Historical/sociological/economic/journalistic analysis often attempts a coherence that renders death explicable, if not excusable. Take Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2015), a eulogy to black American self-determination. In one poem, Rankine calls a register of black men and women shot by police in the US (134-35):
The poem simulates a war memorial to black lives lost to a racist police regime. Yet it is no quiet send-off, but deeply sardonic. It seems to argue that the narrative bent of history makes it fatalistic, and so apolitical. Rankine’s bleak reservation of blank spaces for the names of those yet to be killed suggest that, once “police brutality” becomes an historical phenomenon, the names of its victims write themselves. Not only this, we license the deferral of political action by insisting events must be situated within a ‘bigger picture’: only once the names have been collected into a sufficient catalogue can this tribute be made.
What’s more, it is easy for narrative to bend towards redemption. The memorial that begins ‘In Memory of’ usually finishes ‘those who gave their lives in the service of [X nation] in [Y war]’. It canonises those in the small print by corralling them under an ideological banner, nationalistic or otherwise. Rankine’s poem draws attention to the way that grouping the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice together confers upon their deaths a kind of worthiness by co-opting
them to a civil rights struggle. Coates is sceptical. Of the killing of his friend Prince Jones, he writes:
I could see no higher purpose in Prince’s death. I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh. Prince Jones was a one of one, and they destroyed his body, scorched his shoulders and arms, ripped open his back, mangled lung, kidney, and liver. I sat there feeling myself a heretic, believing only in this one-shot life and the body. For the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones, I did not believe in forgiveness. When the assembled mourners bowed their heads in prayer, I was divided from them because I believed that the void would not answer back. (78)
Though ostensibly critiquing the Christian doctrine of the afterlife, Coates is by analogy referring to the redemptive tendencies of ’sociology’, ‘history’ and ‘economics’, which abstract ‘bodies’ into ‘lives’ just as religion does into ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’. By theorising a community greater than the individual body, such discourses convert ‘the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones’ into a blow to a ‘body politic’ that outlives it. Coates disassembles the body politic, speaking repeatedly of the body as ‘a one of one’. The individual deaths of black Americans cannot be calculated for visualisation in ‘graphs’ or ‘charts’, but are only ever one plus one plus one, their devastating finality unmitigated by aggregation. While debates around “police brutality” continue to rage ad infinitum, ‘one-shot’ (at least for a non-believer such as Coates) ends a ‘life’ absolutely. By refusing anything beyond the body, insisting that ‘[t]he spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible’, Coates creates a sense of urgency that he hopes will precipitate action to preserve the ‘precious’ black body now, rather than discuss it later (103). Once the body’s destroyed, it’s game over: ‘Damn it all. Prince Jones was dead’ (87). Journalism’s challenge, one I’m also faced with, is how to present evidence in a way that both recognises a broader pattern and renders each death singularly cataclysmic.
Coates doesn’t consider himself an atheist per se, but rather ‘conscious’, woke (78). He speaks of white Americans as ‘Dreamers’, sleepwalking through reality. This not only distinguishes his awareness of the finitude of the black body from others’ Christian or statistical self-deception; it goes back to a postcolonial truism regarding the difference between white and black dis/embodiment. Because of the black body’s historical commodification (‘in America,’ says Coates, ‘black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value’ ), because of what Harvey Young calls ‘the epidermalization of blackness, the inscription of meaning onto skin’ (Embodying Black Experience, 1), the black body is weighted with meaning, loaded with value; as Coates puts it, ‘enslaved by a tenacious gravity’ (20). For Black Americans, ‘[d]isembodiment’ is, as Coates points out, the ultimate ‘terrorism’ (113), since history has rendered the body their only bartering tool. White Americans, Coates argues, live in a state of disembodiment, their bodies neutral, unmarked and therefore free. The Dream is perfect houses and nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. (11)
Coates’ imagery moves between airy genericism (‘perfect houses and nice lawns’) and sensory evanescence (‘smells like peppermint’). It is physical but non-bodily, the ‘things’ that surround the white body rather than the body itself. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses this racial phenomenology in Americanah (2014). Her protagonist Ifemelu, a socially-mobile Nigerian woman educated in the US, feels that her white American boyfriend Curt ‘could, with a few calls, rearrange the world, have things slide into the spaces that he wanted them to’ (202). Her word ‘slide’ conjures a certain frictionlessness that allows Curt to float dream-like above the world and ‘rearrange’ it beneath him. Ifemelu feels white America disintegrating the black body: with Curt she is ’lighter and leaner; she was Curt’s Girlfriend, a role she slipped into as into a favourite, flattering dress’ (196), while her expatriate friend Ginika is ‘much thinner’ than she was in Nigeria (122). Dreamers take no heed of the body, because they are not limited by, answerable to or disciplined within it.
