After reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's epistolary memoir, Between the World and Me, Toni Morrison endorsed his effort by saying: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates."
Of course, Baldwin was a swinging, gay, world-traveling jazzman, and Coates is a historian and policy wonk, but when Morrison says that Coates is filling the intellectual void that Baldwin left, I think she means that Coates, like Baldwin, is one of the greatest systems analysts America has produced in a long while.
In his nonfiction, Coates, like Baldwin, uses the rhetorical and linguistic powers of literature to reveal the way institutionalized racism works, and to describe the obvious and not-so-obvious ways that violence is perpetuated on black people. In "The Case for Reparations" and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," Coates has perfected a rhetorical model for long-form journalism. He makes the historical personal, shows how the personal is political, and then offers a way for people to change the course of history, if they want to.
His work has had a powerful effect on the writers here at The Stranger, both personally and professionally, so instead of writing a book review that lets you know how great Between the World and Me is, we decided to take a step back and look at many facets of his writing life, from his early days working at an alt-weekly in Washington, DC, to his future as a comic-book writer for Marvel. (Coates is reading on October 29 at McCaw Hall to a sold-out crowd. Next time, they should book a stadium.) (RICH SMITH)
Ta-Nehisi Coates as a Young Writer
By Charles Mudede
The literary rising star Ta-Nehisi Coates cut his teeth at the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly, from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s. The thanks he gives for this experience and education is to the recently deceased David Carr, the New York Times culture critic and editor of the Paper during Coates's tenure there. Carr opened the door to Coates, a fresh dropout of Howard University. If that opening had not happened, the world would have never heard of this person and his talent.
During his time at the Paper, Coates wrote music reviews, cultural criticism, and narrative journalism. Most of his music reviews (or at least those that are accessible online) concern the mainstream hiphop of that time and, for the most part, are functional. Coates expresses a solid knowledge of hiphop history, but he doesn't have the flair of a Greg Tate or the intellectuality of a Tricia Rose. Coates's voice is direct and honest and gets the job done.
Nevertheless, he will not be remembered for his music reviews, nor for much of his cultural criticism, a good example of which can be found in his piece on DC's mid-1990s spoken-word scene, "Slamming Open-Mike Poetry." Sure, he understands what's going on and intelligently unpacks the scene's main concerns, limitations, and challenges. But there is nothing (style, structure, thinking) in this piece and others like it that really stands out.
Even as a young writer, Coates shines in the mode of narrative journalism. One only has to read "Doing Unto Others," which was published (September 3, 1999) a few weeks before he turned 25, to see the language and vision of the prose is much, much stronger. The story concerns homeless men who are hired to evict people. It is the homeless making the homeless. And not for very much money. Coates is right there in the thick of it, listening to the homeless men and observing/capturing the absurdity of their situation.
Coates also gets to the troubling core of things: Why do they even do this? Surely not just for the money, which amounts to, at best, 20 bucks for day's worth of heavy lifting and carrying. Why are the homeless men not totally repulsed by this kind of work? Why do they keep coming back? "[The] workers are homeless," Coates writes, "and most of them have no problem with adding unfortunate souls to their ranks."
This existential honesty is, I think, the live wire we find in much of his best writing.
It’s Never Too Soon
By Angela Garbes
My parents, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1970, never sat me down and told me that, as a brown-skinned woman, some things might be harder. They raised my brothers and me to speak only English because my father wanted to spare us the embarrassment and shame he regularly felt among his fellow citizens. I only know this because sometime in my 20s, I asked him why he never taught me Tagalog.
"What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness," Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son in Between the World and Me. "I resolved to hide nothing from you."
As I read Coates's detailed journey into his own consciousness—every misunderstanding and mistake a necessary step on the path, everything tied so clearly to the body, I felt a physical desire to hear my parents' stories of how they navigated their identities through the storms of both discrimination and assimilation in America.
At some point in their lives, every person of color in America experiences a moment when they realize that they are different, that they are not white. And that this fact will matter. When this happens, developing a racial consciousness becomes essential to moving through the world with any sense of self, sanity, and pride.
Between the World and Me is an unflinching directive from father to son about the necessity of being painfully conscious. But Coates's writing demands the same of his readers. "I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world," he tells all of us.
While I read, often with the happy babbling of my infant daughter playing a few feet away from me, I was challenged to think about how I will guide her into consciousness. It is not too early for her to begin to know her family's history and hold her space in this world. It is never too early for those parents who know that their children must grow up with the understanding that their lives are not considered as valuable as those of their white friends.
But I find it impossible to imagine that a white person reading this book will not have a moment of reckoning when Coates drops this unfuckwithable truth: "You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact." These words demand the understanding that ignorance is a luxury white people can no longer afford.
But Between the World and Me is not addressed to white people—and that is an inherent part of its power. "My wish for you," Coates writes, "is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable." This liberation is urgent and real.
Insisting on Reality
By Jen Graves
It's a testament to how much the world shelters me that I was in my early 30s before I saw and felt some incurably terrible things. There was a sudden, awful, tragic death, followed by the ravages of grief, quickly followed by the rest of the world expecting that it would all pass and things would return to normal.
