Between Zion And Me

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book during a plane ride the other day. It’s a very small book, a hundred and fifty some odd pages, but it gave me I felt some very strong impressions and reactions, which felt a lot like the Spirit but in a far more direct, physical way. If feeling the Spirit is like the burning in the bosom, then this book left me with a gut punch, the sort that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you surprised that such a small thing could leave you breathless. I feel pretty nervous sharing my thoughts about this book, a Canadian Mormon writing about a black American atheist’s work. And I know I’m not Mr. Coates’ audience. In many ways I may be the physical representation of what bothers him.

First things first: this isn’t a review of the book; if you want one, they’re all over and they’re all glowing, more or less. Also, there’s a lot in this book I don’t understand. He and I have lived very different lives. So when Coates describes growing up in Baltimore and the powerlessness and rage and imprisonment of that experience, I can nod my head in appreciation but don’t really know that powerlessness, at least not as a constant given of existence. I don’t understand it. Coates describes the streets and the schools of being two arms of the same beast, both threatening to destroy him. Either the crews in the streets take you, or the schools demand meaningless obedience from you to serve as excuses to wash their hands of you. Either way, you live in a world that will take your body and destroy you. There is a lot for me to unpack there. It sounds like something out of The Wire. And I have been raised with the message that education and morals are the ticket out of the ghetto, and that Mormonism in particular offers an answer, per Ezra Taft Benson: “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.” Is it odd that I have come to both believe and disbelieve in this notion? That I have a testimony of how Christ can work miracles within our hearts, but the slums remain? Are we deceiving people if we only offer them religion and the educational system as a way out?

Coates’ memoir takes him from the streets of Baltimore to the Yard and Howard University. There, he is in awe as he sees the richness and diversity of African culture: “the black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that the world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe that they are white.” Many pages are devoted to this sense of wonder and discovery of his heritage and his self. Is it odd that reading this, it brought to mind the sense of wonder and discovery I felt as I arrived at BYU as a freshman, to see a Mormonism broader and deeper and more diverse than I could have imagined? I still think back on those days, and I realize that my ongoing love of Mormonism was born at BYU, where I saw the richness of our history and heritage, and the potential of our faith to encompass diversity of opinion and culture. At Howard, Coates learned a new history, one viewed through the lens of the struggle of black people through millennia of slavery and plunder. At BYU, I learned (rightly or wrongly) a Mormon’s view of history, of the taming of the West as persecuted exiles from Adam-Ondi-Ahman.

Coates also learned the value of love and loss while at Howard, finding kinship and love with those he had previously ridiculed with casual insults like “faggot” or “dyke”, and also feeling the loss as the brightest and best of his community were senselessly (but quite methodically) killed by police, killed by gun violence. The prior discovery of the richness of his heritage makes the loss of brothers and sisters more keen:

There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.

Although his is a foreign world, his writing has brought me closer. I have felt love from those I have mocked. I have felt loss, though not industrialized and systematic like his and not brutal and unjust like his.

I will say that as he goes on to describe the effects of slavery, Coates does so with more force and power because he distills it down to a simple truth: slavery is personal.

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks to loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone… But when she dies, the world–which is really the only world she can ever know — ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history.

I was never a slave or a minority (Mormonism doesn’t really count, sorry). My ancestors were not slaves; we profited (indirectly) from slavery, from plunder and murder of first peoples and Africans. All Americans did. And so, as a person who has benefited from generations of using black bodies as fuel for industry, I cannot presume to understand Coates, not really. But sitting in that plane, I cried as I read. Nothing about his world is meant to be. But Coates continues to struggle, despite this injustice and the incredible odds against there ever being any real justice, ever, for black people in America. He struggles despite the fact that “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” That is undeniable spirit that demands our respect, even if comprehension is not easily within grasp.