Yet Ifemelu’s feeling of weightlessness belies the incompatibility of the white American Dream with the reality of the black body. Americanah’s climax, in which Ifemelu prostitutes herself to a white American tennis coach, serves as her brutal comedown from the Dream:
She took off her shoes and climbed into his bed. She did not want to be here, did not want his active finger between her legs, did not want his sigh-moans in her ear, and yet she felt her body rousing to a sickening wetness. Afterwards, she lay still, coiled and deadened. He had not forced her. She had come here on her own. […] Now, even after she had washed her hands, holding the crisp, slender hundred-dollar bill he had given her, her fingers still felt sticky; they no longer belonged to her. […] She walked to the train, feeling heavy and slow, her mind choked with mud, and, seated by the window, she began to cry. (154)
Ifemelu’s post-coital self-loathing is triggered by a conviction that her trauma was not ‘forced’, that ‘[s]he had come here on her own’. Yet Ifemelu is only semi-conscious that her bodily autonomy has long since been rescinded: the ‘complete assuredness’ of the coach’s ‘expression and tone’ indicates he ‘already knew she would stay’, his political and financial power leaving Ifemelu ‘defeated’ before she even enters his bed (154). For all Ifemelu’s Afropolitan mobility, her body is invisibly entangled in a matrix of economic, social and political constraints. Leaving the coach’s house, Ifemelu feels ‘heavy and slow, her mind choked with mud’, mired in an ineffaceable bodily reality. Her sexual assault makes clear that Curt’s weightlessness depends on Ifemelu’s gravity, the Dream that allows white bodies to rearrange their realities on the violent manipulation of black bodies. As Coates puts it, white American ’free will and free spirits […] rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies’ (25, 11). In a grimly literal sense, the American Dream is built on numberless black bodies violenced first in the cotton fields, now on the streets.
Ifemelu’s response to this enforced embodiment is to masochistically embrace it: ’Back in her apartment, she washed her hands with water so hot that it scalded her fingers, and a small soft welt flowered on her thumb’ (154). Through this act of genuine masochism (as opposed to the seemingly self-inflicted but institutionally necessitated violence of the tennis coach), Ifemelu reclaims the body of which she has been dispossessed. It’s a technique Coates remembers his father employing: ‘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’ (14). Coates’s father beats him to deprive the law of the pleasure of doing so (’“Either I can beat him, or the police”’, 16). He beats his son as a reminder of his mortality, ‘so that [he] might remember how easily [he] could lose [his] body’ (16). More than anything, Coates’s father beats his son for fear of losing him, to furiously reconstitute his bodily presence. Like Coates’s flagellation, Ifemelu’s scalding has an oddly pharmaceutical quality, in the Ancient Greek sense of pharmakon: a drug, whether healing or noxious, remedy or poison. If freedom is lost through the body, there too will it be recuperated. So says Coates of his attraction to the Black Panthers over the pacifism of the King and his ilk:
I was attracted to their guns, because the guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language—violence. (29)
Coates argues much the same in a recent Atlantic article addressing the Dallas shootings: that under a ‘despotic’ police system whose ‘primary language’ is not the law, but what he calls ‘force’, people will inevitably respond in kind. ‘[I]f the law is nothing but a gang,’ he writes, ‘then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street’: violence.
Yet this isn’t the ‘defense’ Coates has in mind. He’s no apologist for Micah Xavier Johnson’s crimes, which in the Atlantic he calls ‘horrific’, albeit ‘predictable’. Violence need not be circular. When Coates writes that ‘[o]ur world is physical. Learn to play defense—ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body’ (32), he’s calling not our fists, but our ‘eyes’ to the body. Like Rankine and Adichie, he’s demanding writers speak to the bodily reality of “police brutality”, for one reason: it’s not just violence that breeds violence, but our wilful ignorance of it, media oversight of the black bodily experience that creates the pressure cooker in which people like Johnson explode. Coates, Rankine and Adichie instigate a poetry-ethnography of the black body to stop its being dreamt into nonexistence, to stop white America from fantasising itself free.