Kwasi Konadu

The Fate of Black People in White Societies

EssaysKwasi KonaduComment

This life is temporary but the soul is eternal

Separate the real from the lie, let me learn you

—Black Star


Between May and August, I had two conversations with two different individuals, whom happened to be academics, about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (hereafter, BWM). Having read the book soon after its release, I hadn’t given it much thought until these discussions. Naturally, I listened to their views and shared my own.

Though I am aware of Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, released today, what follows is a condensed version of my views, stirred principally by BWM but also by the repurposed essays and anecdotes that form the contents of Eight Years in Power. More importantly, there has been insufficient consideration of what BWM’s argument portends for the fate of “black” people—a race identifier used grudgingly but in no way do I subscribe to it. My concern is the defective premise, a story if you will, anchoring Coates’s argument and its dead-end implication if we were to follow that argument to its logical conclusion. I offer another way to think about the fate of black people in the United States and in white societies more broadly.

Although a highly acclaimed book, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction and New York Times bestseller, BWM’s central argument, which is to say its diagnosis and prescription for black people in the United States, got lost in the cacophony of accolades and apparently in its theatrical performance set for the Apollo Theater in April 2018. Granted is special privilege and priority to the black body. Its loss, above all else, is the book’s primal concern and explains its narrative arc. For black people, life is about keeping or losing their body, a view that leads logically to a fatalistic conclusion. In short, black people’s most valuable—and perhaps sole—possession is their body but they are powerless to affect its seizure or loss. And because the protagonists and wielders of whiteness know this, seduced by their apparent power to hold hostage and destroy bodies, the eventually dispossessed black person can only await the inevitable. In the end, Coates’s resignation and powerlessness to protect the body of his son—to whom he writes in BWM—is the takeaway analogy for black people and their bodies. Had this book been a work of fiction, had it not invoked his and other black people’s ancestry, had it not clothed its moments of memoir and social commentary in the historical record, BWM would have been simply a notable novel with minimal consequence for our world. But this book was the direct opposite, making it a work of nonfiction worthy of scrutiny beyond its literary merits.

Coates’s argument is based on a premise rooted in his socialization, which necessarily means we start with his biography. His parents, we are told, rejected religious dogma in their coming of age during the Civil Rights-Black Power era and in the rearing of their children. Coates embraced this view, making him agnostic about matters of life and death, divinity, and a hereafter. Coates’s agnosticism is crucial to understanding him and his argument. If a before and an afterlife forms a sandwich with existence in the middle, and existence through a human body is what matters, then the body through which we have a human experience becomes our most cherished possession and the before and after becomes meaningless bookends. Unlike other possessions we can replace, the loss of our body is the forfeiture of human experience—or so Coates would like us to believe. There is no “do over” in the moment of loss.

Although I understand this flesh-and-blood view of the world, it is acutely facile and it runs counter to the historical record, precisely as it relates to “African” peoples and their kinfolk, some of whom constituted Coates’s ancestors. That premise is a mishandled carryover from the Black Power era where religions were rejected wholesale—à la Karl Marx—and where ideologies of material conditions and violence convinced many of the rightness of their ideology and the falsity of religious belief. By “mishandled,” I mean there is too narrow a view of religiosity or spirituality in the ebb and flow of the Black Power era. In fact, as I wrote in A View from the East: Black Cultural Nationalism and Education in New York City, activists, intellectuals, and just ordinary folks stirred by the sentiments of that era rejected religious dogma, which is to say Christian orthodoxy since many adopted iterations of Islam, but many embraced varieties of African-based spiritualities built less around a book and the cult of a savior, offering some sustenance against a domestic terrorism not dissimilar from the one Coates chronicles. Certainly, he is free to believe what he wants, but the point here is that he embraced a version of unbelief that captured only one of several tendencies of an era, and that version, beyond personal choice, colored the optics through which he sees a people, a world, and himself.