Coates talks a lot in his book about Dreamers and the Dream. He is not using those terms the way you might think. He is referring to the American Dream, yes, of pies and 4th of Julys and green lawns — a physical, material dream — but he is also referring to a mass-produced, mass-indoctrinated belief that in America, success is a matter of personal responsibility. That if you apply yourself, stay in school, play by the rules and work hard, you can “make it”. That Dream is, of course, a lie, but for black men and women, Coates argues, it is worse than a lie – it is a mocking weapon. Those who believe themselves to be white (more on that later) believe in the Dream because it verifies in their hearts that they DESERVE their wealth, that they have earned it. They have not. Generations upon generations of inequality have produced that wealth. And today, the Dream serves as a philosophical weapon against poor people, against poor black people in particular, and those who cannot accomplish the Dream are to be policed and herded and ultimately destroyed. Reading Coates, I was asking myself, what does Mormonism offer instead? What is our dream? I worry that the dream of Mormonism is becoming so intertwined with the American Dream that we are getting co-opted completely, that we cannot tell the difference anymore between the pop culture myths of American exceptionalism and our own role as salt of the earth. I worry that our own scriptures are used as prooftexts for a prosperity gospel, that awful intertwining of the American Dream and religion. And I worry that we need to offer more to the poor and the oppressed. We are a rich church. Are we a church of Dreamers?

Coates rejects religion. In a way I envy him. His atheism demands an urgency to action and an awareness of the immense importance of life that perhaps we do not fully appreciate as Mormons. Life is so fragile, so precious and completely irreplaceable in all respects. “You are here now, and you must live” is a central message. So much of our living seems to be in the future tense, putting aside the concerns of the day, but this was not how Jesus lived his own life. Each moment on earth and each person on earth was precious to him. Why then does our religion sometimes lull to complacency?

In a similar way, notions of race in America have lulled “white” people to complacency. “Whiteness” is a fiction, of course. As James Baldwin pointed out (and Coates has reminded us, in an article for the Atlantic), nobody was “white” before America. We made it up as we justified the ‘otherness’ of black people and other minorities. We used to be all sorts of people with all sorts of heritage. But we have scrubbed that away to a generic whiteness, largely to justify the casual enslavement (and cultural degradation) of blacks. Paul Reeve’s book is instructive on this phenomenon in a Mormon context. But when we see each other as we truly are (a gift that God’s Spirit can provide), we have the potential to get past those long-propogated, but artificial distinctions. The ultimate promise of our faith — one which I have very rarely seen, but one which I hope for desperately — is that God can show us how to rip that all away and make things right. This is the promise of what our leaders saw, ultimately, in 1978.

The systematic subjugation and destruction of black bodies in America is without real comparison. But the book also made me think of other groups whose bodies are systematically dominated and controlled in our culture. You don’t have to look too far. Again, the key is God’s ability to help us get past the easy generalizations and perceive each other as the amazing, unique, valuable people we each are. It’s easy to talk casually about categories and groups, but it’s far, far more difficult to say the same thing to a real person who is a brilliant scientist, a talented artist, a dedicated humanitarian who lives, breathes and is right there in front of you. Coates may disagree about the role of the divine in this process, but I can see no other way for any real change.

Looking back now on this post I’m seeing a lot of Enlightened Entitled Mormon in it. I’m sorry. Believe me, I’m not very enlightened and I’m not very progressive (but I am super entitled). This book has brought me some very powerful, very uncomfortable thoughts. Perhaps that is what makes it such valuable reading.

Comments

  1. 2 things that Mormonism will eventually do as it continues to seek after truth and ultimate charity:

    1. Own a mission of taking the slums out of the world
    2. Own and take accountability for its systemic discrimination of people of colour.

    In the meantime, we can each look at our lives to see how our white Mormon (and for me, male) past has benefitted me at the expense of those not in my demographic.

    Taking accountability for this is scary and it means sacrifice, but the question isn’t what would Jesus do, but what did Jesus do.

  2. Deborah Christensen says:

    The key phrase here is “very uncomfortable thoughts”. Anytime we see others as human beings is what the gospel is all about.

