Ta-Nehisi Coates' sharp criticism of Bernie Sanders on racial justice generally, and the issue of reparations in particular, has kicked up some interesting discussion and heated debate. Left responses to Coates piece – and Coates’ subsequent responses to his critics – have foregrounded once more the importance of thinking through the relationship between “race” and “class” in the imagination and the political strategy of an emancipatory social movement. The importance of such discussions, though clearly relevant to the current Presidential campaign, extends well beyond it, revealing and potentially informing the state of the radical imagination, as expressed in artistic works, critical discourse, as well as social movement culture, tactics, and strategy.
While literary critical in approach, the present piece (part two in a three-part analysis of Coates’ influential best-seller Between the World and Me), shares much in common with Bruce Dixon’s column in Black Agenda Report and Cedric Johnson’s more substantial discussion in Jacobin. My essay also intends to examine how Coates’ would-be-radical critique tends to marginalize or to suppress elements of a black radical tradition that grasped the relationship of race and class in very different ways that he does himself. The present piece (drafted before recent Coates/Sanders/reparations exchanges) offers a close reading of how Coates’ “race first” vs. “class first” critical framing itself stands in stark contrast to the approach of the very writer from whom he takes his blockbuster’s title and opening epigraph: Richard Wright. Part one of this series can be read here.
* * *
Framing Racial "Things" in Class Terms: “I Have Seen Black Hands” (1934)
In the non-fiction Richard Wright Reader, the short section on poetry – just eight pages in a 251 page volume –places Wright’s “Between the World and Me” (1935) – the namesake poem for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning best-seller – immediately following another Wright poem, “I Have Seen Black Hands” (1934). The two contemporary lyrics make for a rich combination, remarkable both for connections and for contrasts, both at the level of form and content. Together they suggest Wright’s early attempts at envisioning the relationship between class exploitation and racial oppression, both at the level of historical cause and effect, and at the level of potentially transformative revolutionary politics. The prospect of a class-based radical politics for Wright also had existential implications, offering a kind of spiritual sustenance in the face of an uncertain and even desperate struggle. [i] “Between the World and Me” (and Between the World and Me) looks rather radically different when read alongside “I Have Seen Black Hands.”
Part One of Wright’s “I Have Seen Black Hands” focuses on the hands of children coming into the world, learning to play, to grasp, to explore, to reach out. This section humanizes “black hands.” These hands are not yet in any clear way racialized, nor are they classed; the activities and objects grasped do not in themselves mark them as racially dominated or economically subordinate. They are human hands. The clear implication of these opening stanzas is that black children are not fundamentally different than non-black children, that black people are not born racialized, not born *othered,* and that the same human strivings – the same desire to explore and learn and play – live in them as in anyone else. [ii] (Such a theme Coates discusses as well.)
Wright’s Part Two offers a jarring contrast, showing us “millions and millions” of adult black hands that have been worn and calloused and tired and mangled by excessive toil. [iii] Here the colloquial synecdoche whereby a “hand” means a worker (“all hands on deck” in nautical parlance) comes into play. Whereas in Part One the hands express the desires of the human beings to whom they are attached, in Part Two these hands – and the “hands,” the workers – are made to serve others. They are hands that have been worn down by the economic system. At the same time, they are also hands that have produced great material wealth and immense accumulations of commodities. They are the hands of alienated laborers who have produced so much that they have (inadvertently) helped the bosses/owners to crash the economy, putting themselves out of work – in what Marxists understand as a "crisis of overproduction." They are the hands of soldiers who have gone to (imperialist) war, helping to conquer new territories and markets for the bosses who rule over them. They are powerful hands, but hands caught in a social system that turns their power into impotence. Whereas Part One ends with black hands reaching out eagerly and with “pride in a new maturity,” the newly unemployed black hands at the end of Part Two are idled and anxious: “they grew nervous and sweaty, and opened and shut in anguish and doubt and hesitation and irresolution…” Rather than helping the human aspirations of black hands to reach what they desire, the social system is shown turning proud and growing hands into doubting, hesitating ones.
