant-garde, the irreverent, the political.
Nelson and her beloved Harry emerge as the text’s central figures as she grounds her reflections in her description of their changing bodies. Harry, who is “neither male nor female” and “more than a perfect match” for her, begins injecting testosterone to shrink the uterus while Nelson tries to get pregnant by watchfully preparing her womb for a baby. Once Nelson is pregnant and Harry finally has top surgery, she describes how “On the surface, it may have seemed as though [Harry’s] body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female.’ But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness.” Nelson makes it clear that such transformations are not only internal (as opposed to merely external) but ongoing and impossible to pin down—she borrows Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “becoming.” This moment is not the first time that Nelson’s relentless precision—her resistance to repackaging her experience to fit preconceived expectations—reminds the reader just how nuanced, intricate, and particular a self, and an other, actually are.
If Coates evokes the atheist’s body, then Nelson offers us the queer body. She frequently cites theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose use of “queer” she describes this way: “She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder—a nominative…willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip.” Queer was meant to be an expression of the inexpressible and to encompass more than one’s sexuality. For Nelson and Sedgwick, the body is expansive, uncategorizable, always more than one thing, which follows the belief that “no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.” Take the pregnant body, for instance. Nelson implies that a pregnant body can also be read as a queer body, which allows us to see the body’s fluid nature—a “twofer,” she calls it. Nelson posits that the pregnant body “pump[s] out static, static that disrupts our usual perception of an other as a single other. The static of facing not one, but also not two.” Where does the mother begin and the child end? Who is growing whom? Another paradox incarnate.
Throughout The Argonauts, Nelson reminds readers that such paradox is what animates the body. Nelson writes neither male nor female and not one but not two. Take it a step further and you get not one but not three, a paradox familiar to the Christian. For the believer, paradoxes like this one are intrinsic to the bedrock of our faith. After all, the incarnation of Jesus’s physical body makes him fully man but also fully God. While standing in front of a crowd, he says, Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. And then there is the resurrected body—Put your finger here, and see my hands. The concepts confound. How does the body intersect with the eternal? How is Christ both God and man? And yet there it is—a historical Jesus with a body, a triune being, the promise of an everlasting hereafter.
Early on, Nelson borrows from Roland Barthes and his discussion of the Argonauts: “Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as ‘the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’” For Nelson, the task at hand is perpetual renewal, and the queer body invites us into a better understanding of such becoming. In this manner, The Argonauts’ queer bodies make paradox more legible, thus challenging believers to see the body in all of its complexity, its “molten or shifting parts.” Nelson conjures these new inflections for the queer body. It is up to us to conjure new inflections for the Body of Christ—O holy Paradox—and the body of Christ, you and I, the opposite of nothingness.
In 2003, Christina Crosby, chair of the faculty at Wesleyan University, was on her usual bike ride when a branch caught in her front wheel and she smashed, chin first, into the pavement. Broken vertebrae rendered her a quadriplegic at the age of fifty with a body “that seemed beyond the reach of language.” So opens her memoir A Body, Undone: Living on after Great Pain. She goes on to describe her constant, inexplicable pain, how she lives in “a neurological storm—it’s electric, even now sometimes violent enough to be overwhelming, and certainly endless enough to be horrifying.” In elegant and precise prose, she discusses her bowels as easily as she reflects on the joyful sex life she’d once shared with her partner Janet, and her present loneliness alongside memories of her athletic youth. Neither bitter nor saintly, Crosby is not interested in framing her catastrophic injury as a conduit for lessons learned—or in wallowing in regret. For Crosby has not written a book of confession or inspiration but a book of witness.
She bears witness to her body because she believes “that living in extremis can clarify what is often obscure.” She writes not to find “a way out, but a way into the impossible dilemmas of not-knowing.” In extremis. In the farthest reaches; at the point of death. Upon comprehending the severity of her accident, Crosby feels as though she has been split in two. Throughout the text she writes of the bodymind, what she sees as “the whole person…together.” The accident left Crosby with two selves, but she does not delineate between them as mind versus body. Instead, she sees herself as one bodymind before and another bodymind after. As opposed to the division of self understood as the mind-body problem, she reveals that the problem is just how inseparable the mind is from the body. She describes her difficulty in articulating this pairing: “There are 108 single-word prepositions in the English language, and none is adequate to representing the relation of mind to body…. I am thinking in my body, as my body, through my body, of my body, about my body….” Despite this difficulty, Crosby’s account of the myriad changes incurred in and through and as her body reminds readers of how nothing is extricable from our physicality.
