Ta-Nehisi Coates and the End of Black Faith

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’m excited to be joined by Dr. Melvin Rogers for an important conversation about faith and fatalism. I asked to speak with Dr. Rogers after reading his thought-provoking review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The book is written in the wake of what Coates frames as black America’s latest tragedy—the election of Donald J. Trump. Reflecting on the past eight years, Coates now sees Obama’s rise to the presidency as “part of a familiar cycle” that was not transformative for black Americans but just another aberration of hope (along with Reconstruction, Civil Rights and desegregation). This, according to Coates, should serve to remind everyone “how central the brand of white supremacy was to the country.” He said, “To be black in America was to be plundered,” that “[r]acism was banditry” and that none of this was a “grand revelation” but “a feeling that haunted every black person” he knew. In Dr. Rogers’s review, which is called, Keeping the Faith, he takes issue with Coates’s atheism, his fatalistic assessment of black America and he questions the wisdom of deifying a single voice (Coates’s) above all others.

Before we start, let’s find out more about Dr. Rogers:

Melvin Rogers was born and raised in Bronx, NY. He was one of six children raised by Yvonne Rogers and Roosevelt Rogers. Rogers went through the public schools of New York, and went on to receive his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge, and Yale. He is the author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy, editor of John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, and is currently at work on a book project titled The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought.

Acting in the world is what must happen precisely because tragedy is part of our reality. Dr. Melvin Rogers

Melvin L. Rogers
Melvin L. Rogers

Robert: Dr. Rogers, Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us in his new book that he wanted to believe in an arc of justice; he wanted to believe in God. But his atheism was born from being brutalized as a child and, more critically, from the fact that no one was there to comfort him when he needed it most after the brutalization. Coates’s atheism, in Eight Years, appears to move seamlessly between religion and politics as does your analysis in Keeping the Faith. Do you think Coates’s religious atheism poisons his politics in any way?

Dr. Rogers: I think it does. But before saying a word about Coates, I do think it is important to say that atheism as a philosophy of life can be compatible with a positive or constructive political program. The atheism of the German economist and philosopher Karl Marx or that of the great American philosopher of democracy John Dewey did not prevent either of them from offering positive political projects—projects that imagined the reconstruction of political, economic, and cultural life in the service of a more humane society. They believed that the deficiencies of modern life were the result of human will and choice and, to that extent, could be addressed by human will and choice. There was, for them, nothing beyond human agency to which we should appeal for the realization of a just society.

Coates, it appears, seems to believe that once you drop god-talk, there is no way to sustain a positive political program. As he says in his book, “collective hope” and “national redemption” have no meaning in a godless world. So his atheism is of a particular kind. It not only rejects belief in a deity or supernatural power, it simultaneously disavows the moral and political agency we otherwise attach to what it means to be a human being. And with that rejection, politics goes out the window. For the ability to manage and nurture our collective lives together—to realize the good and avert the bad—fundamentally depends on us believing that we have it within our power to partly shape the forces around us.

Now, in saying this, one need not be committed to the troubling idea that “collective hope” or “national redemption” happens through a form of rebirth that bypasses the weight of the past—the scars that have been left on the body, if you will, of black America. What I mean by this is that a sincere attempt to shape the forces around us must do so by reckoning, as James Baldwin encouraged us to do, with the past that has given life to the present. This, I admit, is a difficult thing to do given that we live in a culture that nurtures willful blindness of the past. But if we are going to have any hope of doing this it requires us to believe, at a minimum, that it is in our power to do so.

“No one – not our fathers, not our police and not our gods – is coming to save us.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

Robert: To what extent does Coates’s own experience resonate with contemporary black America and with black history especially in the absence of a long-awaited arc of justice? Is his experience a prototype for modern black Americans? Does that help explain his tremendous popularity?

Dr. Rogers: This is an important question. But I would not want to say his experience is a prototype for modern black Americans. Black life in the United States and black people are complex and diverse. But for a great many of us, our fates have been linked by the history of domination and exclusion. Sometimes there is an immediacy to the practice of domination and exclusion—it has touched you—or sometimes you bear witness to it, knowing that the difference between you and the one that has been mistreated based on race is merely luck. In other words, it could very well have been you experiencing the mistreatment. But it is important to keep in view, as Ralph Ellison tells us, that black life is “more than the sum of its brutalization.”

I suspect, although I cannot be certain about this, that for a great many black folks that read Coates they find him narrating a shared truth. And they find him narrating it and exposing it in powerfully plain terms. He offers, as some of us say, “real talk,” and in doing so he acknowledges the pain and suffering that continues to haunt black life. This acknowledgement is combined with a refusal to make black Americans responsible for saving white Americans from the wrong they commit against black people. You’re now free, or so Coates and I suspect many that are drawn to him, to refocus your energies on your narrow circle—yourself, your family, and your friends. Nothing more follows. I can see the attraction in this, but when it becomes a philosophy of life it removes our responsibility to address the conditions of the marginalized, neglected, and dominated. I hope this is not the kind of society we want because it certainly isn’t the kind of society we need.

