Why Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Write?

 /  Nov. 5, 2017, 5:27 p.m.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is the prominent unraveler of America’s moral fabric. His standout pieces are critical of the existing American political landscape: they scrutinize its historical underpinnings, they demand reparations for the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, and they examine the national embrace and eventual rejection of Barack Obama. Eager to learn more about his mental framework, I attended an event called On Being hosted by the Chicago Humanities Festival, at the Rockefeller Chapel on the South Side of Chicago. The event was interview style, between journalist Krista Tippett and Coates, who discussed his perspectives on race and black identity politics in America. Tippett had a few foibles, such as her tendency to ask for hopeful optimism. This at times seemed at odds not only with the subject matter, but with the disposition of her guest. There were also traces of her spirituality weaved into the conversation, which had the effect of softening ideas that others might find too harsh. Coates appeared calm and serious, poised to engage in his now trademarked moral criticisms of the United States.

As mentioned, Coates is known for his robust ability to pick apart the American moral fabric. Once the listener has engaged with his uncomfortable assertions, Coates has little patience for idealistic attempts to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Less the stuff of wonkish political analysis than moral treatise, the themes weaved throughout his articles articulate deeply rooted grievances of American persons of color. In a way, they act as a magnifying glass to showcase the frustrations, anguish, and deep, deep pessimism that is thought to characterize the minority experience, the black existence, in America. No person speaks for all black people, but his words resonate with far too many for them to be dismissed as just overly cynical intellectualism. In a way, Coates provides a counterpoint to the pandering of President Donald Trump on his MAGA (Make America Great Again) pulpit. He reveals details about dominant ways of thought that can overlook, or more maliciously, mute the voices of those who are not a part of the so-called silent majority—those voices within the silenced minority. As such, Coates contributes to a disruption of the mainstream continuum of racial discourse. He makes it harder for men like Trump to exploit existing racial grievances and emotions. Trump plays to the crowd, Coates sounds the alarm.

Such a writer will attract much attention, and many critics. Among the objections leveled against Coates is the notion that he contributes to a pervasive victim culture that encourages American citizens to file themselves into oppressed categories. This may result in an obfuscation of the inherent agency of black Americans, and a concealment of any contributing factors to institutional problems that are not the direct result of racism. Perhaps the best example of this criticism is his narrative on the election of Trump, which favored a dominant narrative of antiblack prejudice and de-emphasized the effects of sexism, working class wage stagnation, and increased suicide rates for white males, among other realities. Another objection to be considered is the more obvious problem of “divisiveness.” It’s best to ignore shallow claims of divisiveness which are more often than not used as a silencing tactic. Robust debate is among the core traits of a democratic project like our own. A more legitimate concern to be had is that when Coates consistently highlights one racial narrative, there is a degree of alienation, social fragmentation, and division which may arise if reconciliation is not viewed as a priority. Additionally, these narratives may contribute to the perception of differing minority groups fighting for a slice of the pie, each seeing themselves as part of a disjointed block: blacks for blacks, hispanics for hispanics, asians for asians, etc. Racial isolation can breed vulnerability, particularly when one group is with limited resources to mount a successful project. This could make the effects of marginalization, discrimination, and silencing all the more acute, and may leave one with little to show for resistance taken. Embitterment between racial groups clearly isn’t Coates’s goal, but by so strongly highlighting issues of African-Americans, his writing subtly pushes back against the effort to intertwine one racial narrative with that of another. I’m reminded of the DNC Speech given by then Senator Barack Obama, in which he stated that “There is not a black America, a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.” The theme embraced here succinctly calls for a unity of purpose and personal affinity between differing demographics, and yet it’s clear that Coates does not wholly agree with Obama.

In “My President Was Black,” an article reflecting on the high triumphs, big symbolism, and last hurrahs of the Obama presidency, Coates focuses Obama’s optimism. At one point, Coates mentions a conversation with Obama on “straighten up” talk, the kind of talks given to troubled, “hard” youths: “I told him that I thought [straighten up talk] was not sensitive to the inner turmoil that can be obscured by the hardness kids often evince. I told him I thought this because I had once been one of those kids. He seemed to concede this point, but I couldn’t tell whether it mattered to him.” As Coates alludes to, this passage reflects a meeting of the minds between two men shaped by distinctive, yet equally affecting narratives of the black experience in America. Obama experienced a diverse upbringing, and was instilled with love, education, and hope by kind-hearted white Kansans. Coates grew up in a two parent, black home in Baltimore, Maryland. He came of age during the crack epidemic, with his parents raising him on a foundation of discipline, and a cognizance of the effects of racism. The fundamental tension here is articulated by Coates as that between a dominant tradition of political optimism, which obscures an equally dominant tradition of racial oppression. “To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased. That is the tradition to which the “skinny kid with a funny name” who would be president belonged. It is also the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House.” This would also explain why Coates rejects the rhetoric of the light at the end of the tunnel.