The problem posed by such a premise is further exposed when we change the premise, but keep the conditions the same. Millions of peoples enslaved as “Africans” and converted to “black people” did not privilege the body. Though they saw the body as valuable, it did not supersede other parts of their being. Many held these understandings before, during, and after their centuries-old arrivals and dispersals throughout the Americas. What did these enslaved ancestors think about their being, their body, and a loss-of-body argument in an epoch where the world economy revolved around their anatomy and skill? Dense records for transatlantic slaving and slavery make clear that cannibalizing the African body was as routine as the psychic violence employed. Though there were distinct responses to both acts of plunder, a common, overarching belief overlay those reactions. A general observation that was generally true is that most the enslaved viewed their bodies as one part of their being, and not the most crucial.[1] In fact, some saw their flesh as a liability, a prison that tethered them to the worlds of slavery.

The eighteenth-century captive turned abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, recalling a pre-Christian childhood in Igboland, argued immaterial forces were at play in matters of death or captivity, and although his peoples had no “doctrine of eternity” some believed in “the transmigration of souls,” while the spirits of friends or kin played active roles among the living, hence offerings of food or pouring “some of their drink, on the ground for them.” Most Africans viewed such spiritual forces, originating in nature, as pragmatic tools through which they procured plant medicines to heal or abort potential life, enact war or survive the scars of rebellion, plan insurrection on slave vessels and plantations, fashion strategies and humanize the self, and more than I can list in one (long) sentence. Indeed, there were no African religions per se, and thus Equiano recalled, “we had no places of public worship,” which is to say African spiritualities were tightly braided with cultural practice and that practice informed views about being and the body. Having remained relevant among a significant swathe into the mid-nineteenth century, this existential view was captured by an enslaved person branded John Joseph, who “gazed at [his slaveholder in New Orleans] with contempt and said [to him…] you may be wicked enough to sell my body, but… it is not in the power of a master or auctioner [sic], to buy and sell my precious and immortal soul.” John’s declaration was not a singular one, whether said in silence, song, proverb, folklore, or in defying the satisfaction of slavers by shedding not one tear with each taste of the whip or stoic in the face of impending death.

That declaration was also articulated through willful abortions, sterility, infanticide, suppression of menstruation and ovulation, and the purposeful use of illness engendered by laboring regimes and poor living conditions. In the early nineteenth century South Carolina an enslaved woman trademarked Lydia buried her infant boy child after three days of illness, through an elaborate funerary ritual performed by the father, a spiritualist born in West Africa. The infant was interred with a small canoe and paddle, bag of cornmeal, bow and arrows, stick with a nail on one end, piece of calico with figures painted in blue and red on it so “his relations and countrymen [in Africa or an ancestral realm] would know the infant to be his son, and would receive it accordingly, on its arrival amongst them.” The father then “cut a lock of hair from his head, threw it upon the dead infant, and closed the grave with his own hands. He then told us the God of his country [in Africa] was looking at him, and was pleased with what he had done.” And why so pleased? The ritual brought temporal closure and set the son on a path of completion, wherein, as a West African proverb says, the earth is a marketplace where we do our business, but spirit is our home. And for Lydia, she “rejoiced that her child was dead… I am now, said she, ready to follow my child, and the sooner I go, the better for me.” Lydia was burned “by the side of her infant, in a corner of the negro grave-yard.”[2] Rather than anomalies, these ideas and practices among the enslaved were widespread throughout the Americas. Death, counter intuitively, was celebrated for it was no terminal point, only a node in a circuit that constituted an elongated view of life. The body, in and out of captivity, was a transitory uniform for part of a life journey, the length of which and the manner one entered or exited were shaped by more than just human action. In short, life was not a seesaw between the world and me, but a feedback loop between this world and the next—however conceived.