Part Three of Wright’s poem returns us to terrain that readers of Coates will recognize, developing an account of the criminalization, incarceration, and destruction of black hands. But in a notable departure from Coates (and one that builds on Wright’s Part Two), this exclusion and violent repression is framed in relationship to the unemployment of the (previously employed) hands. These hands now reach out for the very goods that they helped to create, but which they lack the money to buy. Unable to reach them, they assert themselves in resistance – individual and collective –only to be refused and locked up by their rulers. The second half of this third section presents black hands that “felt the cold bars of the prison / they had made, in despair tested their strength and found that they could neither bend nor break them.” The incarcerated black hands are here depicted not just as prisoners or as victims, but as alienated labor in the starkest terms, as having literally constructed the prison that walls them in. They are proletarian hands, and yet – facing an added layer of racial and state oppression – they are depicted as isolated, as lacking the strength to overcome the prison they have been compelled to build.
Echoing Wright’s contemporary poem “Between the World and Me,” but with a difference, the closing lines of this third section focus on black hands now faced with mobs, lynch attackers, nooses and raging fires. The text here incorporates a scene virtually identical with the one that Wright explores in the other poem. But in the context of “I Have Seen Black Hands” the lynching of black people – and, by implication, white terror more generally – appears as the culmination of a process of exploitation, alienation, unemployment, economic deprivation, and, finally, of state (or paramilitary) repression. Racist terror is represented as in close relationship to economic class processes—and more precisely, as a response to the black rebellion and resistance that these processes produce (whether that resistance is of a ‘criminal’ or more ‘political’ type). Still though, like in “Between the World and Me,” the outlook is bleak; the third section of “I Have Seen Black Hands” concludes with a scene of lynching murder, a site where Black hands struggle futilely against “the noose that tightened against the black throat” and “the tall flames that cooked and charred the black flesh.” It would appear, once again, that all the black hands can do is wave in fear and desperation at the fires that are consuming their flesh. We are returned to the black victim in “Between the World...” who can do little but “clutch… childlike…to the hot sides of death.”
However, drawing upon the different framing outlined above, Part Four of “I Have Seen Black Hands” shifts the scene dramatically, bringing a ray of hope into a situation that otherwise looks hopeless. Suddenly the speaker sees more than Black hands and black skulls. Black hands, tightened into “fists of revolt,” now appear "side by side the fists of white workers,” as Wright’s speaker waxes prophetic:
I am black and I have seen black hands
Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the fists of white workers,
And some day – and it is only this that sustains me –
Some day there shall be millions and millions of them,
On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!
Wright’s speaker closes with a “burst” of hope, hope that is sustained by the prospect of “millions” of white worker fists joining the “millions” of black hands in struggle, and anchored in struggles already “seen” in the present. The possibility of a “red day” and a “new horizon” depends on white and black workers coming to build on the common struggles that now exist, to revolt together, “side by side” in solidarity (if not in identity). In the recognition of a common class enemy, Wright locates the prospects of a common alliance. Linking the fate of “black hands” to that of “white” ones, who are themselves being exploited and suppressed by the prevailing system – whatever relative privileges they may be allowed (or bought off with) – Wright’s speaker sees a renewed political possibility; the locked and lynched black hands are not alone.
Insofar as oppressed black subjects are not only pillaged bodies but exploited hands, they share with other hands a common interest in the liberation of labor from capitalist domination, and a common potential of making and remaking the world in line with human needs and desires. While the prospect of an interracial working-class alliance of “millions and millions” still seems distant – even faint, even in the “Red Decade” of the 1930s – it remains crucial. For it is “only this that sustains” Wright’s resistant speaker, in the face of what appear otherwise to be insurmountable odds.
Eighty years later, the “red day” that Wright was able to project as possibility – drawing from both the existence of an international communist movement abroad and from efforts to create interracial working-class unity in the USA –seems much more difficult to discern.
Coates’ Between the World and Me is in many ways symptomatic of this receded horizon.
Black Bodies without Black Hands?
