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.