Had Coates simply focused on his body or an agnostic view of his life, there would have been little fanfare or attention garnered by BWM. But his obsession with losing the body and framing this loss in history and ancestry implicated all black people, at least in the United States, in ways that on one hand cohere with present day concerns but on the other hand betrays the historical record and the ancestors of those people. In effect, his view elides ideas and lived experiences of the very people he diagnoses, and his anxieties and fears are projected onto them vis-à-vis a faulty premise. Faulty in that he makes the personal the collective. Although some of his observations about police violence and domestic terrorism targeting black people resonate with folks in the here and now, they undervalue rather than underscore the root storyline of African peoples and their descendants in what was coined the United States. That interwoven storyline of mass enslavement, segregation, and incarceration is U.S. history as well as the story of distinct and overlapping peoples, whom would be taxonomized as black people and made into a race before they reached these shores. BWM acutely misinterprets this history as “white America’s progress… built on looting and violence,” and that story as “we will always be black… as children of trans-Atlantic rape” (BWM, pp. 6, 127-8). If, as Coates wrote, “The answer is American history,” the question prompting it cannot be asked within the accepted frame of “American history.” In other words, we must follow an interlaced series of histories flowing from the homelands of the authors of whiteness, an idea made flesh through race, religion, and slaving in proto-Europe and along its subsequent imperial routes across the globe. In short, the United States, like the rest of the “modern world,” was the direct, though not inevitable, outgrowth of racial and religious ideologies—the sperm cells and eggs, if you will—germinated in proto-Europe and reproduced in neo-European colonies through slaving empires.

Our story, by necessity, begins in the eighth century and with the two forces that clashed over the fate of Europe, and by extension black people in white societies. In the wake of the fallen Roman and Persian empires, the Islamic Umayyad empire consolidated power, creating the conditions for the spread of Islamic civilization, stretching from conquered Visigoth Hispania (which became al-Andalus or Islamic Iberia) to central Asia in the eighth century. Meanwhile, Charlemagne also consolidated power in his Frankish Kingdom, or rather Carolingian empire, throughout much of central and western proto-Europe. The Frankish Kingdom represented “the largest Roman Catholic community in the West,” but its rulers from Clovis (r. 481 – 509) to Charlemagne (r. 774 – 814) used the sword to brutally force Catholicism upon fellow Franks and neighboring groups from Saxony to Italy and partnered closely with the pope.[3] Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the pope in 800. The brutal Christianization policy of Charlemagne and his assaults on non-Catholics contrasted, though in relative terms, with the religious tolerance evident under ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I’s rule (r. 756 – 788) in al-Andalus.

Though the Carolingian and Umayyad empires were the products of war—“holy wars” in fact—the cultural and intellectual flourishing guided by al-Raḥmān I and his successors, on one hand, and the Christianization and cultural poverty of Charlemagne’s western Europe, on the other, formed the very defining moment for “Europe.”[4] Indeed, the earliest textual reference to a “European people”—europenses—came after a battle between Franks and Muslims chronicled in a 754 Latin account composed, ironically, by a Christian in al-Andalus. Meaning of the place of Europa/Europe (a character in Greek mythology, but etymologically, “wide face or eye”), europenses signified the “Christian world,” wherein “Europe” was defined in stark opposition to Islam and its nonwhite wielders, the “Moors.” (Until the early seventeenth century, Europeans routinely described the complexion of “Moors” as black, dark-skinned, or varied shades of brown.) This moment of ethnogenesis, of group definition through race and religion, reveal two tightly-braided trends: first, proto-Europe and Christian crusading were molded by fanaticism, religious orthodoxy, and the suppression of religious and racial heretics; second, against this backdrop, Franks and Gauls became French, Teutons and Saxons became Anglo-Saxons and, along with Celts and Britons, English. Through conquest, displacement, and reconfiguration, they also filled out the broader arc, or rather architecture, of being European and white. Before the Norman-French invasion of the British Isles in 1066, for instance, the Old Germanic and Old English adjective white meant “morally pure” and fair in complexion, while the Old English wealh meant foreigner, slave, Briton, and Welsh. These well-established religious and racial meanings sharpened the categories of European/white (as a race of light complexion), slavery and freedom, and even sharper contrasts were made with more intrusive contacts with “black” Africa, after the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire and then al-Andalus.

