Tag Archives: black

Violence on the Black Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me acts as a memoir to the suffering of the black masses in America.

In Coates’ writing of the National Book Award Winner Between the World and Me, he does not hold back on showing his anger at the livelihood of a black man in America, highlighting the dangers and stresses he has personally faced as one in the mass of people victimised in America. This anger percolates each sentence in his letter addressed to his son Samori. Coates uses the epistolary form effectively, telling of the differences between Coates’ own youth and upbringing and that of his son, and yet there is a constant insecurity of being black in contemporary America – something that Coates doesn’t see changing.

Ta-Nehisi and son Samori Coates
Ta-Nehisi and son Samori Coates in the summer of 2013.

A defining point in his son’s education of the ongoing history of the ill treatment of the black people in America is the injustice surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, believed to have been surrendering to the police before being shot six times. Coates states:

That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. (Coates, 11).

Coates furthers upon his argument by averring that he “didn’t hug you… comfort you, because [he] thought it would be wrong to comfort you. [He] did not tell you that it would be okay, because [he had] never believed it would be okay.” (Coates, 11). In directly addressing his son, and the reader, Coates delivers his view on the injustice that permeates American society. His frank declaration on the objectification of the black body – that which has never been, isn’t and never will be secure – highlights the mentality of the black male (or female) as one with a rendered sense or lack of identity, powerless to the white aggressor. Henderson recognises the power of America’s coloured past acknowledging that “the legal and social discourse of slavery created a national language for the propagation of mythological half-truths and socially sanctioned phobias about African men. Their progeny, descendants of this legacy, inherited a birthright unlike any other group.” (Henderson, 139). These phobias relate to Coates’ writings on the commodification of the black body as something that does not belong to the rightful owner. Coates recalls an incident in his childhood of a “light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes” (Coates, 19) who by holding a gun was also “holding [Coates’] entire body in his small hands” (Coates, 19). Coates’ identity is stripped away from him as he is reduced to a tool or a weapon. Coates’ mind-set equates his black body with the gun in someone else’s hands.

Coates reiterates to his son the perils of living in America as a black man, by reminiscing the past of America, i.e. slavery. With a lack of identity and knowledge of his suppression, Coates reclaims control over what little he can, as:

We could not control our enemies’ number, strength, nor weaponry… But whether you fought or ran, you did it together, because that is the part that was in our control. What we must never do is willingly hand over our bodies or the bodies of our friends. (Coates, 69).

Here Coates shows the overwhelming force against the black body as singular and definitive. Yet he believes in the community of black individuals that are brutalised together. Furthering this, he personifies slavery as a “particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own.” (Coates, 69). By personifying slavery itself, Coates shows how each person in the black diaspora of slavery was an individual, and “not an indefinable mass of flesh” (Coates, 69). Coates echoes the idea that “Black people’s humanity is a fairly new discovery,” (Jackson, 9) by linking the past of slavery with the current treatment of the black body in today’s society. He creates a living link between those who suffered and died in slavery and those of today who are still suffering and dying by oppressors. Coates’ writing acts as a memoir to the past, present and in his eyes future suffering of the black people in America.

Coates argues against the treatment of the black body by highlighting the way actions of another will be irrevocably placed on his son, as he informs his son, “you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which somehow, will always be assigned to you.” (Coates, 73). Here he shows the mentality of his oppressors that remove their individual identities in favour of a systematic ‘white and black’ duality. This duality of ‘us against them’ is a fragment of the “historical continuity here that speaks to the perpetuation of the white racist imago of the Black body, where there is an attempt to ontologically truncate the Black body into the very essence of criminality, danger, suspicion” (Yancy, 7). The black bodies that Coates speaks of are never shown in a positive manner but inherently negative. His son shall carry the burdens (and the worst) that other black bodies have carried out. In Coates’ teachings to his son, the modern blanket term of ‘white people’ see no positives in the black body. Coates furthers his argument by stating that “race is the child of racism, not the father” (Coates, 7) and that white people are “a modern invention” (Coates, 9), a term that has “no real meaning… [as] the new people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corisican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish” (Coates, 9).  Coates undermines the base argument of racism through his condemning of the term ‘white’. If ‘white people’ are in fact something else such as Catholic or Corisican, then black people can be for once seen as human.

Bibliography

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Melbourne, AU: Text Publishing Co, 2015.

Henderson, Carol E. Scarring the Black Body: Race and Representation in African American Literature. Columbia, US: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

Jackson, Ronald L. Scripting the Black Masculine Body. Ithaca, US: SUNY Press, 2006.

Yancy, George. “White Suturing, Black Bodies, and the Myth of a Post-Racial America.” ARTS, vol. 26, no. 2, 2015, pp. 5-14.

Photo Credit

Image 1 found on:

“Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘In America, It Is Traditional to Destroy the Black Body’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Sept. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/20/ta-nehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me-extract>.

Also found in:

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Melbourne, AU: Text Publishing Co, 2015. Pg 148.