Both Richard Wright’s “Between the World and Me” and “I Have Seen Black Hands” – like Coates’ best-seller – take as their central focus the deliberate destruction of black bodies. But the black body is framed very differently. If Wright’s “Between the World...” offers a reflection on the petrifying effects on lynching violence on one who “stumbles” upon its remnants, “I Have Seen Black Hands” offers something more along the lines of an attempt at a causal narrative, offering us an analysis of how the black hands end up being rendered and destroyed as vulnerable lynch victims in the first place. The scene that captures the speaker of “Between the World...” is, as Wright depicts in “I Have Seen Black Hands,” the tail end of a historical class process, a process of proletarianization. Whereas "Between the World..." leaves our speaker frozen in contemplation of the terror he has experienced, “I Have Seen Black Hands” offers hope – but only by reframing and expanding the scene of the conflict.
The class framework that Wright presents opens the possibility of not only human sympathy for the oppressed – or of mourning for those many thousands gone – but for solidarity with fellow “hands,” who share a common enemy. [iv] The white hands too are working-class subjects who are exploited, alienated, and locked out of possessing what they themselves have created under the rule of capital. Wright is thus able to envision a way out of the cage of racial oppression, but only by imagining a struggle that targets not just the state and the mob violence that ends Part Three, but the entire nexus of economic exploitation and state repression (including its racialized variant) that constitutes the system as such, the system that makes both the lock-ups and the lynchings possible (and necessary) in the first place.
Coates’ isolation of “Between the World and Me” as a focal text (and his effective separation of this poem from its contemporary partner “I Have Seen Black Hands”) is thus significant – we might even say symptomatic – expressing a particular and historically selective view of the black body whose status in white supremacist, Dream-bound America is his major theme. In Coates’ hands, as in much contemporary liberal and radical thinking about racism in America, the dialectical relation of race and class, of liberation and revolution that runs through the fibers of Richard Wright’s best work (and through the black marxist tradition more generally) tends to be pushed a side. In a way, race is broken off from class; the black body is de-classed.
We might provocatively suggest that Coates offers us the Black Body – without Black Hands. [v]
The flip side of this de-classing of the black body is that the “red day” of interracial revolutionary (working-class, anti-capitalist) alliance appears not just distant, but even outright unthinkable.
On the (Lack of a) Basis for Hope: Materialism and Morality, Possibility and Necessity
Before concluding this second installment, we must return briefly to Michelle Alexander’s criticisms of Between the World and Me, and the widely debated question of Coates’ "pessimism." As Alexander writes, siding with Baldwin against his alleged heir: “Like Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Believing in this possibility – no matter how slim – and dedicating oneself to playing a meaningful role in the struggle to make it a reality focuses one’s energy and attention in an unusual way (emphasis added).”
To this she adds, quoting Coates throughout:
Little hope is offered [in Between the World...] that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.”…If [Coates’] son held out any hope that the emerging racial justice movement on the streets of Ferguson, New York City or Baltimore or beyond might change hearts and minds, Coates seems determined to quash it. “Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: To awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white . . . has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.”
Alexander then cites Coates paradoxical injunction to his son: “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom... But do not struggle for the Dreamers... Do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves.”
Perplexed, she adds, “He says this even as he notes that the Dreamers are actively building the deathbed for us all.”
Alexander is clearly frustrated by a paradox that goes to the heart of BTWM – but her moral injunction does not offer much of a solution either. She asserts what we might call the political necessity of moral certainty, suggesting that we must not question – as Coates does – whether it is possible to transform Americans and American society, for risk of losing the will and focus to struggle effectively in the first place. She does not refute Coates pessimism in material terms, so much as she rules it out of bounds, morally. It is, in a way, following Baldwin, as she suggests, a kind of faith-based outlook. The only basis provided for optimism here is that without it things will appear and thus become worse off than they already are.
I don’t see Coates being convinced. His unapologetically atheist epistle goes out of its way to refuse the belief in the universe bending naturally or inevitably towards justice, as well as to refute the notion that sacrificing human lives to the violence of the system is something that can be redeemed later. His account is resistant if not outright antithetical to faith or redemption. Between the World and Me is, among many other things, an attempt to root an ethics of anti-racist struggle in an existential materialism, a fidelity to the world as it is, and to the experience and sanctity of life and the body.