The wars between Muslims and Christians in proto-Europe and around the Mediterranean continued after Charlemagne’s empire collapsed in the ninth century, splintering into present-day Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Had the Umayyad state maintained some cohesion and pushed their empire further inland, Europe and the world would have looked very different. Besieged by internal conflicts, however, al-Andalus spiraled into turmoil and collapsed in the eleventh century, punctuated by the capture of Toledo by Alfonso VI, Christian king of León and Castile, in 1085. Pope Urban II saw this “re-conquest” as the rebirth of Catholicism in Iberia and mobilized the first official crusade, reinstituting the bifurcation between Christian and Muslim worlds and ideologically reconnecting this Europe to the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. In the end, the various crusades failed to recapture Jerusalem from Muslim control, halt the advance of Islam, and unify Christendom amidst millions of European corpses. Instead, those religious incursions led to increased power for the pope and European sovereigns, who came to view themselves of heirs of Christendom, religious warfare and slaving against non-Christians, and of the rightness of their hereditary positions.

By the end of the crusades Portugal and Spain made the leap from conquered to conquerors as part of a broader seizure of allegedly Christian lands from Muslims. In this process baptized the Reconquista, Muslims were hunted, killed, and forcibly converted to Christianity throughout the Iberia peninsula and into northern Africa. In the fervor to cleanse society of its religious and racial impurities, Spain and later Portugal crafted inquisitions to police and persecute their own nationals and the enemies of Christendom—with papal authorization and ideological support. Portugal followed Spain’s lead in the war against non-Christians. This notion of religious war traveled the imperial paths of the oversea Iberian empires, so much so that Bernal Diaz’s account of the Hernán Cortés expedition in an Mexican gulf coast town in the 1520s enthusiastically invoked the language of “Christians and Moors” in the performance of conquest festivals that reenacted victories in the Americas and in Europe.[5] Taking its lead from Spain, Portugal created its own inquisition to further the Christian crusades as it sought out the sources of gold to finance this fight beyond its borders and through its nascent empire. Its self-image was drawn in pure faith and pure blood (limpeza de sangue). In Atlantic Africa, the Portuguese found gold and “black people,” whom were measured against this self-image and summarily herded into the category of “black-unchristian-slave.” Indeed, in the words of Friar Agostinho da Conceição, Portugal, like the rest of crusading Europe, demarcated itself as “the empire of God.”   

By the last official crusades, at the end of the thirteenth century, Italian merchants had already established slaving ports and produced sugar for export within a trade system that stretched from the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean, to the Black Sea using captive “Slavs,” root of Latin sclavus (“slave”) as many Slavs were sold into bondage by conquering groups. (Sclavus became the source of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo, and Portuguese escravo) Portugal and Spain extended the Italian model of plantation slavery to Atlantic islands off the coast of and specific mainland locales along Atlantic Africa, while Slavs and other captives were being replaced by African ones brought to Iberia and France through Portuguese slaving voyages as well as Arab-Muslim slaving across the Sahara and through north African ports. Raiding would partially give way to commercial relations—cemented by gifts, fraud, military force, and baptisms—and Portugal and Spain would dominate transatlantic slaving until the mid-seventeenth century. Dutch, Danish, Swedish, French, and Brandenburger (German) trafficking notwithstanding, England would dominate the north Atlantic and Portugal/Brazil the south Atlantic commerce until the first decade of the nineteenth century for the former and the end of that century for the latter. By then, transatlantic slaving had already extended itself in the western Indian Ocean, beginning as early as the mid-eighteenth century, linking itself to empires and slaving societies in the Arabian Peninsula, across Asia, and into the Pacific. Along these geographical and chronological routes, a multitude of peoples from that place dubbed Africa, much like the branding of Europe, were categorically smashed into negars and “Negroes,” derived from Spanish or Portuguese negro (“black”).  

