The Birthmark of Damnation: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Black Body
Liza Bramlett was a slave. She lived on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, during the 19th century. White men raped her repeatedly throughout her life. They traded her body amongst themselves in exchange for calves and piglets. In the end, Liza gave birth to 23 children, 20 of whom were conceived by rape. One of Liza’s daughters, Ella Townsend, was born after emancipation, but remained in the bondage of sharecropping in rural Mississippi. As an adult, she carried a pistol with her in the fields, determined to protect herself and the surrounding children. One day, a white man on horseback rode into the fields. He had come to abduct a young Black girl. Ella, carrying her pistol in a lunch pail, intervened. “You don’t have no Black children and you’re not going to beat no Black children,” she told the intruder. “If you step down off that horse, I’ll go to Hell and back with you before Hell can scorch a feather.”
“I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves,” Ta-Nehisi Coates says of white racists in the final paragraph of his bestseller, Between the World and Me, written as an open letter to his son. Coates describes racism as galactic, a physical law of the universe, “a tenacious gravity” and a “cosmic injustice.” When a cop kills a Black man, the police officer is “a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.” Society is equally helpless against the natural order. “The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed,” says Coates.
In a widely replicated gesture, Coates locates the experience of racism in the body, in a racism that “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” In the slim volume, fewer than 300 pages, the word “body” or “bodies” appears more than 300 times. “In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body.” Another brooding passage dwells on the inevitability of this violence.
It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body.
Yet Coates’s descriptive language and haunting narrative are not mere metaphors. They act as an ontological pivot, mystifying racism even as it is anchored in its physical effects.
Metaphor has long been used to capture racism’s almost unimaginable brutality. Lynching became “strange fruit” in Abel Meerpool’s song, made famous by Billie Holiday. In a wry, tragic innuendo, rape was referred to in Black communities as “nighttime integration.” The use of metaphor is not in itself an obfuscation. But Coates wields metaphor to obscure rather than illuminate the reality of racism. What we find all too often in Coates’s narrative universe are bodies without life and a racism without people. To imbue race with an ontological meaning, to make it a reality all its own, is to drain it of its place in history and its indelible roots in discrete human action. To deny the role of life and people — of politics — is to also foreclose the possibility of liberation.
Ella knew her mother Liza’s unimaginable suffering, but her memory was not a yoke on her shoulders. It provoked something in Ella. As an adult, she did not see the white predator stalking the fields as some helpless agent. She took matters into her own hands. There was no tenacious gravity strong enough to break her will or loosen her grip on her pistol. Her efforts rippled beyond those cotton fields. Ella taught her own daughter, Fannie Lou Hamer, not only to struggle, but to resist.
Fannie Lou was born into a sharecropping family in rural Mississippi, but would go on to become a beacon of the Civil Rights movement. She is best known for her tireless work registering Black voters in Mississippi, most famously during 1964’s Freedom Summer, at great personal risk. Police arrested and beat her. White racists shot at her. Lyndon Johnson dismissed her as an illiterate. In 1973, an interviewer asked her, “Do you have faith that the system will ever work properly?” By then, Fannie Lou had seen a decade of setbacks and false dawns since first walking off her plantation in 1962 to fight for Civil Rights. She responded,
We have to make it work. Ain’t nothing going to be handed to you on a silver platter. That’s not just black people, that’s people in general, masses. See, I’m with the masses… You’ve got to fight. Every step of the way you’ve got to fight.
She marched. She sang freedom songs. She testified. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. For her, the logical solution was political: uniting a powerless many against a powerful few. White racists could be stopped. Black people could resist, and Fannie Lou and so many others did just that.
Fannie Lou knew that the wages of racism were measured on the body. “A Black woman’s body was never hers alone,” she once remarked. White doctors sterilized her without her consent during a minor surgery, a barbaric intrusion so common she called it a “Mississippi appendectomy.” However, though she knew racism’s physical toll, she drew inspiration from stories of Black resistance passed down orally across the generations. She recalled her grandmother’s will to survive and her mother’s weapon of protection. These intergenerational resistance narratives, according to Charles Cobb in his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, “underlay a deep and powerful collective memory that was invisible to whites but greatly affected the shape and course of the modern Freedom Movement.” As a result, Fannie Lou and so many others possessed an intimate knowledge not only of their own human dignity, despite the racist brutality they endured, but also of the very real human frailty inherent to their racial oppressors.