Some pains are permanent, I learned. I have my joy and my pain. They're both part of me, and they're not going anywhere, and the only time my pain gets worse is when somebody tries to convince me it isn't real, or it's my fault, or I'm doing it wrong. "Tell me," is the response I long for.
I guess I feel it's my duty to fight for the reality of pain, and to account for pains that I will never feel. When a friend reminds me how her dark skin means she'll never get the easy acceptance that smooths my entire way through the world, I can only say, "Tell me."
I'm white, and I feel like I'm still in a world where white people don't believe people of color. We interrogate, we belittle, we deny that the pain is even happening. Even the most well-intentioned of us want to skip straight to "But it will be okay." But there is something stifling about "It gets better," like the nighttime reassurances you give a child that don't hold up in the light of day. How fast does it get better? How much better does it get? Who has to wait the longest for it to get better?
The scene behind all the other scenes in Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me is the one where his son stays up late hoping that the killer of Michael Brown will be punished, that even the slightest hint of justice will counter the body blows of racist state violence. "It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished," Coates writes. "But you were young and still believed."
The son disappears to his room, and the father can hear him crying. He gives him a few minutes before he goes into the room. "And I didn't hug you, and I didn't comfort you," Coates writes. "I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed that it would be okay."
Coates is not being hopeless, he is insisting on reality in a world that prefers to doubt him. His book is addressed to his son, but those of us in the white audience can do him the courtesy of showing respect for the reality of racialized pain. As much as I want to engage, I first have to listen, and believe.
Why Coates? Why Now?
By Sean Nelson
Recently, the Daily Beast published a story with the mildly sensational title "Ta-Nehisi Coates on Why Whites Like His Writing." (Spoiler: "I don't know why white people read what I write," was Coates's answer.) I can't speak for the imaginary white agora, but the major reason I make a point of reading everything he publishes is that his writing is unfailingly grounded in the concrete. His reparations piece was an unshakable polemic because it was reported. The argument was more than persuasive; morally speaking, it was incontrovertible. These are facts.
You needn't spend more than a few minutes on social media to be made aware that what we charmingly refer to as "the conversation about race" is in a paltry state. This is necessarily a reflection of the paltry state of our ability to reconcile the moral certainty that there is massive disparity between the lives of white and black people on every conceivable level and the seeming impossibility of even knowing how to begin to meaningfully address that fact. A lot of white people like to assuage their outrage and guilt by calling other white people white online, comforted by the assumption of scoffing, condescending laughter. It's frustrating the way all advertisements of sympathy are frustrating, and infuriating because it lets everyone off of every hook.
Coates is having none of it. Between the World and Me is a razor to the assumptions of language. It's not white people, it's "people who believe they are white" (via James Baldwin). It's not racism, or America, or religion, or any of the other damp commonplaces of discourse. It's "the dream." It's not discrimination, or equality, or brutality, it's "the destruction of the black body." He interrogates everything, reduces every component to its most useful and cogent essence. These conditions are not symptoms of a broken system. They are hard evidence of a system working the way it was explicitly designed to work.
This is surely why his work is striking a chord: It combines the eloquence of certitude with the energy of constant inquiry. His writing reveals a mind that is both generous and unforgiving. He grapples with ideas that seem too big to see the edges of, and bring them to heel with a commandingly dispassionate, fundamentally materialist approach.
Plus he is an out atheist, which seems to me a necessary condition for writing seriously about the subjects he's addressing at this point in history. "I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously," he writes in the opening pages of Between the World and Me, "which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard." About fucking time, too.
Coates of Arms: Black Imagination & the House of Ideas
By Larry Mizell Jr.
How many black kids learned to dream in between the panels of Marvel comics? I was one. South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s was no Mayberry—maybe you heard. I needed to dream—so much of what I saw was the other thing, and it left in me a powerful fear. The fear of pain, of lack, of not having control over my life. ("The devil," once rapped a guy who calls himself Tony Starks, "planted fear inside the black babies.") In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about that fear, growing up in West Baltimore, and how that fear could make his childhood harrowing, outside his home and in.
"My family's home was not a democracy," Coates said in a recent Vulture interview—"and there was freedom in reading comic books." Freedom, inconceivable power, nigh invulnerability—and codes of conduct. Spidey lives by his dead uncle's power/responsibility chestnut, the X-Men "protect a world that fears and hates them." They struggled, like literally everyone I knew, unlike the stars of the Distinguished Competition—Coates himself has admitted he knows next to nothing about DC. Marvel just struck a chord in the hiphop generation that DC couldn't. Ask Tony Starks, Johnny Blaze, David Banner, Jean Grae, and MF Doom, just for starters. Exactly zero rappers wanted to be Aquaman.
That was all before Kamala Khan, before Sam Wilson became Captain America (and Rae Sremmurd graced the cover), before all the All-New, All-Different. And now the next Black Panther, one of Marvel's key badasses, the protector-king of Wakanda, a northeastern African nation that's scientifically more advanced than the rest of the world—is in the hands of America's foremost writer on the subject of race. Who knows what dreams may come?