The Iberians, especially the Portuguese, deployed the racial and religious framework of crusading Europe, calibrated the weapons of marine conquest and commerce, and laid out the structures for slave societies which subsequent Europeans adopted in the interactions with and enslavement of “Africans.” These processes insured the flattening “African” histories and peoples into the singular story of the “black-unchristian-slave”—the inverse of the “white-Christian-free.” This story guided Anglo-Dutch understandings of race and caste appropriated from their Iberian slaving partners and competitors. Race, religion and slaving once more consolidated earlier definitions. It is not surprising, then, the “20. and odd Negroes,” the first group of “Africans” brought to the Jamestown (Virginia) colony in 1619, were seized by an English privateer, carrying a Dutch license to attack Iberian ships, from a Portuguese slaving vessel. The human “cargo” were, in effect, captives of intra-European war and most likely from a conflict zone in west central Africa. Within two decades the status of those “Negroes” shifted from “life service” to “slave for life,” as European indentured servants transitioned into planters and slavers. Rather than new beginnings, cumulative ideas and actions of some antiquity were at work.

The Iberians monopolized the European presence in Atlantic Africa and the Americas through networks of merchants, clerics, capital, commodities, and ideologies, but although this monopoly was broken in the early seventeenth century, their ideologies of “pure blooded” race and religion, tethered to slaving and slavery, remained firmly intact. In fact, had the English colony in Virginia or in Barbados broken the Iberian slaving monopoly sooner they would have been established their colonies with enslaved labor earlier. Once the Virginia colony was established in 1607, “Negroes” arrived in 1619, and tobacco became a profitable staple crop, its colonial elites, planters and the gentry “began purchasing slaves as soon as they could get them and continued to buy more as fast as the limited supply and their individual resources would allow.”[6] As early as 1637, less than two decades after those “20. and odd Negroes” landed and such persons were being made “slaves for life,” officials of the Guinea Company began “to trade upon the coasts of Guinea, to take ‘nigers,’ and carry them to foreign parts.”[7] Enslaved persons soon surpassed indentured servants by end of 1650s, but this would have been quicker had greater supply reached the colony through Dutch and other foreign traders. In 1664, the English capture of New Netherland ended the Dutch-Virginia-Barbados trade link and the capture of Carolusborg (Cape Coast) in present-day Ghana established direct supply lines between West Africa and the English plantation colonies, especially Barbados.[8] Barbados was settled in 1627 and, within a generation, it was a full-fledged slave society with laws enslaving “negroes” for life (in 1636) and a slave code (in 1661).[9] By the late seventeenth century, Barbados was “a laboratory of labor [and racialized slavery],” diffusing its racial and religious ideologies and plantation practices through planters who left the island with their captives and settled in the Carolinas, the Chesapeake region, Jamaica, and other islands.[10] The speed and manner in which the English invested in slaving and slavery to build their neo-European colonies through the enslaved coheres with the Iberian loss of their slaving monopoly, but also begs a central question. Why peoples from Africa?

Surely, disease and resistance from indigenous peoples in the Americas is part of the equation, but we are asking the wrong question. The real question is why didn’t Europeans enslaved other Europeans in furtherance of their overseas colonies? The answer lies in those interlaced histories from the time of Charlemagne and al-Andalus to Christian crusading to the Portuguese pursuit of “Moors” along the coasts of Atlantic Africa and in Iberian conquest theatrics, rehearsed and performed in the Americas. Race and religion precluded the wholesale transshipment of European captives and the poor to work the plantations, mines, timber, and ranching regimes in the Americas. There was no such compulsion against capturing and cannibalizing the skill and labor of the “black-unchristian-slave.” As more captive Africans were thrusted into the Virginia colony, and as Virginia became the template for the other colonies, many of these captives transported directly or indirectly to the U.S. mainland were uprooted from homelands embroiled in warfare and conflict, incited as they were by European-supply firearms and trade goods. These captives or prisoners of war were re-categorized as chattel but not without a prisoner of war past. Indeed, those “20. and odd Negroes” in 1619 were captured and claimed as spoils of war between competing European slaving empires. More broadly, we can therefore think of their descendants as captives or prisoners until the late nineteenth century or, better yet, the mid-twentieth century when they were paroled en masse through a series of legal pronouncements, but with the federal government as parole board and legal arbiters. In other words, the story of the “black-unchristian-slave” did not change with Christianization—chattel remained a slave to the Christian God, a piece of real estate, and a view they had an inauthentic Christianity. Nor did that story change with legal emancipation, reconstruction, and varied civil rights acts (ca. 1886-1991). Rather, the general storyline for most black people has been mass enslavement, segregation and exclusion, and incarceration. But these are shorthand for virtually the same set of lived experiences: enslavement was/is segregation and incarceration, and incarceration is enslavement. Parole can be denied, granted, or withdrawn, as long as black people remain black people.

If there is a host society on earth that has fully integrated its chattel or prisoners of war and on their own non-assimilative terms, I have yet to find it. In this regard, the United States is unexceptional. Indeed, its history conforms to known patterns in world history, making the mass enslavement-segregation-incarceration plot through the singular story of the “black-unchristian-slave” is enacted. Plot and story provide a more appropriate frame to interpret the past and futures of black people in the United States and in white societies more broadly. As the demonic inverse of the “white-Christian-free,” most black people cannot escape the visual mark of their ancestry and a captive/prisoner of war past. The founding of these united states and its pronouncements make this clear. When the “slave trade” abolitionist revolution in the British empire began, enabled by agitation and industrialization, British subjects-cum-U.S. colonists had a choice to make: remain a slave society or follow the lead of the empire. Some colonists, whom happened to be four of the first five presidents, among the wealthiest settlers per capita, and all from Virginia owning between 3,500 to 8,000 acres of land and “negroes,” orchestrated a counter-revolution to keep rather than end the supply of “negroes,” which Thomas Jefferson and others viewed as the most valuable commodity and best investment next to land—which the enslaved worked. Marquis de Lafayette, whom supported the counter-revolution and its villainy along with other French forces, had hoped these anti-heroes memorialized as patriarchs of the nation would have ended slavery.

Slavery, and the story of the “black-unchristian-slave,” prevailed again with the Dred Scot decision in 1857. Rather than focus on individuals, whether Jefferson or Lincoln, and debate fruitlessly if either were racist or slavers or something else, I prefer institutions that represent the broader sentiments of the country. Viewed from this perspective, the office of the president is part of a three-headed creature that feeds on and fuels whiteness and white supremacy—a phrase first made operative in John H. Van Evrie’s aptly titled White Supremacy and Negro Subordination. (Rather than the first “white president,” Donald Trump is simply the most recent iteration in a presidential genealogy.) Further, the 7-2 court ruling of the second head, the Supreme Court, is telling for it reaffirmed “the negro race as a separate class of persons,” as peoples that were never nor will be citizens per the U.S. constitution, those “whose ancestors were negroes of the African race, and imported into this country, and sold and held as slaves.” What the Dred Scots, then and now, failed to grasp is that the constitution and subsequent legal pronouncements representing the “nation” were written with black people in absentia but in clear-cut language. Just as the emancipation proclamation distinguished “forever free” from “actual freedom,” the thirteenth amendment is transparent that enslavement can persist as “a punishment for crime,” fitting for peoples with the unremovable baggage of a captive/prisoner past working on chain gangs and as convict laborers in the late nineteenth century or present-day inmates manufacturing goods for our use, deprived as felons of voting, bearing firearms, obtaining public housing and social benefits, keeping parental rights and employment, and traveling abroad. The stigma of criminality remains after time served. The fourteenth amendment made citizenship a function of “equal protection [under] the laws.” And the fifteenth permitted black men to vote, at least on paper. What makes citizenship a farce for most black people, whom were “naturalized,” which is to say a legal statement instantiated their citizenship, is that the law has neither protected nor equalized them, and has stymied the vote through incarceration and other draconian measures.

