Poetry of Witness, Vertigo, and Absolution

David Beach – Thursday, March 9, 2017, 9:38 PM

God’s gifts through Ta-Nehisi Coates

On page 50 of Between the World and Me, Coates lists a number of poets and artists who had the courage to live “in the void, in the not yet knowable, in the pain, in the question”; they “pulled their energy from the void.” In this space, this void, their work is not quite political, nor is it necessarily personal; it is, as Carolyn Forche, one of the poets named by Coates, says, “social.” [1] Coates’ describes his social space in deeply personal and inherently political language, which resonates with the African-American experience over the last several decades, and, perhaps, with people of other colors who’ve been disillusioned with “the Dream.”

The killing of Dr. Mable Jones’ son, Prince, and the killing of Michael Brown represent disillusioning moments in the lives of Ta-Nehisi and Samori Coates—moments when assumptive worlds were shattered in an irreparable way, or perhaps a final shattering in a series of shatterings. It is from this disillusioned place, this place of exclusion from the Dream that Ta-Nehisi writes Between the World and Me—his offering in prose bearing witness to what it means to be a black male in urban America.

Through this lens of “Witness” literature, I listen to Ta-Nehisi’s telling of the episodes that took him from fear “to a rage that burned in [him] then, animates [him] now, and will likely leave [him] on fire for the rest of [his] days” (p. 83). From a place of immersion in his various American communities, Ta-Nehisi bears witness to the extremities of life as a black man in the artful and graphic language of metaphors, often from physics. The “tenacious gravity” that enslaved black bodies in the “American Galaxy” stretching from the “pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting ground of Mr. Belvedere” draws readers deeper into the “inscrutable energy” that “preserved the breach” (p. 21-22). Ta-Nehisi describes his developing consciousness of being black as more than just a benign “photonegative” of those who “believe they are white” (p. 42). He began to see “the larger culture’s erasure of black beauty” and the horrifying “destruction of the black body” (p. 44). He believed “what was required was a new story, a new history told through the lens of our struggle” (p. 44). This is his response; this is his bearing witness—necessary black history “weaponized to our noble ends” (p. 44).

In Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting, she says this:

We should not consider our social lives as merely the products of our choice: the social is a place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated. It is the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.

By situating poetry in this social space, we can avoid some of our residual prejudices. A poem that calls us from the other side of a situation of extremity cannot be judged by simplistic notions of “accuracy” or “truth to life.” It will have to be judged, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said of confession, by its consequences, not by our ability to verify its truth. In fact, the poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence.[2]

Ta-Nehisi’s witness certainly is the sole trace of his own struggle with the constructs of color and race in America; however, the simple fact that it became a #1 New York Times bestseller lifts it out of the category of simple memoir, I think. For me, it becomes the artfully articulated historical witness of the consciousness of millions of people.

Though Ta-Nehisi denies theology as his enterprise and Christianity as his creed, he advances the voice of the oppressed in the style of black theology, which gives primacy of place to human experience, the wide and varied experiences of human pain and suffering caused by “evil.” Much like James T. Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Coates takes on the Christianization of lynching and the common practices of murder as a means of social and political control.

In my contexts

As an educator in the social sciences, one of my jobs is to raise the consciousness of issues like prejudice, bias, discrimination, racism, and racial identity all in the context of a Social Problems approach. Ta-Nehisi’s words and metaphors, his recollections, like the rapid fire of a weapon, use words to bring to consciousness what may be new and completely different thoughts and feelings about America for my predominantly white, middle-class, students. I consider his work a great gift for bringing to awareness race and color issues in America.

As a counselor, I consider his writing an example of the power of personal narrative. Through narrative reconstruction, several clients need to develop their own metaphors, to name what they feel/felt, to adequately tell their story. Ta-Nehisi’s rich figurative language provides beautiful expressions using astrophysics and different fields to talk even about telling a story well. An example: “The dizziness, the vertigo that must come with any odyssey” (p. 55) is a beautiful way of naming the weight of his realizations of what it meant to be black in America.

As a person

I remember well my own discovery of what it meant to be a Beach, a descendant of Joel T. Beach, Justice of the Peace of Ripley County in southern Indiana in the 19th century. I remember my joy in discovering in the Historical Society the document that designated him as such. And I remember my confusion in seeing the sign of the cross for his signature. For a time I was puzzled. Was he illiterate? Did someone else write his will? Did someone else write the letter I found that explained the distribution of his farm upon his death, that named each of his 10 children, one of which was my great-grandfather, John Henry Beach? Then I learned that it was the sign of the clan, and I was shocked and in turmoil. Since then, I have searched for a way to discharge my sense of responsibility for what he might have done. I rush to Ezekiel and find some comfort in the fact that sons will not be killed for the guilt of their fathers:

Ezekiel 18:17-20 “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.

“Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”

Still, I long for someone to listen to my confession. I long to confess the sins of my great-great grandfather, though I don’t know what they are, nor who will hear my confession. I am sad that it cannot be Ta-Nehisi Coates, for with him there is no redemption. Perhaps his son will hear it, and there can be absolution. I know God forgives through the blood. Perhaps Samori can see the blood and forgive.

[1] From Carolyn Forché, “Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” American Poetry Review 22:2 (March-April 1993), 17.

[2] Ibid.

About davebeach

Sixty-something follower of Jesus, retired college instructor of Psychology and Spirituality courses, writer, mental health director, therapist, and doctor of ministry.
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