The dynamic between Obama and Coates is much like that of two waves propagating on the surface of a pond. When the ripples interfere, they jostle. The resulting disruption, the high peaks and low valleys, is more complex and stimulating than the effects of each wave in isolation. To clarify the analogy, both “waves” are needed to understand the full scope of what has come to be known as the black struggle. This applies as black Americans seek to contend with outside forces of oppression, but it also applies to internal conflicts between rosy and dour views of the road traveled. It is important to note that there are other kinds of black thought than those championed by these two men, such as that advanced by women like Maya Angelou, that of public intellectuals with a more global view, and that of activists who seek to affirm black agency in an interpersonal way—outside of the context of American government or institutional reform.  

Many familiar with his work have asked, “Why do white people like Coates?” In my view this a banal question. It is important to understand the problem of black pain being articulated in an eloquent or poetic way. This can at times seem performative, and may even become a form of entertainment. As a member of the audience of the On Being event, the laughter I heard at times sounded a bit like that of people having fun, eagerly showing off how they were “down” with Coates’s assertions. The problem I have with this line of thinking is not that it is unfounded, but that it is unoriginal. I think it inhibits a reader’s ability to engage on a deeper level with who Coates is, and the role he plays within American democracy. This understanding can provide greater insight into his relationship with not just a white audience—which he himself asserted was not as large as others may think—but with the broader American public. This will provide clarity into how a white audience can digest Coates’s calls for justice, critical discourse, and narratives of black suffering in a way that does not reify the disconcerting theme of rich white people being entertained by black struggle, a theme which we have seen from Othello, to 12 Years A Slave, to Fences. An ideal relationship would be akin to that between a student learning hard truths from a teacher, with no expectation of forced optimism at the end of the lecture. Thus, a stronger and more fundamental question to ask about Coates is, "How might the American consciousness be transformed through his writing?" The great power behind his earnest criticism can be found here.

Indeed, Coates’s writing rings with a declarative purpose of thought that brings to mind a similar declaration from the Bible: “Let there be light.” Not a literal act of creation, but Coates is figuratively creating a space for the kind of enlightenment that he wants to see happen. The Abrahamic religious themes in his writing can be extended to his discussions of struggle, and the racial essentialism that others have criticized within his writing. For clarity, racial essentialism is to characterize race as more than just skin deep, as an “essence” that pervades the very nature of who we are and what we are capable of. It is a problem rooted in the idea that humans created the notion of race, forgot this act of creation, and have now come to see themselves as immutably defined by race. Thus, the critics argue that Coates grants race a greater potency that it deserves. In this, they are both correct and missing the point. He is an atheist, and likely does not truly believe in a transcendent or immutable quality of race. The essentializing of race is a rhetorical device that Coates employs, which performs the work of communicating just how consequential one’s race can be in their daily, lived experience. This notion should be obvious, and familiar; it parallels and contends with Christian thought and moral discourses. During On Being, he discussed how those Christian colonizers who came to the Americas fleeing persecution—who articulated grand narratives of a land of milk and honey—would recreate the very evils that they were running from. Thus, his writing is intentionally aware of dominant ways of Christian thought; in “The Case for Reparations,” passages from the Bible are used to support the titular argument. Coates is adept at employing the language of Christianity as it relates to notions of sin and guilt, and how these problems impede the potential of the mind, body, and soul from achieving moral potential. The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used similar themes in his discussion of man’s spiritual movement from a pleasurable life of aesthetics and the ego, to a life bound by a higher ethical conduct, to a life served under the Christian God. In a manner similar to Coates’s magnifying of racial grievances with the intent to challenge, illuminate, and spark critical self-reflection, Kierkegaard saw internal suffering as the means by which one attains spiritual development, a more virtuous outlook, and clarity of purpose. Of course, there are distinctions to be made between the two philosophical narratives. Coates’s narrative of American sin does not begin with a bitten fruit in the Garden of Eden. It is more attuned to the theme of “Strange Fruit,” a protest song by Billie Holiday that symbolizes the sin of lynching. This strange fruit seeds a greater notion of America as a false Garden of Eden. Suffice it to say, Coates’s atheism should prove his racial essentialism and religious themes to be symbolic literary devices, and potent ones at that.