History and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

At first glance, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad seems to be a simplistic, if freshly published, tale of the well-known and frequently romanticized journey that led escaped slaves of the nineteenth-century United States to the freedom commonly associated with the northern half of the country. As Julian Lucas describes in “New Black Worlds to Know,” the title of the novel is reminiscent of a childish “pictogram past,” a functioning gross oversimplification of what is historically known to have been a collection of horrific trials that those who were brave and desperate enough to run away encountered more times than not. Beyond the title, Whitehead weaves a tale that is almost familiar; in many ways, the basic details of the story seem to be possessed by the ghosts of slave narratives past. In comparing The Underground Railroad to the “conventions of slave narratives” prescribed by renown critic James Olney, the vague familiarity of the narrative makes sense.

Plantation
A former slave dwelling on Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC stands today.

One example is in relation to Olney’s insistence on a character’s specification of “a place but not a date of birth” (50). The birthplaces of Cora, her mother, and her maternal grandmother are all described within the first two chapters of the novel; Ajarry “had never seen the ocean” before being kidnapped from her home village in western Africa (date unknown), and Mable was the only surviving child of five who were “each delivered in the same spot on the planks of the cabin” on the Randall plantation (Whitehead 3, 7). Cora was likewise born in a cabin on the plantation, but hers is the only birth close to being dated—during her conversation with Lovey on the topic, readers are shown that she “was born in winter,” during a “rare frost” (Whitehead 12). No day, month, or year is available to give any further information. Several other items from Olney’s list of conventions also resonate within The Underground Railroad; there are numerous “description[s] of a cruel master…[and] overseer,” and the topic of “slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write” is visited multiple times (Olney 50).

 

Alligator
An alligator much like those in the swamps of The Underground Railroad can be seen swimming around Magnolia Plantation.

What becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative moves on (and Cora moves further away from the Georgia plantation) is that this slave narrative is not all of one time period. The titular concept is no longer a romanticized one; it becomes a series of locomotives that travel to and from underground stations, a literal subterranean railroad escorting former slaves to freedom. After her first encounter with this system, Cora is shocked when she sees Whitehead’s first obvious anachronism—a skyscraper described as “one of the tallest buildings in the nation,” towering over everything with its twelve floors (86). From near the top of the Griffin Building, Cora can see “the configuration of the town and the verdant countryside for miles and miles;” the window she views this from is in a medical examination room, which nods to the building as a symbol for what Cora eventually realizes is happening in South Carolina (Whitehead 100). Under the guise of freedom, the South Carolinian government is closely monitoring the former slaves and essentially manipulating them in ways that did not historically occur until much later; Lucas compares these “eugenic horrors” to the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis experiments” and the forced sterilization of “tens of thousands of black women” over the course of the twentieth-century. In a similar fashion, Whitehead’s Caucasian North Carolinians took their disproportionate population issues into their own hands; using methods like those of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 (or, as Lucas calls it, the “1898 Wilmington insurrection”), colored people are slaughtered, usually lynched for everyone to see.

 

Old socket
An image of disjointed history, an electrical outlet on Magnolia Plantation exemplifies how the past and present often meet.

Though I could spend a significant amount of time dissecting how these temporal collisions play out within the novel, I do argue that each individual anachronism is slightly less important than their collective contribution to the novel and the question of contemporary race more broadly. In “Speculative Fictions of Slavery,” Madhu Dubey claims that the subgenre named in the title “attempt[s] to know the past as something other or more than history” (780). Whitehead’s method of mashing different eras of the past together indicates a perceived need to move beyond the history of slavery that is so frequently romanticized and made distant from the modern day. By breaking from the realism arguably exhibited in the novel’s early plantation scenes, the narrative of The Underground Railroad “discredits the objective truth-telling claims of modern historiography” (Dubey 783).

I find that Whitehead is not breaking from the historical style of slave narratives just for the sake of invoking tension with other literatures; his method is used to reconcile readers to the fact that there are clear connections between the historical period of American slavery and all of the atrocities that have followed, arguably up to and including modern occurrences of “the police killings of unarmed black people, the rise of the carceral state, and the return of explicit white supremacy to national politics” (Lucas). The novel itself supports this connection to the twenty-first century. In the final chapter, Cora finally seems to be rid of everything that had tied her to slavery—the Randalls are all now deceased, Ridgeway is no longer capable of pursuit, and she is in the free state of Indiana. Instead of feeling relieved, Cora is haunted by the losses she endured; she also does not stop in her journey. While the last sentence of the novel shows Cora wondering of her new companion “where he escaped from, how bad it was, and how far he travelled before he put it behind him,” this sense of personal history is again mingling with the fact that Cora’s journey forward is ongoing, and never comes to an end for readers (Whitehead 306).

 

Works Cited

Dubey, Madhu. “Speculative Fictions of Slavery.” American Literature, vol. 82, no. 4, 2010, pp. 779-802.

Knight, Kassi. Alligator at Magnolia. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.

—. Slave Dwellings. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.

—. We have Power. 2017, photograph, Art Institute of Charleston.

Lucas, Julian. “New Black Worlds to Know.” The New York Review of Books. N.p., 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.”Callaloo, no. 20, 1984, pp. 46–73.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Fleet, 2016. Print.