“The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms,” said Senator Barack Obama in a 2006 keynote address. “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.”
He went on to extol “the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change.” Because of “its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man,” Obama “was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.”
As an adult convert, Obama’s first perception about the Black Church was its “grounding of faith in struggle.”
Historically, he’s right. Whether through Sojourner Truth or Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King or James Baldwin, Pauli Murray or Alice Walker, slave spirituals or Duke Ellington, the song of justice had, if not a religious melody, at least a church-driven backbeat.
But what does the struggle for justice look like today? Even the seminary-trained activist and writer Rahiel Tesfamariam acknowledges that current movements “have changed the predominant image of black activism in America. The front lines of the fight for civil rights are no longer ‘manned’ by the traditional leaders of the black community: well-dressed, respectable clergymen.”
Then what energizes the struggle? What shape does the African American struggle take, without the Black Church?
On the ground, it’s going to look like the Black Lives Matter movement that Tesfamariam describes. On the printed page, it’s going to look like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s acclaimed Between the World and Me.
Most would not think to pick up this slim memoir, a winner of last year’s National Book Award, for its religion commentary. But Coates offers a fierce response to the question posed above. His struggle for justice rejects the comfort of the church, the hope of its heavenly spirituals, and even the existence of the spirit at all. There’s one goal, and it’s earthly: the preservation and liberation of the black body.
Coates sometimes speaks of his own body, but he’s far more centered on that of his son, Samori, whose very name means “Struggle.”
To his son, he bequeaths no family Bible, no religious creeds or hymns. “Hope is a song in a weary throat,” wrote Pauli Murray in Dark Testament. Coates is tired of singing. “I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. … The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.”
To his son, he instead bequeaths a legacy of Black atheism that remarkably goes back to his 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 fact of my total end. Coates would prefer we have less theology and more necrology. Brown, Crawford, Garner, McBride, Rice. Black bodies totally ended. Fact.
And when his son learned on the news that yet another killer would go free, Coates did what his grandparents did for him: “I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.”
When he had been his son’s age, he had to make a choice about how to face his fear-filled streets. Like Baldwin before him, he considered the comforts of religion. But he “could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries.” He didn’t see the arc of the universe like King did. “My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.”
Like Baldwin, the young Coates was attracted to the pragmatic realism of Malcolm X: no “better angels” or “intangible spirit” or “mystery gods” or “meek inherit the earth” or “turn the other cheek.” But Coates’s “Mecca” was instead a world of books, history, and literature at Howard University. The Howard Yard was his Temple Mount, the library his Holy of Holies. From here he would begin, like Miranda’s Hamilton, to “write his way out” of the struggle for his body.
The birth of his son extended the struggle into an unpredictable, harrowing future. If Samori has a chance at all, he must incarnate the steely existentialism of his father, resisting “the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law.” Rather, “you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
Is his apocalyptic existentialism overstated? Not in the world of Tamir Rice.
Nor in the world of Prince Jones, Coates’s friend from Howard who was killed by a police officer. When telling that story, via an interview with Jones’s mother, Coates reflects again on the Black Church. Only here, near the end, does the reader learn that his son’s maternal lineage did come through the church, a mother and grandfather whose “first intellectual adventures were found in the recitation of Bible passages.” And only here, just once, perhaps out of respect for his wife and father-in-law, but more pressingly out of awe for the courage of Prince Jones’s mother, does Coates question his staunch materialism.
I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you.
The “great composure and greater pain” of Dr. Mable Jones caused even Coates to ponder the spirit, and to see in her poise the faces from the civil rights movement. “They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real.”
Coates both honors and rejects it—the Bible’s shield of faith, breastplate of righteousness, sword of the spirit. But, God or not, his son needs the armor.