This has been an interesting moment in time for blackness. The imperfect harmony of the nightmare that police brutality against black bodies along with the exoneration of whiteness and the beauty of black pride and some semblance of existential unity hearkening to years past. Two hallmarks of this time period have been both Kendrick Lamar and Ta-Nehesi Coates, providing an artistic outlet for this moment. Kendrick, with a radiating persona, dropped an album earlier this year that didn’t as much “change the game” inasmuch that the album was the right sound at the right time. Coates’ book Between the World and Me functioned the same as well–the right book at the right time. So much so that the release date for his book was moved up to capitalize on the zeitgeist of this moment.
Kendrick is Christian. Coates is an atheist.
Kendrick who’s song “Alright” from the album was released as a single recently seems to have captured the sentiments of hope with a simple refrain “we gon’ be alright” when he performed at the 2015 BET Awards on top of abandoned and graffitied police cars. Coates’ much anticipated book was written in epistolary format, borrowing from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, is a book intentional void of hope; Coates is intentional in anchoring his lens of commentary and critique in the struggle and how he understands the black male body.
Every thirty or so pages Coates made sure to let the reader know that he was not Christian, atheist in fact. For him not having that as a tradition in which he was raised in, he opted for the body over that of the soul. The discussion of the black male body is a running theme in much of Coates corpus of work, and is the string that ties his letters to his son together. For me, as someone with a theological and spiritual background, engaging a discussion about the black body, and in this case, the black male body, is a discussion we don’t have often. Or at least as often as we should.
Because of that, if I had my way, I would want to be a fly on the wall and put Ta-Nehesi and Kendrick in a room together and hear what they would have to say to one another.
I’m uniquely interested in how these two would reconcile the yearnings of hope and the insistence of the struggle. Coates hangs his hat that struggle is the only thing he can offer his son. Going so far as to name his child Samori, which means “struggle.” Decidedly, Coates ran as far as humanly possible away from hope as something to offer both his son and obviously to the reader as well. It is a text entered into the vade mecum of blackness that stands out because it does not rush toward some hope of a future that’s different. Melvin Rogers, associate professor of African American Studies & Political Science at UCLA wrote in Dissent Magazine that
After all, the meaning of action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us. But when one views white supremacy as impregnable, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained.
Coates is no James Baldwin. Either in terms of his writing style or content. As Rogers pointed out, Baldwin was a son of hope, Coates is not. Instead, Coates does write in a Baldwin-esque mind frame by delivering some inconvenient truths to an America that may or may not be willing and ready to receive it. Cornel West, in a rather scathing response simply said Coates was a “mere darling of White and Black Neo-liberals” which begs the question is Coates work landing just in the ears of white liberal sensibilities or does the impact go farther.
Coates’ dogged insistence on the body strikes a strong chord with a black generation shaped and formed in the gap of modernity and postmodern sensibilities wrestling with their place in a global society and also what it means to be a citizen of the American empire. For many of them, or rather us, part of the struggle has been at what point does spirituality, namely Christianity run out? At what point does it no longer exist to have wells deep enough to carry the pain and the despair. When I read West’s Facebook post against Coates, that’s namely what I saw: two diametrically opposed ideologues over the issue of whether to hope or not.
Kendrick’s life story growing up in the streets of Los Angeles and Coates’ life growing up in inner-city Baltimore are both life stories I don’t overly identify with personally, but growing up on the South Side of Chicago, they are both known testaments that are well within the sight of my vision. How could two people with similar life experiences be at such opposite ends of a spectrum when it comes to the future of black lives in America? My gut feeling is to side with Kendrick; to entrench myself with the thought that we gon’ be alright. However choosing to talk about the plunder of the black body, a running theme beyond just his latest book but even in his famous essay “The Case for Reparations” resonated with me in a way that I had not been able to put into words prior. Being able to read a text that gives vocabulary, that gives utterance to unnamed emotions is liberating, spiritual in fact. The way that Christians understand that the Holy Spirit “makes prayer out of wordless sighs and aching groans” is similar in the way that reading the words of a text or listening to music can move the inner-being. Something about the realness of Coates refusal to move past the pain reverberates with my soul.
The irony of that.
If Kendrick and Ta-Nehesi were in a room together, I would hope they would discuss what it means to be black for them. Is it first understood on the personal level or is always understood in the collective. I wonder what type of music do they listen to in their off time. Do they feel that they occupy a particular platform given their ascendancy to being public figures? What does black masculinity mean to them and how do they choose to see other black men through that–do gay, bisexual and trans-men fit into that paradigm? What about black women? How do they understand them speaking on behalf of other people, or do they reject that notion altogether. It would be interesting to know what type of relationship they have with their parents or had with grandparents. How influential were male figures in their life versus that of black women? Do you hate white people? What is the role of white people in a Black-centric worldview? If Kendrick asked Ta-Nehesi why he’s choosing to leave America and move to France, I would certainly wonder how he’d respond to that.
It’s not a foreign concept knowing that many black artists expatriated at some point to Europe in the 20th century such as Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, Nina Simone and even James Baldwin. Author Thomas Chatterton Williams came under assault after an op-ed piece for the New York Times earlier this year when he suggested that black Americans could find a type of refuge in Europe advocating for a “next great migration” conjuring the Great Migration when blacks left the South in search of warmth from other suns in the northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York. Coates seems to be following in that tradition. While personally, I don’t see Europe as a place of expatriation for me, I get it. I would hope Kendrick would ask that question to Ta-Nehesi: why won’t you stay? Perhaps Ta-Nehesi would flip and say “why won’t you leave?”
Ta-Nehesi and Kendrick are two sides of the same coin, perhaps. Well, maybe to place them as diametrically opposed to one another isn’t fair to the complexities that the human existence hold, let alone what it means to be black–both in body and in soul. I wouldn’t expect this conversation to have some grand conclusion, that finally we’ve can consider the matter settled in anyway. Soul-talk, I would contend, doesn’t like that, and neither does the vast majority of what Cornel West calls the black prophetic Christian tradition. This trope is never more apparent than in the black preaching tradition that not only focuses heavily on hope, but also providing conclusionary theology: while God may be abstract, there will be a conclusive statement about what God is. As much as that is is a theological declaration birthed out of one’s belief in the soul, their eschatological trajectory as well as basic religious and doctrinal beliefs, it also functions as a very secular sociology that one’s humanity requires a conclusion.
Assuming that Kendrick subscribes to some of the basic tenets of Christianity that places the conclusion in the hereafter, I would really like to hear he and Ta-Nehesi try and make sense of what I see as two different points of conclusion. Is one right, the other wrong? How is one’s lived existence altered because of the belief that this is it, versus the idea that there may be more to come.
So if the gods of blackness are kind, please let this conversation happen–and let me there to see it.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL