Conflicting Visions: Grappling With the Ta-Nehisi Coates Enigma

“This was the voice in my head that I was constantly trying to unlock, to get out and onto the page. I wanted to produce writing that was not just correct on its merits but, through its form and flow, emotionally engaged the receiver, writing that was felt as much as it was understood.” ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates

I doubt there is a public figure in recent memory that has been as symmetrically loved and loathed as the former Atlantic correspondent and critically acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates. To his fans, Coates has been a vociferous castigator of historic evil and the inherent sin of white racism, shining a scorching light on the dark side of the American dream through the lens of his own marginalized experience. To his critics, he is a nefarious manipulator of white guilt and conjurer of identitarian grievance, “a pornographer of race” in the words of Sam Harris, who stokes political and racial tribalism out of his own personal pain. To the less opinionated, Coates is mostly a well-intended gadfly discussing an important social issue with a slight bent towards hyperbole. It’s possible that each of these interpretations are more or less correct, which can only be attributed to the rhetorical mixture of sociocultural polemics and personal narrative that has made Coates both a powerful communicator and an unwavering paradox.

Considering the unprecedented degree to which his work has polarized opinion and politicized the cultural discourse around the eternally contentious subject of race in America, it could be useful to take a deep dive into the career trajectory of Mr. Coates — and his subsequent departure from the intellectual spotlight — to better understand the import of his staggering popularity and its ensuing ripple effect on the national dialogue.

For those unfamiliar, Ta-Nehisi Coates could best be described as the quintessential anti-racist of our time, a position calcified by his charge that “there is nothing wrong with black people that ending white supremacy won’t fix”, unironically spouted at a panel discussion on the role of culture in the persistence of inner-city gun crime. Lesser-known of Coates is the relative paucity of binary racialized platitudes in his earlier writing. His first taste of literary fame came in the form of his 2008 memoir “The Beautiful Struggle”, which chronicles the raw details of his upbringing and the social environment that entangled it. The book depicts a dystopian 1980s West Baltimore, afflicted by de facto segregation in the fallout of the drug war, where violence was the norm and fatherhood the exception. But conspicuous by its absence in the portrait rendered is the presumably implacable force of white supremacy that Coates has become known for denouncing, or any white people whatsoever for that matter (he has said on multiple occasions that he never had any white friends until adulthood).

Moreover, he betrays no shyness in broaching the cultural inertia that plagued his youth: “All around us the older order of black fathers was tilting towards disgrace, trading in honor for wine and dice, and leaving in their wake legions of boys, dizzied, angry, and confused.” Still, the seeds of what Coates would later become were already germinating, as the “invisible hand” of systemic racism remained omnipresent in the backdrop: “We thought that our battles were homegrown and personal, but, like an evil breeze at our back, we felt invisible hands at work, like someone else was still tugging at levers and pulling at strings”.

That same year, Coates was first published in The Atlantic after pulling together an exposé on the “audacious” black conservatism of Bill Cosby, a move that would set the tone for his future as a fierce cultural critic and jutting public intellectual. At the time, Cosby had embarked on a nationwide campaign to shift the focus in black America from “blaming the white man”, as Coates put it, to claiming responsibility for the cultural lag in their own communities through a series of live “call-outs” in jam-packed auditoriums across the country where Cosby would basically berate the black occupants of a given area code for their lack of human capital and self-sufficiency (this was well before he was outed as a sexual predator). Needless to say, Cosby made himself into a gaping target and Coates was the perfect gunman lying in wait. Clearly nauseated by Cosby’s heresy, Coates proceeded to trot him out as a grifter, nostalgically clinging to a mythical black past out of his own naive sentimentality and selective historical amnesia.

This was the early onset of Coates’ unyielding critique of cultural explanations for racial disparities, an argumentative cudgel wielded to convey the sheer vulgarity of blaming black culture in place of white racism in our charges of public policy given the brutal history of racial terror in America. To him, intimating the possibility that modern racial disparities could be anything other than the insidious manifestation of entrenched and surreptitious white supremacy is anathema, an impropriety that places blame on the victim and needlessly pays tribute to white innocence. The thought of going a step further and removing blame from the framework altogether never seems to enter his mind. Interestingly, Coates’ own father, a former Black Panther, took issue with the lack of charity extended toward black conservatism, with its focus on communal uplift and individual development, and has notably taken a different line than his son on the role of personal responsibility in racial matters. 

