The fire this time (4)

According to Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me, his widely acclaimed new book, “The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.” Later he decries “the horror of our prison system” and “the long war against the black body[.]”

“Here is what I would like for you to know,” Coates confides to his son. “In America it is traditional to destroy the black body–it is heritage.” Suburbs are built on “human bones.” Jails are “angle[d” toward “a human stockyard.” Our democracy remains dependent on “cannibalism.”

Although Coates resurrects the hoary shibboleths of black beauty and black power, blacks appear in this book as little but victims. Black agency disappears. Coates conjures even black-on-black crime as nothing other than a construct and creation of the Man (or, as Coates has it, the “Dreamers,” at 110-111):

“Black on black” crime is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the [restrictive property] covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.

The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely on those who are dying in them. There is a great deception in this. To yell “black-on-black crime” is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.

Not surprisingly, Coates has detached himself from his fellow countrymen, though in a rather remarkable way. On 9/11, Coates was in New York. “[L]ooking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own….I would never consider any American citizen pure. I was out of sync with the city.” He invokes the death of his acquaintance Prince Jones (at the hands, let it be remembered, of a black police officer working in a department under black leadership) to make this declaration (87):

I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could–with no justification–shatter my body.

In the heyday of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, the blue collar philosopher Eric Hoffer rendered this concise critique of the book: “Soul on horse manure.” Ta-Nehisi Coates richly deserves the same judgment on his manifesto.