In the years before Fannie Lou’s political struggle began, whole communities, Black women and men, rose up against the violence that was forced on Black women’s bodies. Feminist historian Danielle McGuire argues this anti-rape community organizing in Alabama laid the foundation for what eventually became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She observes, “The majority of leaders active in the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1955 cut their political teeth demanding justice for black women who were raped in the 1940s and early 1950s.” Despite being a poor, Black sharecropper drowning in the poverty and racial terror endemic to rural Mississippi, Fannie Lou held fast to her forebearers’ stories of resistance. She did not resign herself to fatalism, as Coates does.
Coates too takes a multigenerational view. Between the World and Me is framed as a letter to his son. However, rather than seeing a legacy of resistance, he finds a lineage of Blackness defined by fear and dysfunction. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid,” he writes. “I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana’s home in Philadelphia,” Coates continues. “And I saw it in my own father.”
My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us.
Coates describes his condition, and that of all Black people, as a “birthmark of damnation.” The resistance stories passed down to Fannie Lou and so many others spurred them to march. Coates’s narrative, riddled with fear and futility, begs us to retreat.
Though Coates has never explicitly cited it as his theoretical framework, the dour outlook of his work evokes the themes of Afro-Pessimism. The pivot to the ontological that is apparent in Coates’s rhetoric is a hallmark of Afro-Pessimism. “Ontology by definition is the study of being, and to speak of Blackness as an ontological condition means analyzing the state of Black bodies through the lens of slavery,” Afro-Pessimist scholar Michael Barlow Jr. writes in the academic journal Inquiries. However, for Barlow, the relation of slavery that ontologically defines blackness is not a matter of political economy, but rather a “libidinal economy.” In this ontological pivot, labor and ownership — that is, political economy — are merely incidental to racial slavery. Instead, it’s the white imagination and its depraved “metaphysical desires for Black flesh” that both predated and catalyzed racialized chattel slavery. Racism is reduced to the spiritual, more a matter of a sinful nature than a political struggle. Coates has echoed this retreat to interiority, to the spiritual, to consciousness.
It’s the ontological pivot that leads Frank Wilderson, perhaps the world’s foremost Afro-Pessimist, to declare in his foundational text “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” that Black people are no more than cows in a slaughterhouse. Wilderson posits that “death of the black body is foundational to the life of American civil society,” just as a cow’s death is essential to the slaughterhouse. Flippantly, Wilderson asks, “how would the cows fare under a dictatorship of the proletariat?” Coates adopts a similar impotence. He characterizes struggle as aimless toil — an apolitical end to itself. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” Yet, how are we to struggle against earthquakes and physical laws? How can we fight gravity?
Both Coates and Wilderson speak of power in terms of dreams. Coates writes of monolithic white “Dreamers,” those whose investment in the American Dream requires a faith in their own whiteness. Similarly, Wilderson sees America as enacting two distinct dreams. For Wilderson, “the dream of black accumulation and death” is separate from “the dream of worker exploitation.” Ultimately, in both Coates’s and Wilderson’s respective frameworks, solidarity is unimaginable and class struggle is rendered futile. Though Coates does not go to the lengths Wilderson does to position himself in opposition to materialist politics, the result is effectively equivalent: a separation of race and class combined with a deep skepticism of class-based solidarity, reforms, or even revolution. This is a deviation from the Freedom Tradition embodied by Fannie Lou Hamer. For her, the problem of racism wasn’t cosmology or ontology, it was an expression of politics implicated in class antagonism. Fannie Lou Hamer stood “with the masses,” both white and black. Solidarity through struggle from below — class struggle — formed her path to victory.
Coates’s ontological pivot is more muddled than Wilderson’s. Fleetingly peppered throughout his work are allusions to material reality, betraying the superimposition of metaphysical abstraction that ultimately drives his perspective. “We did not choose our fences,” he writes. “They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible.” Coates knows that Virginia planters did not invent gravity or earthquakes. Yet this historicizing impulse does not prevent him from essentializing racism when he confronts it head on.
In string of tweets from December 2016, Coates conceded that racism is not transcendental, noting that “at its very root it was always economic.” But acknowledging racism’s economic impact has not led him to embrace class struggle. Even Frank Wilderson can acknowledge that racism has an economic impact, but he still believes that class struggle and racism exist on distinct planes. Coates holds a similar belief; that racism is wholly different in kind from class. In the same series of tweets, he concluded that “in America, ‘class’ isn’t the only kind of class.”
