A Feature Review of
This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us
Cole Arthur Riley
Reviewed by Israel Kolade
In June 2020, in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the United States entered a summer of racial reckoning. In response to this moment, Cole Arthur Riley opened an Instagram account. A few years prior, Riley had started attending an Episcopal church and had become deeply appreciative of the Anglican and Catholic liturgical traditions of written prayers. As an English writing and English literature major, this was not only a love for the content of the prayers but an attraction for the form and embodied practices of those prayers. While she had developed a new love for this tradition, in the summer of 2020 she quickly found the prayers of dead white men to be insufficient for her Black female body. More so, these prayers fell flat in attending to, and speaking into, the particular experiences of the Black body in the racialized society of the United States. So, Riley opened a new Instagram account – Black Liturgies. “Black Liturgies is a space where Black words live in dignity, lament, rage, and hope.” These were the captioned words of her first Instagram post. Almost two years and 159,000 followers later, Cole Arthur Riley has released her debut book, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us.
The title is a nod to the character Baby Suggs, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Baby Suggs, the matriarch, gathers an enslaved, freedom-seeking family as they dwell in a ghost-haunted home. She leads them in a set of practices – involving dancing, crying, and laughter – after which she says, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard” (4). These words encapsulate the project that Riley undertakes in this creative nonfiction that is part memoir, part contemplative meditation, and part storytelling. Riley attends to a spirituality that is both embodied and contemplative, a spirituality rooted in the past of her ancestors and rooted in a present and future liberation. In her preface, she notes that “… as a Black woman, I am disinterested in any call to spirituality that divorces my mind from my body, voice, or people” (ix). In this practice of integrating the mind with the body in contemplative reflection, Riley goes on a journey through her own story, and the story of her family going back two generations (with her father and grandmother). This integration brings together the formative stories of her childhood with the contemplative practice of “beholding the divine in all things” (x).
The book is split into 15 chapters which explore some of the most profound facets of the human experience and desire. Riley considers the themes and questions raised by, “Dignity,” “Place,” “Wonder,” “Calling,” “Body,” “Belonging,” “Fear,” “Lament,” “Rage,” “Justice,” “Repair,” “Rest,” “Joy,” “Memory,” and “Liberation.” With each theme she draws from the riches of the biblical text, the formative stories of her father and grandmother, and the wisdom of great contemplative writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Howard Thurman, Julian of Norwich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Lucille Clifton, and Thomas Merton.
As a Black woman, Riley does not hesitate to express a suspicion for faith traditions that emphasize the afterlife over and against the embodied present. This takes particular form in her meditations on whiteness as a construct which seeks to colonize the Black body. At several points in the book, her writing reads as a protest psalm against whiteness. For example, in Chapter 5, “Body,” Riley reflects on how whiteness presents the mind as more desirable than the body; that one ought to fix their attention on the immaterial realm in place of the present and material world. This, of course, lends itself to an obfuscation of “material injustices by which Black people have been historically excluded” (59). But it is not only a mere disconnection between the immaterial and material that is at issue here. Riley goes on to note that such disconnection is communicated from body to body through racialized generational trauma. The Black body in 2020 did not only have to contend with the brutal images of violence which pervaded almost all social media channels that summer, but also the brutal violence against the bodies of their ancestors which are still carried in Black bodies today. This connection between the pain of the present and the pain of the past adds depth to Riley’s meditation.
In protesting whiteness, and the atrocities it carried out, and in acknowledging the lament and rage it produces, Riley roots the hope of healing and liberation for the Black body in the rich soil of activism and contemplation. For example, in chapter 10, “Justice,” Riley speaks poetically of the need for stillness (in coming into one’s self) and for movement (in wrestling for the affirmation of one’s own dignity) in the pursuit of justice for the Black body.
This Here Flesh is a captivating spiritual meditation where ‘Black words live in dignity, lament, rage, and hope.’ It explores how spirituality can heal the body, heal the stories we inherit, and give language to the deepest experiences of the human. By attending to the particularity of her Black female body, and the stories of her ancestors, Riley creates a sacred space for the reader to attend to their own body, the stories of their own ancestors, and the liberation that already is and is to come if only we are brave enough to hear its sound.
Israel Kolade is the Director of Faith Formation at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is a MDiv Student at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a graduate of the University of London.