“But all our phrasing … serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
In light of the ongoing peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd during our current race relations nadir, I am going to review a very important book: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. While I have not yet read the whole thing, I have read enough to look at philosophical issues that the book raises through its body-centered language.
I contemplated the mind-body problem in relation to this language on Coates’ book. Before I began reading, I had dismissed body-centered language as demeaning to the intellects of the underprivileged, whether women or non-whites in America. I have changed my opinion somewhat; while body-centered language can be essentialist and therefore demeaning to human potential, it is also an expressive and rational way to voice the realities of being underprivileged. Any animal may be unable to breathe, but I don’t have to agree you can’t breathe, when you can’t breathe because of a knee to the neck.
One such reality is denigration of the underprivileged person’s intellect, by physical force. Being underprivileged makes black people in America susceptible to violence, for no other reason than this: society’s authorities wish it. Strangling, clubbing, shooting: all have physically forced black people from the economic, political, or intellectual worlds. It has been dangerous for oppressors for the oppressed to think. Why?
Anyone with intellect can voice that a thing is not only pleasant or unpleasant, but also just or unjust. The literate can use books to position themselves intellectually in the world as subjects who can act by learning, and more than objects to be degraded or worked. People with intellects are also aware of things outside their own immediate experiences, including patterns of oppression in society.
Bodies both humanize and dehumanize us in our society. The very fact we can think and feel at all owes itself to our having active bodies that sense and move in the first place. We could not have any sense of reason, if we could not act with the body upon the environment. If I throw a stone, I have to reason it will land, and vice versa. It is this active body that is worth defending from unjust force.
Body-centered language makes sense on this embodied thinking level. On the other hand, physical force means that we have to consider the body before our intellect if we want self-preservation. It also means that our oppressors try to reduce us to bodies-as-objects, not the bodies-as-subjects that are worthy of inclusion in a moral community. Active human bodies act as ends in themselves to fulfill human flourishing.