Just as he mystifies racism, even while locating its impact in the bodies of Black people, here he once again performs a muddled ontological pivot. Coates cannot address material politics on its own terms, preferring instead to retreat to a contrived mystification. He replaces action with interiority. As he recently told an auditorium of eager Northwestern students, “The process should not be… people looking out at the world and saying, ‘I would like for there to be change in the world, how do I do that?’” Instead, he implored the crowd to engage from the “inside-out, not outside-in… because if you are in the business of justice, and making this society more democratic, you might get a lot of disappointment.”
Consciousness matters, of course. “Baby you just got to love ’em,” Fannie Lou Hamer would say of the white segregationists who routinely threatened her life. “Hating just makes you sick and weak.” This was Hamer in a reflexive moment, but it was no retreat. In the very next breath, she warned, “I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.” Fannie Lou truly was her mother’s daughter. Reflection, whether through intergenerational story or her own thoughts, enhanced her resistance. The same cannot be said of Coates.
Instead of in political action, Coates finds relief in a cookout at Howard’s homecoming, surrounded by Blackness. He fantasizes that he is “disappearing into all of their bodies,” as the music and dancing, the Black cultural zeitgeist of the moment, cure him of the “birthmark of damnation.” The curse is lifted. Blackness is transfigured, becoming a space “beyond the Dream.” It’s another ontological pivot, this time allowing Coates to conclude that The Mecca’s cookout has a “power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill.” It’s a fantasy of retreat, as if Black culture were beyond the machinations of capitalism, as though Black cultural expression existed in the world but was not of it.
Between the World and Me concludes with Coates considering climate change. He sees climate change as a manifestation of a polluted white consciousness, rather than the unfettered excess of industrial capitalism. It is a “noose around the neck of the earth,” allegedly resulting in large part from white flight, the mid-century exodus of negrophobic white families to the suburbs and the pollution caused by the cars that took them there. Coates’s words here are poetic, but grossly inaccurate. They mimic Afro-Pessimism’s emphasis on the white libido, relegating his rhetoric to the realm of interior life, the souls of white folks, and stopping well short of the political domain. To Coates, climate change is “more fierce than Marcus Garvey” — a reflection of Coates’s pessimism. For Coates, the Civil Rights movement was not a struggle to alter a material world; rather the “hope of the movement” was merely to “awaken the Dreamers.” Black politics is only relevant as far as it can arouse white consciousness, which he sees as a largely futile exercise, due to “the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.”
Coates sees common interest between the Black elite and the Black poor, as he marvels at “the entire diaspora,” from lawyers to street hustlers, present at Howard’s homecoming. Yet he cannot conceive of anti-capitalist class solidarity across racial identity. He has a darker vision, of a kind that Corey Robin has described as “apocalypticism.” Coates’s ultimate hope is not in collective human action, but rather the total annihilation of the world and all those living in it— another feature that unites him with Afro-pessimism, which calls explicitly for the “end of the world.” As he says of the Dreamers, “the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.” Paradoxically, though he can see a collective fate in apocalypse, he rejects shared struggle for liberation. “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves,” he declares.
The problem is, the whole of capitalist enterprise, both past and present, cannot be reduced to race as Original Sin, and its poisoning of all existence. Left out of Coates’s mythology is the fact that colonial enterprise, in what would become the United States, relied first on European indentured servants, most of whom died within a handful of years after arriving on the continent. It’s Coates’s reading of race as sin that pushes him to imagine quasi-salvation in the fantasy of apocalypse. In this racial fatalism, reparations for slavery emerges as the anticipation of the inevitable Judgement Day. It is therefore no surprise that Coates has taken up racial reparations as his cross to bear, not to change the world, but to condemn it.
For the better part of two years, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been the most visible and combative supporter of reparations in politics. Coates calls reparations “the indispensable tool against white supremacy.” In 2016’s “My President Was Black” and “Better Is Good,” Coates refers to the “moral logic” of reparations. They are a measure that could atone for what he called in 2014’s “The Case for Reparations,” the “sin of national plunder.” There he claimed that the nation owes a “moral debt” that must be remedied by the “spiritual renewal” that reparations would facilitate. Reparations for slavery is Coates’s ontological pivot fully realized.
These days, we find Coates touring prestigious universities and making his case for reparations in keynote addresses to packed auditoriums. “I think every single one of these universities needs to make reparations,” Coates said to thunderous applause at a March 3 conference at Harvard University. The day-long conference, “Universities and Slavery: Bound By History,” began with Harvard’s president admitting that the university “was directly complicit in slavery from the college’s earliest days in the 17th century.” Coates pushed the university to “use the language of reparation,” as a measure that would “acknowledge that something was done.” Though Harvard acknowledged its history, no race-specific remedy was forthcoming.