In some ways this potency may speak to the question of “Why do so many white people like Coates’s writing?” There have been cynical responses to this question. For some, Coates presents an opportunity for white audiences to absolve themselves of guilt—they cheer and applaud, attempting to affirm their “wokeness,” but this thread has already been explored by other writers. Another theory that has crossed my mind is a tad more optimistic, but is rooted in a dour view of the mainstream relationship between prominent black men and white audiences. Perhaps the reason that Coates is so beloved by many whites is that he has now come to embody the antithesis of the historical notion of an Uncle Tom. Rooted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the term Uncle Tom has come to represent an overly submissive black person, fearful of disturbing the waters of a predominantly white civil society. This fear is then internalized and expressed through passive, apologetic, and inauthentic behavior. More modern iterations of the term invoke the symbolism of an Oreo cookie: a dark exterior (the body), with a white interior (the mind).

An obvious point to make here is the harmful racial stereotype, but further than this is a critique of its strict reliance on categorizations of specific modes of thought as “white,” and specific kinds of behavior as “black.” This notion evades the nuances of not only the racial diaspora, but the fundamentally emulative and interpersonal nature of humanity itself. Yet even with this in mind, it would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the ways in which black men have historically engaged in a kind of racialized self-restraint, performed out of fear of confirming racial stereotypes rooted in notions of aggression, intellectual inferiority, and sexual deviancy. Perhaps this lamentable tradition is where the Coates intrigue emerges from. His writing is not merely provocative, but evocative of a form of human grief that is far too often suppressed. The articulation of this grief is surely not the first of its kind: decades prior James Baldwin stated that, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Originality, however, is not the only measure of the power of one’s words. If we accept that nothing is truly new under the sun, then to dismiss a text like Between the World and Me based on its confirmation of this premise would be intellectually vapid. Coates does not merely provide readers with sound moral grievances, but also an elucidating personal sincerity which would have been lethal during other periods of American history, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind, here now with a modern perspective. Baldwin died before the elections of Obama and Trump; his writings could not address the complex theme of the relationship between the first black president and a first white president, the latter predicated on the former’s existence. As a political concern, the demand for justice that Coates engages in is a desideratum—it fulfills the human need for self-affirmation. The reaffirming of personhood and human dignity is an indelible part of the black struggle, and has served as the lifeblood of the American moral conscience during the darkest moments of our history.

The question of his appeal to white audiences is not the only one that Coates’s writing raises. Another is that of coddling, or the way in which some may expect him to provide them with optimism after his assertions have been made. During an interview with Stephen Colbert, Coates discussed the malleability of voting rights, and the ways in which access to the voting booth has been weaponized to discourage the civic agency of minority Americans. After this point has been made, there was a pause in the dialogue, a brief silence. The usually loquacious Colbert seemed at a loss for how to respond. He ended with, “I hope you’re wrong,” with Coates’s rejoinder being, “I hope I’m wrong too.” A similar response to optimism also happened at the Chicago Humanities Festival Event. Coates was asked by middle school teachers to provide their students with hope during the Trump era. Instead of doing this, he highlighted the benefits of enlightenment over hope, stating that “people deeply underestimate the freedom that comes from understanding.” This may have been what happened at the end of his interview with Colbert—the potential for hope, but an underlying understanding of a present reality.

This need for understanding is why Coates writes. Each word creates the potential for a transformation within the minds of everyday Americans. Coates, however, cannot perform the work for people. The same kind of critical thought that one applies to a midterm paper, or to a multi-step mathematical proof on a final exam, should be applied to the nuanced challenges of interpersonal biases and institutional racism in modern America. And the same way that one would not expect a professor to hold their hand through the process of critical thought, one should not expect Coates, or any other black person, to coddle them through these challenges. Self-guided critical thought can be a powerful personal experience, and is maintained by the understanding that through the period of intellectual struggle and frustration, a more intellectually honest and robust view of race in America will emerge within the individual. One need not agree with every argument that Coates makes, or engage in racial self-hatred, for this process to occur successfully. Indeed, the important effect of this emotionally disruptive process is a broadening of the American intellectual horizon, and by extension, a transformation of worldviews.

As others have often noted, changing one's self is the first step to changing the world. Put more concretely, this process can promote the spreading of a rigorous form of empathy that involves an introspection towards the destructive practices of one group, and is joined by an intimacy with the suffering of the other. The chief goal here is not racial guilt—which in some ways can reconstitute the problems of bigotry— but human empathy. If human empathy could be made manifest within American institutions, political parties, and civic life, the benefits may even, in some ways, defy rational comprehension. But ending the article here would reinforce the same optimistic entitlement that Coates’s writings explicitly reject. So could this transformative change in human empathy actually happen; would everyday Americans undertake the daring struggle of rejecting the ugly heritage of racism? Coates might say no. If you’re truly an optimist, put in the work and prove him wrong.

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Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising third year in the University of Chicago majoring in Political Science. He has served as the Communications Director of the African-Caribbean Students Association, as an intern in the office of Senator Claire McCaskill, and as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri. He looks forward to serving as a Senior Writer for the Gate!