September 19, 2013 / Perspective
A review of Colleen Warren’s effort to construct an incarnational theory of language from Annie Dillard’s rich four-decade corpus.
December 22, 2016
For seven years I taught English literature and composition at Cristo Rey, a Jesuit high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In my last year there, I taught an AP English class to twelfth graders. Almost all of the students in this class—and in the school as a whole—were either Latino or African American. In the particular class I’m remembering, we had just finished a unit on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In order to get my students to support truly arguable (and not merely obvious) thesis statements, I read aloud from a sheet of one-sentence claims about the play. “Hamlet loves Ophelia,” I said, and my students, who were standing in the middle of the classroom, walked to one side of the room if they agreed with the statement or to the other if they didn’t. They could also hover in the middle if they didn’t feel strongly one way or another. A number of these statements provoked the kind of disagreement I was looking for: when I said, “Spying is the way to truth” the class split, as they did when I said, “Ophelia is a good daughter” and “Hamlet is a Christian.” There was one statement, however, that produced no disagreement: “We, like Hamlet, live in an unweeded garden.” My students, beautiful and hope-filled as they were, had no doubt that our country was as rife with corruption and injustice as Hamlet’s Denmark ever was.
Most of our discussion time in the AP class was spent on explicitly literary texts—novels, poems, plays, and short stories—but there were two times that year when students came to me and asked if we could directly address and respond to events occurring in the world around them. The first came in the aftermath of protests regarding the treatment of African American students at the University of Missouri. The second was to respond to the late Antonin Scalia’s inflammatory comments regarding the Abby Fisher case, when the Supreme Court justice asserted that perhaps the University of Texas “ought to have fewer” black students.1
For both of these news stories, my students felt a direct connection between the news they were reading and their own futures as citizens of the country. They wanted to understand what they were reading better by discussing it as a group. But there was something else as well. They wanted to speak to each other with honest directness about a particular kind of pain they were feeling. Their conversations on these days took the form of a lament, and it is a form I think we as a church and culture need to spend more time understanding and practicing. This lament is also at the heart of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent book, Between the World and Me.
What is a lament? We might think of a funeral scene and of the wailing, moaning, and weeping we observe there. This is lament, but I want to add something else as well: for the Christian, true laments always have social and cosmic significance, rooted as they are in the hope that God listens to our cries. As theologian Bryan Massingale argues in his excellent study Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, it is hope that causes Christians to resist injustices, to defy unjust authorities and laws.2
Words themselves can often constitute defiance and resistance. Consider a biblical example of this in the words of Job, who, after losing almost everything he has—children, land, crops, and health—cries out: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 NAB). Job is a good man. He does not lose faith in God. But as the story progresses, and the friends who visit fail to console him in his distress and suffering, Job’s words grow flintier. They have a bite to them. Here is a man who “rescued the poor who cried out for help,” who “was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame,” who studied “the rights of the stranger” (29:15 and 16). Yet now, for no apparent reason, this good man is laid low.
The reader knows that Satan has decided to test Job and that God has agreed to allow the testing. But Job doesn’t know this. His friends don’t either, and they assume the worst: that Job has broken faith with God, that he has done something terrible, and that his losses and sufferings are God’s just punishment for Job’s wrongdoing. But Job refuses to acknowledge something that isn’t true. He demands to be heard by God, and the words he chooses flare with honest anger.
These words are laments, and they hold great power and consolation for those who suffer: “Oh, that I had one to hear my case,” Job cries out, late in the book, “and that my accuser would write out his indictment! Surely I should wear it on my shoulder or put it on me like a diadem; of all my steps I should give him an account; like a prince I should present myself before him” (31:35–37). These are risky, defiant, and hopeful words.
During that Scalia discussion I mentioned, one of my senior students said, “I’ve had white students say to me, ‘Oh, you’re lucky, it’s going to be much easier for you to win that scholarship because you’re Latina.’ I get so angry at comments like that!” This student went on to say that she did not want to gain entrance to a university because of her ethnicity but rather because she had earned it through her academic performance. She said that her classmate’s comments, as well as the ones by Justice Scalia, showed no understanding of the struggles she had faced as a student or of the particular realities facing her family.
As she spoke, my student was unable to hold back her tears. She was articulating what it’s like to live a world in which things are not as they should be. And behind those tears was an anger, a Job-like plea, an impatience for things to change.
I doubt very much that my student would talk about her comments as drawing on the language of Job. Likewise, I doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates would use the language of prophecy to describe his own writing. Nevertheless, I find that as a Christian I cannot make sense of Coates’s words—or those of my students—without prophecy, without the body of Christ.
