Coates deals extensively with the theme of black bodies, arguing that “the question of how one should live within a black body… is the question of life.” He shows how racism operates through the control, manipulation, and exploitation of black bodies and the resulting fragility of black bodies within a racist society. Coates traces this fragility back to the commodification of black bodies during colonialism and slavery, meaning the way in which black people were turned into objects with a monetary value. He urges Samori not to forget “how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold,” and notes that by the time of the Civil War, “our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars.”
This theme helps explain how black people came to be treated – both when slavery existed and then beyond into the present-day – as disposable bodies within American society. Because of the tradition of treating black people as objects or animals whose value lay in their ability to make profit for white people, the very idea of what it means to be black in America is rooted in the constant danger of “losing” one’s body. Although slavery has ended, the legacy of racism remains a kind of “terrorism” inflicted on black people’s bodies, and Coates is keen to stress that racism is a visceral experience—that it “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
For Coates, who is an atheist, exploring the meaning of black embodiment means coming to terms with the fact that there is no soul that will survive the body, a view made especially painful by the fact that “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body.” In contrast to many of the people around him, Coates cannot be consoled by the notion that black people who are wrongfully harmed, incarcerated, and killed receive justice or peace in the afterlife. “The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious.”
Although Coates struggles with the notion that there is no redemption or justice after death, he also finds strength in it, as can be seen by his explanation that it is the destructibility of bodies that make them “precious.” Similarly, Coates also depicts the positive sides of black embodiment; for example, the tradition of seizing back autonomy over one’s own body through dance. Coates also emphasizes the physical beauty of black people, particularly in the passages describing his time at Howard and the many attractive, stylish, and confident women he met there. Coates’ reverence for these women’s physical existence reminds the reader that in spite of the violence inflicted on black bodies, black embodiment remains a site of beauty and power.
Black Bodies ThemeTracker
Black Bodies Quotes in Between the World and Me
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak.
Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism––the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them-––inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.
All our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy––serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
For so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.
Some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live––specifically, how do I live free in this black body?
The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality.
Perhaps I too might live free. Perhaps I too might wield the same old power that animated the ancestors, that lived in Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Nanny, Cudjoe, Malcolm X, and speak––no, act––as though my body were my own.
I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people, and I must have felt it powerfully then. The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me, because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body––it is heritage.
It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world––the ease between your mother and me, the miracle at The Mecca, the way I feel myself disappear on the streets of Harlem. To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds, fashioned by our ancestors, to the plunderer. We made that feeling, though it was forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied, we made it all the same.
Today, when 8 percent of the world's prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.