As her body changes, Crosby uses her literary and intellectually trained mind to discuss paralysis and its ongoing effect on her gender and sexuality. (Reading Nelson’s The Argonauts alongside Crosby creates a lovely triangulation in this respect, as the two authors approach overlapping ground in unique ways; they also write briefly about each other and their lasting friendship.) Crosby moves nimbly between the past and present as she cites Victorian literature, psychoanalysis, feminist and queer thinking, disability studies, the Anabaptist faith tradition of her parents, gender theory, racialized histories, socioeconomic inequalities, lesbian sexuality, her own privilege, her beloved dogs, and the list could go on.
Crosby’s witness is comparative rather than chronological. While grieving the loss of her independence and once robust health, she appears to take delight in returning to memories from when she felt herself “strong, competent, and desirable.” She spins out effortless passages that describe her confidently cycling uphill, playing catch as a child with her brother and father in central Pennsylvania, dressing up and going out with Janet. Juxtaposed to vivid descriptions of her now constant pain—electrical and burning yet perpetually cold—the past speaks of vast possibility and gratitude while the present speaks of tedium and an entirely different kind of gratitude, one mixed with deep trepidation. For example, Crosby writes about her childhood fantasy of being like her brother Jeff—a desire filled with longing and some frustration. But following her accident, when she begins to mirror the quadriplegia that had gradually overtaken Jeff’s body due to MS, she wonders if she’s entered into a horror narrative.
Her examination of the past and present invariably leads to the future, one that terrifies her. Having rejected the faith tradition of her parents, Crosby does not look past death to the unknowable hereafter. The near future is unknowable enough. She describes her fear as “not retrospective, incessantly returning to the accident that so wrecked my life, but prospective. Something horrible awaits—the future. Life will go on, day after day, until I die…. I fear not death, but living.” Suspended between the impossibility of forgetting the past and the need to forget that past in order to live on, Crosby must make her choice daily. She writes, “I am no longer what I once was—yet come to think of it, neither are you.” She reminds us that while the struggle is hers alone, “we are much more profoundly interdependent creatures than we often care to think.” We each came into the world in such an all-encompassing state of dependence, and many of us will likely experience that again. Not only does Crosby’s body require careful and constant attention from others, she explains how “selfhood is not self-contained. […] Such is human interdependency that my self-regard depends on your regard for me.” In other words, her witness, much like the inextricably bound bodymind, depends upon and is shaped by the great cloud of witnesses gathered around her.
The atheist beholds a body and sees it as both independent of its larger context and entirely indebted to it, body as the singular nexus of past and future. Not dependent on resurrection, faith in the hereafter, or admiration and approval of the saints to be of value, but worthy—enough—in and of itself because of the person that it contains, the person that the body is. Whatever the body undergoes, so goes the person. Bodiless, there is no such thing as being or becoming.
Notice I have not said that it is atheism we need embrace, but the atheist’s body. While it may sound bleak, perhaps it would suggest a more profound Way. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Jesus entreats us to respond to each other’s bodies as a charge and as a means of worship. The atheist’s body, then, teaches us the weight of incarnation, the gravity of causing pain, and the glory in each human being.
Coates repeats the age-old question, how should one live? He writes, “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.” Certainly there is no single answer, but perhaps Coates is right: perhaps the pursuit ultimately answers itself.
The atheist’s body, the queer body, the undone body, the complicated web of interdependent bodies—all these bear witness that the body is more than its physicality; spirit and soul are indeed body and brain. With this awareness, Coates submits that “The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything—even the Dream, especially the Dream—really is.” Yes, there’s more to the story for the believer, but we could do worse than beginning where the atheist does.
Remember the Argo and its call to perpetual renewal; “whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use”:
Do you love me?
You know that I love you.
Feed my sheep.