If Coates’ pessimism remains politically problematic (and I believe that it does), his refusal to affirm a hope based in morality alone, a hope that Alexander insists upon, (with the help of Baldwin), might still be potentially productive: his pessimism forces the generally deferred but nonetheless crucial question of what material basis for hope there is when it comes to dismantling white supremacy and racial oppression in the USA. To paraphrase radical critics of Obama from a few years ago: "Hope" is not a plan.
And yet, Coates does indeed appear to be somewhat caught; he explicitly states that black people cannot liberate themselves without the aid of the people he calls Dreamers waking up and somehow joining or supporting the struggle. And yet, almost in the next sentence, he discourages readers from “struggling for” the Dreamers. He rejects idealist hopefulness, yet appears to have only a tragic paradox with which to replace it.
What are we to make of such a paradox? What does it mean to simultaneously exhort readers that something (waking up and working with “Dreamers”) is necessary for liberation and yet to discourage them from making that something their goal and aim? Beyond moral appeal alone, is there a material basis for achieving anti-racist unity that extends beyond those most affected? Do “Dreamers” have a material interest in waking up? Or are black people truly on their own in the face of what Coates calls “majoritarian pigs”?
Shorn of the class analysis that featured so crucially in Richard Wright’s work, Between the World and Me leaves the reader rather stuck, frozen between contradictory exhortations.
I want to suggest that such petrified paradoxes against which Between the World and Me strains – and which the next essay in this series will explore further – testify to a deep political, indeed existential, need: a need for a class-conscious interracial solidarity movement that challenges white supremacy and capitalism as interlocking systems that oppress and exploit the vast majority of human beings on the planet, black and would-be-white alike.
Read as symptoms of our common situation, the impasses of Coates’ text conjure for all of us a pressing challenge: How to move from the trauma of racist terror to the possibility of radical social transformation? How to set the frozen subject Coates so deftly describes into mass movement?
Can the petrified again become the proletarian? And what will that look like?
The limits of Coates’ historical and political imagination as expressed in this book are not his alone.
[i] You can find the two poems online as a pdf here http://robbinsenglish.weebly.com/uploads/4/8/2/8/4828917/i_have_seen_black_hands1.pdf
[ii] Coates offers a similar point when he writes that “In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after” (120).
[iii] Here Wright draws out a dimension that is largely – to date – missing from Coates work.
[iv] The hope the poem envisions, we should emphasize, does not draw on American Exceptionalist myth or on a moral optimism about the arc of the universe, each of which Coates takes issue with in Between the World and Me – prompting the objections of Alexander, West, and others.
[v] Coates’ work emphasizes the black body as vulnerable site of suffering and spectacular violence more than as a site of labor, production, and exploitation. Of course one could not say that Coates ignores the black body as a site of labor. He emphasizes the centrality of slave labor to the prosperity of America. But his emphasis consistently, even when discussing the slave as laborer, is on the violent destruction of the black body as the quintessential American “heritage.” As he points out at one point, the massive exploitation of African American labor under slavery was only made possible by the constant reality/threat of massive violence, by a readiness and willingness an apparatus prepared to destroy black bodies. Coates emphasizes the violence and the threat that underwrites and oversees Black labor; there is no potential to redeem or reclaim the labor stolen here; the bodies have been destroyed.
This focus on the use of direct violence makes sense, insofar as we are dealing with slave labor, or even labor under the conditions of what some have called neo-slavery, more often referred to as Jim Crow. But what of black wage labor? How does that fit exactly? There lingers here a danger of not appreciating change amidst the focus on continuity, of seeing contemporary police or vigilante violence, as simply expressive of America’s founding violence, as a mere repetition of the established “heritage.” A similar danger lurks in the popular framing of today’s circular state as “the New Jim Crow”.
Joseph G. Ramsey is a writer, educator, editor, and activist, residing in the Boston area. He is co-editor of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of theory and practice, a contributing board member at Socialism & Democracy, and a contributing editor at Red Wedge. He is presently at work on a book on Richard Wright.