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The Body in Coates' Between the World and Me

The social implication of the body is a central motif to Ta-Nehisi Coates' open letter to his son Between the World and Me. This being essentially his autobiography, Coates details his experiences as an African American man focusing on the racism and oppression he faces from society and, specifically, from the police. He also explains his cultural awakening when attending the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Howard University, where he discovers the ideas of Malcolm X. Coates remarks Malcom X's constant "evolution" toward the truth that was "outside the boundaries of his life, his body," and it helped Coates to take "total possession of my body" (Coates, 2015, p. 48). When analysing the central relevance of the body in Between the World and Me it would be easy to view Coates as using the body natural, meaning his own physical body, as opposed to the body politic, reflecting a vast concern about the possession and protection of it that could mirror someone who wants to be kept alive in danger. However, if we inquire Coates' use of the body as the body politic for his entire community, then the book serves as a warning to his son of the dangers of being an African American and how ubiquitous his experience is with police brutality, racism and feeling the lack of control the community has in creating an equal and fair society as they are kept undereducated.

Coates' most shocking thoughts on the body are when he describes the murder of his friend Prince Jones by the Virginia Police. As Coates himself states, "they destroyed his body, scorched his shoulders and arms, ripped open his back, mangled lung, kidney and liver" (Coates, 2015, p. 79). Picturing this as the body natural, his language is distressing and violent. The graphic description of Prince's organs "lung, kidney and liver," combined with "mangled" highlights the brutality and complete destruction of Prince's physical form — nonetheless, he juxtaposes this brutality with the description of Prince's face: "lean, brown and beautiful" (Coates, 2015, p. 77). By illustrating Prince's beauty, Coates is making his murder even more unnerving, where the alliteration of “brown” and “beautiful” emphasises the violation of nature when having his physical appearance destroyed that way. But despite this, the author states that "the spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible – that is precisely why they are so precious" (Coates, 2015).

Figure 1: People magazine's headline about the murder of Prince Jones (2001)

Concomitantly, Coates attributes the murder of Prince Jones as the "last push" he needed to start writing (Coates, 2009), so when taking his use of Prince's body as the body politic, it gives a too familiar tone of the police brutality suffered by the African American community. Jill Nelson, a prominent journalist, argues that police violence against African Americans is ingrained deep in the American public’s sensibility. She contends that “the notion of the black male predator, is so historically ingrained in the American consciousness that we have come to accept the brutalization and murder of citizens by the police as an acceptable method of law enforcement” (Nelson, 2001, p. 5). French psychologist Franz Fanon and Jamaican novelist Sylvia Wynter both argue that the meaning of blackness in an anti-black society is closely associated with death, both symbolically and physically: black death isn't just a product of social order but is the grounding for social order based in the natural world (Haile, 2017, p. 497). Considering these theories on how an anti-black society operates, police brutality against any non-white citizen becomes an acceptable method of law enforcement and is considered to be the natural and accepted order in this community.

It is hardly surprising that Coates has made this link, since police brutality has been an extremely prominent issue within the United States over the last couple of years. The murder of George Floyd by Minnesota Police on the 25th of May, 2020, sparked huge protests and unrest in 140 cities across the USA, with tens of thousands of people taking the street to express their outrage — which helped to reignite the Black Lives Matter movement (Taylor, 2021). Derick Chauvin, the police officer who was accused of murdering George Floyd will serve 43 years in prison for the murder and violating Floyd's civil rights (Agencies, 2022), but this is an all-too-rare occurrence; however: the officer who shot Prince Jones was demoted, restored and allowed to continue working, rather than being put in prison for his crimes (Coates, 2015, p. 80). This links back to Fanon and Wynter's hypothesis that black death is the grounding for social order in an anti-black world. The lack of consequences that the police suffer is very similar to the lack of consequences suffered by slave owners, and the police in America are among the biggest pillars in maintaining the oppression faced by African Americans.

Figure 2: A police station set ablaze in Minneapolis during the riots after George Floyd's death, photographed by Kerem Yucel (2020)

Coates' choice to use "ripped open his back," can be also linked to the body politic. Whipping was a common punishment during slavery, which former slave and social reformer Frederick Douglas described as "the blood-stained gate," and abolitionist John Brown proclaimed before his execution that it "mingled his blood with millions in this slave country" (Barnes, 2011, p. 12). When considering the body politic in this situation, the pain and suffering of slavery is something that unites the African Americans, therefore Coates draws parallels between the police and slavers here as well. University of Rhode Island associate professor of philosophy, James B. Haile III, believes that Coates is trying to demonstrate that the symbolic-memory-reinforcement of this anti-black world is black death. In conclusion, he considers Coates' words as why the black and white world have to exist in different mind-body-world realities (Haile, 2017, p. 499). The destruction of Prince's body mirrors the destruction and oppression that African Americans have suffered, existing parallels that can be drawn between the past experience of slavery and the current oppression from the police. In this anti-black society, white Americans are able to live without consequence as their unjust actions are deemed natural and can therefore go unpunished.