Robert: Coates gives examples of black women he admires who, having no hope, expressed themselves with immediate defiance (by killing their overseer or the overseer’s child that she had borne or by killing herself). Coates says, “My ambition is to write both in defiance of tragedy and in blindness to possibility, to keep screaming into the waves – just as my ancestors did.” Wouldn’t Coates argue that defiance, when faith is lost, is more empowering and gives more agency to black Americans than the passivity that comes from believing in a myth?

Dr. Rogers: “I don’t ever want to forget that resistance must be its own reward…” This is also a line from the same paragraph of his to which you are referring. Resistance being its own reward sounds nice when the goods of one’s life are not at stake. But if one’s ability to flourish is on the line—and here I mean the material, educational, and psychological goods you need in order to live a meaningful life—then I don’t know if one should settle for resistance being its own reward. Indeed, I’m not sure one can ultimately be satisfied with a form of power—resistance—that does not eventuate, even a bit, in improving one’s life chances. Resistance gains the power that it does from believing, as one trembles with fear, that it can win the day. Now, I say tremble with fear because we know that things could end badly.

Ida B. Wells - Journalist and anti-lynching activist
Ida B. Wells - Journalist and anti-lynching activist

I have always understood the great thinkers and activists struggling for racial justice, particularly in the African American tradition, to have understood this. From David Walker to Ida B. Wells to James Baldwin, the idea was that one should never be seduced by the thought that progress on matters of race is fated to happen. Even as they encouraged action in the service of a better society, they sought to discipline and chasten our self-understanding. This remains one of the important gifts of African Americans to what they rightly claim as their home. Action, for them, is infused with a deep faith in its power that runs alongside a profound sense of caution. Acting in the world is what must happen precisely because tragedy is part of our reality. This contribution consistently bumps up against and seeks to undercut that version of American exceptionalism that relies on—that depends on—the idea that the good is fated to happen. This strain in American political life and thought—the idea that the good is fated to happen—disarms us and it is always in danger of eviscerating our political and moral imaginations. This is why I find myself arguing these days for retrieving this and other insights of the tradition of African American thinking.

But their responses to racial injustice were underwritten by faith, without which it is unlikely they would have been able to formulate an alternative vision of society and the place of black people therein or struggle in the service of that vision. If you are without faith, some kind of faith, you will find it difficult if not impossible to get on in the world. And what would it mean for an entire community to be without political faith? Well, it would be a broken community. And black folks are not broken.

Now, my use of faith immediately seems inappropriate because folks want to know the content of the faith, and the supposition is that whatever the content is it will have some reference to religious commitments. This is one of the unfortunate features of intellectual life among those who study politics, but know nothing of religion. And this is one of the unfortunate features of our public discourse broadly. We have such a narrow vision of religious discourse. The thought is that it should only be understood in narrow doctrinal terms and thus the language of religious faiths should not be allowed to travel beyond those faiths. Thus to invoke the language of faith, salvation, redemption (or some other term presumed to be the property of religion) must always carry with it some reference to a particular religion and its doctrinal framework.

But this is to deny the family resemblance between religion and political life broadly understood. And it involves denying the structural features of faith that travel within and beyond religious communities—features that denote, as W. E. B. Du Bois reminded us, “the sense of striving for the infinite, the ultimate, and the best.” So my claim is that African Americans that struggle against racial injustice are often committed to a vision of society that is at odds with their reality—an ideal to which they are both committed to and yet stands beyond them. It is an ideal for which they have been willing to fight and that they believe others can find a home in. It structures their present, allowing them to at once take the horrors of the past seriously, but without releasing them (and us) from the responsibility of addressing the weight of the past on the present. There is no political struggle for realizing the greatest of goods—freedom, equality, dignity, economic security—without faith.

Consider my final point this way. Coates himself stands in support of Black Lives Matter. And yet, his own philosophy undercuts its meaning. For in adopting Coates’s position, we would find ourselves unable to make sense of the following mission of the movement articulated by Patrisse Cullors, one of its founders: to “provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”

Robert: Thank you, Dr. Rogers! I’m imagining how interesting the conversation between you and Mr. Coates would be at a Black Lives Matter strategy meeting or anywhere else. You make a fascinating and persuasive case for faith. I encourage my readers to check out your past publications and to keep an eye out for the next. And, please, let us know what you think of this blog. Comment by clicking the gray dialog box to the left.

Follow Dr. Melvin Rogers on Twitter @MRogers097 and see his research page here.

Follow me Twitter @RobertjBenz

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