Last fall, Georgetown did Harvard one better. They not only used the language of reparations, the school also put forward a program of financial and symbolic atonement. The university admitted to selling slaves in 1838, “a transaction that helped save Georgetown from financial ruin.” In 2015 Georgetown convened a commission to “reflect upon our University’s history and involvement in the institution of slavery.” The commission recommended granting preferential admission for descendants of the 272 slaves the university sold two centuries ago, in addition to gestures like changing the names of campus buildings from those of slavemasters to those of slaves and free people of color.
Georgetown’s example is the closest actualization of reparations policy that has taken place during Coates’s three years of evangelizing. Coates said of the plan, “folks may not like the word ‘reparations,’ but it’s what Georgetown did. Scope is debatable. But it’s reparations.” Coates wants “special acknowledgment” from above, in the service of spiritual renewal — which explains his penchant for means-tested trickle-down anti-racism. But if he had faith in the masses, as Fannie Lou Hamer did, he’d see that the renewal and acknowledgement he seeks comes from below, from class solidarity in the struggle for universal emancipation.
Harvard has a $37 billion endowment. Mere months before Coates’s appearance, dining workers at the school were locked in a protracted battle for a living wage. Many of these workers are themselves descendants of slaves, but the university was unmoved by their struggle. The dining workers spent the better part of a month on strike, before finally forcing Harvard to concede to their demands. The university was quicker to take the less expensive measure of admitting that the school was complicit in 17th century slavery than it was to pay its workers fairly today.
I’m a former staffer for UNITE HERE, a hospitality union. Last year, I worked on a campaign in a multiethnic, multiracial university cafeteria in Chicago. The campaign’s primary demands were for wage increases and healthcare, using the slogan “Dignity and a Doctor.” Negotiations with the subcontractor had stalled, and strike preparations were under way. Pressures ran high. Workers were afraid. However, just as stories catalyzed resistance for Civil Rights leaders, stories anchored the worker organizing in our campaign. Though workers’ struggles with poverty wages and a lack of health coverage were crucial, one story stood out above the others. Workers continually shared stories that their Chinese colleagues were being abused for speaking Chinese on the shop floor. Managers would walk past, and upon hearing Chinese, they’d smack the speaker on the back of the head commanding the worker to “speak English!”
Most of the workers were people of color, but the majority were not Chinese. The largest plurality in the workplace was made up of African-Americans, virtually all of whom only spoke English. But everyone could identify with the indignity of the story, the asymmetrical relations that empowered the bosses to abuse any one of them for any reason. Workers from a whole range of identities fought in solidarity with the Chinese workers. Discrimination on the basis of language became a central demand in the broader campaign. The campaign attached the specificity of the Chinese workers’ situation to all the workers’ common struggle against the boss. It was class struggle; not enough to overcome racism the world over, but a brief glimpse of solidarity across backgrounds and experiences, through acknowledging the shared indignity of class exploitation.
In the end, the workers won. As the campaign victories were listed, the excitement in the room was overwhelming, a type of energy that I’d only ever felt at a particularly intense church service or while attending a high-stakes game in a packed stadium. The organizer announced that healthcare had been won. We clapped. We celebrated as the wage increases were added up. But when the organizer revealed that the contract guaranteed the right to speak non-English languages in the workplace, the room erupted. The Black workers were palpably just as invested as the Chinese workers, and everyone was ecstatic.
Because he fails to deeply consider the real, material resistance of the masses, the kind that guided Fannie Lou Hamer, Coates idealizes racism. He evokes metaphors of earthquakes and physical laws to describe its magnitude. But for the workers in that university cafeteria, racism was a smack from a boss. For millions of poor Black people, racism is the corrosive water pipes poisoning their bodies. School closures, crumbling and unstable housing, and all the intimately practical things necessary for everyday life are the measure of racism. These racist realities are not separable from questions of class. In fact, they are expressions of class politics. The racialized tragedies faced daily by the masses require us to embrace class struggle, not Coates’s demobilizing metaphysical maxims about how white people “must ultimately stop themselves.” Solidarity from below, between cafeteria workers, truck drivers, secretaries, and any number of everyday people is worth magnitudes more than special acknowledgement from elites. This solidarity through shared struggle, as Fannie Lou Hamer recognized, is the foundation for social transformation. Where Coates would have us retreat, she called on us to march. She knew that the only way to defeat racism was to fight it, every step of the way.