But if white readers wanted pathological patriotism, black readers want religiosity. The final section of Between the World and Me is stronger for Coates’s refusal to give the people what they want.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is not trying to get into heaven and that troubles people’s waters. In passage after passage, Coates crafts a subtle argument about the role of the black church in black philosophies. Recounting his conversation with the mother of his murdered college friend, Prince Jones, Coates says:
As she talked of the church, I thought of your grandfather, the one you know, and how his first intellectual adventures were found in the recitation of Bible passages. I thought of your mother, who did the same. And 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.
Reflecting on religiosity and historical memory, he writes:
Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the ’60s, a hard, serious look? Have you ever looked at the faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. 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.
If Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, then for black people who don’t church, it is also the loneliest hour. Pew’s survey of religion in the U.S. finds that “nearly eight-in-ten African Americans (79 percent) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among all U.S. adults.” And it’s not just religion that is very important to black life, but also churchiness. The cultural milieu of organized black church defines so much of how black people engage with the world. Even if your family only attended on Christmas and Easter, if you’re a black American and someone says “God is good!” you’re to know to respond, “All the time!” From the way we dance (Coates says he doesn’t dance; it could well be because he never learned to shout in a black church) to how we laugh and fight for citizenship—it has all always been tied up in a particular brand of religiosity. Part of that is the focus on the afterlife. The appeal to the “by and by,” the post-corporeal inheritance of earth, and the crown to replace your cross—these form the rhetorical foundations of black hope in literature, life, and politics.
Those foundations are not in Between the World and Me. Without it, Coates has to find a new rhetorical device. He settles on the struggle:
This power, this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet. Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle. And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers—lost in their great reverie—feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying.
He is not the first to articulate a black politics without churchiness, but it is a particular moment for Coates to do so. The consensus seems to be that millennials are less religious than previous generations but that they maintain cultural beliefs rooted in religion. They may not go to church—but like black agnostics and atheists, they hold onto its linguistics and ritual. But I have been struck by the sight of youth organizers gathering under the “Black Lives Matter” banner, who seem to also be articulating a post-black church political language. Even as they welcome elders like the theologian and academic Cornel West as foreparents of the movement, some organizers are speaking without explicitly religious themes. The historian Robert Greene II says Between the World and Me is part of the post-soul era of literature. It wants to stretch the boundaries of blackness and do so using nontraditionally “black” subject matter. I think that is a smart read of the book’s place in the literary canon. I also think that the book is an entry in a long conversation about the role of religion, especially western Christianity, in the articulation of black people’s lives.