  3. One thing it might help us to realize (and this is just one of the many thoughts that ran through my head as I read your post), is that there is a difference between gaining an education and surrendering to the educational system. Or, in other words, between gaining light and knowledge and wisdom and getting an indoctrination. I have a formal education, but I’ve spent a lot more time trying to get educated. That’s a lot harder and I might be making a dog’s breakfast of it, but it sure feels good. Among other efforts, I have Coates’ book on reserve call at my library. His writings and columns often make me a little angry. I have come to believe that’s a good thing for me; it shakes me out of my complacency. I’m still privileged, but I’m a lot more aware.

  4. Wow, Steve. Thanks for sharing your candid response. I want to read this.

    I feel you when you say: “I worry that the dream of Mormonism is becoming so intertwined with the American Dream that we are getting co-opted completely, that we cannot tell the difference anymore between the pop culture myths of American exceptionalism and our own role as salt of the earth. I worry that our own scriptures are used as prooftexts for a prosperity gospel, that awful intertwining of the American Dream and religion. And I worry that we need to offer more to the poor and the oppressed. We are a rich church. Are we a church of Dreamers?”

    I also worry about this. I made a solo concept album about “The Dream” to wrestle with my feelings on race, ‘merica, and waking up. http://rulonbrown.bandcamp.com/album/restless-2
    .. but I lacked the courage to compose about my extreme privilege as a white American Mormon.

  5. I read this and came away stunned. Completely. One of the most important books I’ve read this year.

  6. Thanks, Steve. I also need to read this book.

  7. Thanks for the comments.

  8. Beautiful post. As a fellow Canadian, it is easy to see this as an exclusively American problem. Unfortunately, we only need look to our First Nations. I feel the same very powerful, very uncomfortable thoughts and I wonder at my own culpability.

  9. I’m ordering the book now.

    I also appreciate your naked honesty and humility here. It speaks volumes towards this book.

  10. Geoff - Aus says:

    The august Ensign has an article by Bruce Hafen, http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2015/09/02/defending-the-white-family/ defending white male entitlement (my interpretation) so no, as a church, we are not doing well if we print this in our official magazine.

  11. nevadanista says:

    This book should be required reading for all white people, imo. Truly. And not just to be consumed and stunned and then put on a shelf, but to be reread and absorbed. We should read it in way that will leave us changed for life. Between the World and Me is an absolutely profound book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience about reading it.

  12. I’ll look out for the book. I experienced something similar reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Laks (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Immortal-Life-Henrietta-Lacks/dp/0330533444). That book was written and researched by a journalist. How much more powerful a story in his own words that must have been.

  13. Kathleen Petty says:

    Reading this reminded me of a comment from the late Gene England–that the only a deep sense that we are all children of God is powerful enough to make change. The idea of a biological brotherhood of man won’t do it.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    Geoff (6:24), I’m not sure that’s a fair reading of Hafen. I think a person can defend some of the changes from say the era of ’65 – ’05 while bemoaning unintended consequences or outright bad tradeoffs. For instance I think overall no fault divorce is a net good. However I also think the way society has come to casually view marriage is a huge problem. (Ignoring the huge cultural differences here between college educated and the rest of society)

    To simply dismiss these negative consequences as “white privilege” is to be a bit of an ostrich IMO. Especially since many (most?) of them affect the poor far more than the well off whites supposedly affected by privilege.

    Now solutions to the problems are more tricky, especially for policies that on net are better. Yet in the economic realm when we see a policy (say trade) that is a net win but has negative consequences we start worrying about those consequences and how to resolve them. It’s not at all clear to me why the social arena is treated differently.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Just to expand upon that last post, in the context of marriage the issue is really what is the effect of treating the formality of marriage as sacred on treating the behaviors entailed by the ideal of marriage as something to live. There are those who say there is no real causal relationship. (TNC more or less argues this even if I take him as treating the behavioral ideals of marriage as something we ought focus on)

    So the question is really what is the significance of the rites and institution of marriage.

  16. Clark, that’s not super on-topic.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    K. I’ll drop it.