Politics and the Body in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

By David R. Gayton

Whether raised through the discussion of issues such as education reform, LGBT rights, immigration reform, health care reform, or criminal justice reform, the human body has taken central role within this recent political campaigns as both a legal subject and object. Consequently, by moving away from simplistic political ideations we must look at the issues surrounding the body not just through the banality of Party rhetoric, but rather through a sustained and conscientious analysis of our experiences within our bodies as both social and political entities. One such effort, borne out of recent social unrest has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Closely linked to, but independent of the Black Lives Matter movement, Between the World and Me centers on this politicization of the body and the idea of the loss of the body as the loss of personal agency.   Over the course of the narrative, Coats poses the question time and again of what it means to lose your body; not only in the physical sense (as in the loss of life), but more profoundly, in the sense that an individual’s body can be lost when it is circumscribed into a abject mass of peoples—viz. into race. Juxtaposing this racial categorization of individuals to the mass media representations of the American Dream, Coates manages to expose the pathologization of the black body in America. This pathologization, or better said this denigration of the black body, Coates contents, is essential to the preservation of The Dream (as he calls it). That is, in order for The Dream of whiteness and “cleanliness” to exist, it requires the idea of the other as an abject being to claim and define its own worth. Quoting Senator John C. Calhoun’s definition of the upper classes in America, Coates’ demonstrates how this stratification of society into a value system is completely dependent, not on wealth but strictly on the physical appearance of the body[1]. What this means for the individual person of color is that, whatever personal identity or sense of personal agency they may have, becomes supplanted with the generalized and abject identity given to them by the those in power.

Ultimately, by depriving the individual of a valued identity, society robs that individual of their personal agency. In this sense a person of color does not act but simply reacts to the world around them. It is this lack of personal agency then that is being referenced when Coats speaks about the loss of the body, by the loss of the self.  All the examples that Coates presents through out his book are examples of people who have no sense of their own personal agency. From the street violence within the black community to the physical and emotional violence of the home, Coates’ narrative demonstrates how these individuals are simply reacting to the fear imposed upon them by American society’s negation and suppression of anything that is not white. What results then is a form of racial determinism that has been perpetuated in the United States throughout the past three centuries.

Central to the perpetuation of this racial determinism are then the public schools and the legal system. On the one hand, Coates’ states schools perpetuate The Dream by constructing a method of suppression and a legacy of misrepresentation, while on the other hand the legal system operates to guard The Dream against black presence. To stress this point Coates says, “Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were created to represent” (Coates 25-26). That is, for Coates public schools are not a system meant for the education of the young, but rather they are a broken system set in place to perpetuate The Dream and to keep the black body under control.

Written as a letter for his son, Between the World and Me is often impassioned and at times wonderfully wise and poetic.  Although severe at times, the perspective and insight that Ta-Nehisi Coates brings into the current political and cultural discourse on the body is indispensable not only for a better understanding of American cultural politics, but rather for a better understanding of what is is currently politically at stake.

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