Figure 3: Police using force against protestors in New York City, photograped by Jabin Botsford (2020)

The lack of power Coates feel over his one's body in Between the World and Me is a consistent ploy to demonstrate how little control he feels he has on his own life. However, where this absence of control changes is when he's admitted into the Howard University, a HBCU located in Washington, D.C. and where his concept of the body becomes less individualistic and more focused on the collective, the body politic. Although the trauma Coates suffered with the murder of his friend Prince Jones is extremely individual, police brutality is something that many African American people have faced and suffered. Thereby, Coates presents Howard College and education as something all African Americans must strive toward to give them a greater understanding of themselves and their culture, in order to claim ownership over their own bodies. This is evident when Coates states "the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it into the student body" (Coates, 2015, p. 40): his use of "dark," links back to the colonial referral of Africa as the "dark continent".

Simon Abramowitsch, English professor at Chabot College, contemplates about the author's thoughts that "the black body in pain is the grounds for a black body politic and also a stay against forms of white identification and empathy" (Abramowitsch, 2017, p. 463). Coates' attendance of a HBCU reflects this as it is a predominantly African American space, where white Americans are unable to identify with since Howard has an alumni list of many influential African American authors, intellectuals and public servants including Toni Morrison and Thurgood Marshall (Coates, 2015, p. 40). He recalls events at Howard such as "Muhammad Ali had addressed their fathers and mothers in defiance of the Vietnam War" (Coates, 2015, p. 41), so he would create the image of a safe African American space that cultivates pride and knowledge of their history, free from the view and influence of white Americans. Thus, Coates displays his disgust at "White America," describing it as a "syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies" (Coates, 2015, p. 42), statement with which again portrays the body politic with "our bodies," and the universal control referred to as "White America" wants to maintain over all of them. All in all, Coates portrays education as a way for every African American to break free of their situation, by learning about their cultural heritage and studying the ideas of African American intellectuals. In conclusion, he presents education as a way to be freed from the control of "White America."

Figure 4: Protest at Howard University over wanting an emphasis of African American history and culture in the curriculum (1968)

Abramowitsch goes on to state that "He (Coates) pushes against the notion that in the present post-civil rights world other identities of forms of privilege might supersede blackness or that blackness offers a common human experience all readers might identify with with. Blackness is penultimate, and there is no universalism here" (Abramowitsch, 2017, pp.463). Coates provides this when he describes how white Europeans people viewed African slaves: "we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior. And our inferior bodies could not possibly be accorded with the same respect as those built in the West." (Coates, 2015, pp.44). His use of "we" and "our" unifies all people of African heritage in the shared experience that their ancestors faced from the racist view of superiority that white Europeans had, and the repetition of "inferior," in fact emphasises how they were viewed. The use of "body," is also significant when analysing the body politic, as Coates has united the African experience against white colonial Europeans, but this can also be perceived on a physical level, as white Europeans believed themselves to be superior in every matter, including physically (Weed, 2017, p. 13). At the same time, "inferior body" here really cements the difference Coates wants to portray, as his experience is his own and not something as a common human experience. In conclusion, he use of the body politic serves to demonstrate the united suffering African Americans live through.

In a final analysis, Coates assumes the conception of body politic to demonstrate the united struggle that African Americans suffer through in American society. Upon initial reading, it comes easy to recognise the murder of Prince Jones as Coates using the body natural to emphasize his point, focusing on the physical destruction of Prince's body and his beauty to highlight the tragedy in his murder. However, if we view it through a body politic scope, the description of Prince's murder can be seen as an event that unities the African American experience, just as police brutality has once again come to the forefront of American events with the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, Coates uses descriptions that link the event to slavery when detailing how the police "ripped open his back" (Coates, 2015, p. 79), likening the oppression of slavery with the oppression that African Americans suffer at the hands of the police. Definitely, Coates uses the body politic to emphasise the inter-generational shared trauma the African American community has shared in its suffering throughout history and today. Where Coates breaks away from the body natural is his experience within education, using his own case to portray it as a method for all African Americans to learn about their culture and history, in order to break away from the control of White America and gain autonomy over their own bodies. Ultimately, those days at Howard taught him the uniqueness of his and his community experience as black people in a world ruled by white people, therefore the relevance of consider the impact of antagonistic circumstances despite having the same physical body.

Bibliographical References

Abramowitsch, S. (2017). Addressing Blackness, Dreaming Whiteness: Negotiating 21st-Century Race and Readership in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. CLA Journal, 60(4), 458–478.

Agencies. (2022, July 7). Derek Chauvin gets separate 21-year sentence for violating George Floyd’s civil rights. The Guardian.

Barnes, E. (2011). Love's Whipping Boy: Violence and sentimentality in the American imagination. University of North Carolina Press.

Coates, T. N. (2009, March 26). A Little More On Prince Jones. The Atlantic.

Coates, T. N. (2015). Between the world and Me. Text Publishing.

Coates, T. N. (2015, September 20). Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body' .The Guardian.

Eligon, J. (2020, June 26). A Debate Over Identity and Race Asks, Are African-Americans ‘Black’ or ‘black’?. The New York Times.

Haile, J. B. (2017). Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Phenomenology of the Body. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 31(3), 493–503.

Klein, E. (2015, September 15). Ta-Nehisi Coates: “For African Americans, unfreedom is the historical norm”. Vox.

Nelson, J. (Ed.). (2001). Police brutality: An anthology. WW Norton & Company.

Taylor, D. B. (2021, November 5). George Floyd Protests: A Timeline. The New York Times.

Weed, E. (2017). The religion of white supremacy in the United States. Lexington Books.

Visual Sources


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Charlie Hartley-O'Dwyer

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