Saint Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “There are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’. . . If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor. 12:21 and 26). Coates, following the insights of James Baldwin, reveals that American racism damages the whole of the civic body, not just those who are oppressed. White people—or, better yet, those who “believe they are white,” as Coates puts it—are impoverished by the poverty and mistreatment of black people. This insight, which echoes Nelson Mandela, Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr., recognizes the central principle of Paul’s message and the gospel itself: to overlook the pain and suffering of one of your brothers or sisters is to overlook your own pain and suffering. As the poet and churchman John Donne famously wrote, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” To refuse to recognize the suffering of one’s brothers and sisters is to be deaf to the tolling of the bell.3
But lament has the capacity to bring hearing to the deaf. When one is truly a listener in these situations, one enters into the suffering of another person. The listener can be moved to the same anger and desire for change that animate the speaker. Rather than burning bridges between people as we might expect, true lament builds us up through its honest expression of human pain and suffering.
Coates has made it clear in his writing and public speaking that he is not a religious person, and in Between the World and Me, he acknowledges that he does not believe in God. And yet his book seems to draw on the biblical sense of lament. It tells the intimate story of how racism has affected his life and the life of his community, and like Job, he refuses to acknowledge that anything in this situation is as it should be. Like Job, Coates cries out for witnesses. He calls to his son and to us, his readers, urging us to find our own connections to his situation, our own places to stand in defiance of injustice.
In one of the closing passages of the book, I was surprised to find Coates openly admiring the faith of a Christian. Reflecting on Mabel Jones’s response to the unjust killing of her son—who was also a classmate of Coates—by an undercover police officer, Coates writes of Christianity: “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 perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.” Coates explains that like his parents before him, he has not transmitted faith in God to his son, the you in this passage, but he acknowledges the potential existence of “something beyond anything [he] has ever understood.”4 In his desire to teach his son how to live well in this world, he will not reject anything that is good.
There are critics of Between the World and Me—some of them Catholic, for instance Don Wycliff and Rusty Reno—who see Coates as dour or pessimistic. I disagree. Coates is a poet who turns the earth of his imagination with the real. He is an embodied black man who accepts Malcom X’s call toward the body and the prevention of its suffering. Again and again, Coates asks us to consider broken black bodies. But he doesn’t ask us as his teachers at the public school in Baltimore asked. His ask is a cry. His ask is a lament. Of his slain Howard classmate Prince Jones, Coates writes, “There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.”5 This wound is not a source of bitterness for Coates, as Catholic reviewers like Reno and Wylcliff argue, but rather a source of insight.
When I was eleven years old, I first read the book Black Like Me. This was the story of a white journalist, John Howard Griffin, who had the pigment of his skin artificially darkened. He underwent this experiment so that he could understand more fully what it meant to be a black man in the United States. Whenever I share information about Griffin—as I have sometimes with the students of color whom I’ve taught—I am quick to point out that, yes, Griffin had the ability to choose to “be black” for a time, as a person of color does not have the ability to choose to “be white.” He passed as black and then was able to pass back to being white once the ultra-violet treatments and the effects of the skin-darkening drug began to wear off after about six months.
This fall I am not teaching at Cristo Rey. I have spent almost ten years with teenagers—primarily teenagers of color—and I’ve now decided to take a break. I feel burned out, as if I’ve used up my capacity for this particular kind of work. The experience has changed me, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but like Griffin, I am ready to step away. And like Griffin, I recognize that this ability to step in and out—to move, to change—is a luxury. My brothers and sisters of color cannot shrug off the difficulties associated with their skin; few of them can simply leave a neighborhood that is killing them or their loved ones.
But no teacher ever leaves teaching completely behind. And I don’t think that any of us can afford not to teach, especially in this moment in our history. The more I read him, the more certain I am that what Coates is doing throughout his writing is what I have been trying to do in my daily work. He is teaching. He is teaching his son about the world and the way he has survived here, but he is also teaching his readers. He has taught me that language’s power is not measured strictly by its ability to create a policy or movement. Rather, it is a capacity in the heart and the mind to understand a person different from yourself. In an interview with the journalist Ezra Klein after Coates published his Atlantic piece, “The Case for Reparations,” Coates asked Klein, “What happened to imagination? Not the world we live in but the world we want to live in?”
I hear those lines, and I think of my students. These students may or may not have heard of Coates, but they don’t need Coates to know that, for them, there has always been something a little unreal about the American dream. Last fall, they turned on a television and considered the candidates for president of the United States, and in one party, the leading candidate proposed deporting all undocumented immigrants en masse. They went to their workplaces and heard their supervisors supporting this candidate. Astonishingly, this candidate has now become the president-elect. They are in college now, those AP English students. I know they read the news. It seems like every month there is a new case of a young unarmed black man who has been killed by police forces. I know my students read these stories. Sometimes the stories are complex and require investigation to understand exactly what has occurred; sometimes they are exactly what they appear to be: the brutal exercise and enforcement of power over the powerless. My students have the need to lament these situations as Coates has. If any of them are to be prophetic in the way our Judeo-Christian tradition has thought of prophecy, we need to give them the space and training to speak their laments, and if need be, to groan or shout them until they are heard.
Zach Czaia is a poet living and working in Chicago, Illinois. His first collection of poems, Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota), in part a response to the clergy sex abuse crisis in his then-home diocese, was published in 2015 by Wipf and Stock.