Indeed, plantations were prisons with life sentences before the prison industrial complex and segregated through slave quarters before Jim Crow, revealing there’s nothing new about the “new Jim Crow” or mass incarceration. Mass enslavement, segregation, and incarceration played out not in sequential order, but rather in tandem and in real time. Getting this elongated story and its present iterations right and having the right story allows us to decode the story nations tell of themselves to their members and the world. Only then can those less seduced by a nation’s triumphant narrative decide which plan and what action to appropriately take. But this is not as easy as it seems: all triumphant narratives are propped up by branding and marketing idea(ls) of progress and hope, and through select individuals whom function as “celebrities” that made it, thus instantiating change, hope, and progress. Though it is always easy to measure progress against slavery, I place nothing in hope, progress, or the fatalism that flows from fetishizing the body and its potential loss. Rather, having the right story, an optic to see beyond the clouds of hope and the fog of “things are better than they were,” a way to make sense of the past living in the present, provides a powerful antidote to the national narrative, those who “made it” up from slavery parading with a ball or dancing or writing black suffering, and an elixir for an attitude that says death is easy, life is hard.

It comes as no surprise the most celebrated, well-worn, and awarded stories about black life take as their central plot black suffering, embodied most evocatively by the “up from slavery/poverty” or the “movin’ on up from the hood” storylines. The deep and enduring appetite for black suffering, satisfied through literature, film, cable TV, and scholarship, signifies the improbability of an autonomous or wholly integrated black life into a consolidated rather than a singularly white society. Viewed from this perspective, Coates’s conclusions are based on an agnostic view that only wants to know the present, and where occasionally the past serves his presentism, thus placing hyper-importance on the body, its demise, and in plain language black suffering. Out of the mass enslavement-segregation-incarceration plot, underpinned by the “black-unchristian-slave” story, comes the “up from slavery/poverty” narrative template and arc, the premise of which is black suffering made bearable by progress and hope. Though black progress is viewed as white suffering, an aberration of nature in white societies, hope and its betrayal, that is, Coates’s hopelessness, come from the same place, the same story. I, therefore, concede that BWM captures the mood of a moment, but what value is a portrait written for white folk, one that feeds rather than starves the very appetite for black suffering? Coates wants to be an American, but he confesses that he will be black wherever he goes and thus the primal contradiction of black life in white societies.


Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain't directed
That's why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive
Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing
Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained
Our sincerity's rehearsed in stage, it's just a game




[1] For details, and perspectives from the people who experienced transatlantic slaving, see Kwasi Konadu, Transatlantic Africa: 1440-1888 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] Konadu, Transatlantic Africa, 75-86.

[3] David Levering Lewis, Gods Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (New York: Norton, 2009), 221, 237.

[4] See Lewis, God’s Crucible; Brian A. Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c.1050–1614 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ed., The Legacy of Muslim Spain, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1992).

[5] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 51.

[6] John C. Coombs, “The Phases of Conversion: A New Chronology for the Rise of Slavery in Early Virginia,” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2011): 347; Douglas M. Bradburn and John C. Coombs, “Smoke and Mirrors: Reinterpreting the Society and Economy of the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake,” Atlantic Studies 3 (2006): 131-157.

[7] W. Noël Sainsbury, ed., Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 1, 1574-1660 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1860), 1: 260.

[8] For some contemporary accounts of Anglo-Dutch wars and English activity on the Gold Coast, see TNA: PRO, CO 1/19, no. 5 (1665), “A Breife Narrative of the Trade and Present Condition of the Company of Royall Adventurers of England Trading into Africa”; CO 1/17, no. 60 (1663), “An Extract of Letters from Cormantine and Other Places in Affrica”; CO 1/17, nos. 110-111 (1663), “The Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa to [the King].”

[9] Simon P. Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 250.

[10] Newman, A New World, 251. For accounts of early English sugar plantations, see TNA: PRO, CO 1/22, no. 20