I suspect that what makes Ta-Nehisi Coates such an enigmatic and precarious figure is the way he skillfully alternates between political commentary and emotional catharsis. This is not a mind-reading accusation, it is actually pretty obvious once you take notice. There is no clear boundary between the substance of his arguments and his own subjective self-identity. The rhythmic arc of his prose neither bends toward making a specific argument, nor toward a grand emotional gesture that emanates out from his personal experience, but is seemingly navigating both literary devices at once in a manner that makes it difficult to sift and decipher.

This is a convenient juncture to nest yourself in that exceptionally few writers are capable of bridging, insofar as he can make quixotic arguments without ever having to follow them to their logical conclusion (“Donald Trump is the first white president”), and make broad sweeping claims based purely on intuition (“I think all politics is identity politics”) — all the while being held accountable to neither. Coates describes this methodology in relation to James Baldwin, with whom he is regularly compared: “James Baldwin had this beautiful ability to shift from personal narrative to broad analysis of the country at large in a kind of repertorial journalistic voice, and he did it seamlessly.. I still want to be able to write like that.”

This amorphous blend of social analysis and personal narrative culminates in his 2015 bestselling memoir "Between The World And Me" and his prize-winning essay "The Case For Reparations", both of which ascended him to an intellectual stratosphere rarely grazed by any writer. The former is a 176 page screed written as a letter to his son on the impenetrable scourge of anti-black racism that upbraids the false exceptionalism of the American Experiment, oscillating between sweeping claims about society as seen through his own eyes and between the actual content of his arguments — with bits and pieces of loosely strewn facts handily scattered. The book reads like an artful rendering of group identity, though it’s entirely unclear where the individual ends and the group begins — or, to put it another way, it’s unclear where the ideas end and he himself begins; where the personal deviates from the political. Coates dissolves that barrier, relentlessly, almost angrily so, like he’s insulted that barrier was put there to begin with.

The Case For Reparations, although more academic by necessity, operates in a similar fashion. In outlining the foundational sin of black plunder and the compounding historical debt of that karmic stain, Coates slides from investigative journalism into a secular sermon that interjects lofty metaphysical edicts in place of specific policy solutions: “What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt”.. “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of history”.. “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts” .. Though it’s easy enough to cherry-pick these oddly spiritual passages, we can admit these claims are not what we would expect from a multivariate analysis of a complex social issue, let alone from a prestigious essay that subsequently obtained multiple awards and almost single-handedly made reparations into a mainstream position.

It’s tempting to psychoanalyze, but that’s not even necessary because Coates has pretty much cleared all suspicions to his motivations on record. In reflecting on the thought process behind The Case For Reparations in his most recent printed essay collection, Coates writes “what I wanted most was to shine an unblinking light on the entire stage, to tell my people with all the authority I could muster that they were right, that they were not crazy, that it really was all a trick.” When asked about the impetus to write Between The World And Me during a talk with the West Point Writing Program, he says simply “I didn’t write that book to touch a lot of people. I wrote it because my friend had died and I had been processing it for years.”In the same discussion, Coates is asked about what impact he hopes to have on his readers: “I hope the kids that live in communities like I used to live in, where violence was a constant force and knowing the rest of the country is not that way, I want them to understand that they didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not their fault that it is that way. It’s not something that they caused. If I could do that, it would be pretty big.”

This is him, and it’s perfectly understandable in light of his biography. But we can appreciate the point-blank honesty without feeling the need to justify the conclusions drawn from it. There is nothing wrong with being close to your subject matter or investing a sense of identity in your work, but Coates takes it a step further by completely blurring the line between subject and object, between the world and him, between identity and politics, between the private and the public self, and never takes pains to untangle and parse these forces. He proceeds as though they are one and the same.

The final essay Coates produced for the Atlantic, before making his exit from the very grindstone that skyrocketed him to intellectual stardom, was an especially bizarre rendition of Kanye West’s eccentric endorsement of President Donald Trump. In a similar spirit as the Cosby takedown, Coates excoriates the pop culture icon for betraying his own racial identity in exchange for a “white freedom”, comparing Kanye’s approval of the president to the desiccation of Michael Jackson’s face into whiteness: “What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought — liberation from the dictates of that ‘we’.” The piece generated quite the buzz online in reaction to his moral and racial arbitration of a seemingly innocuous publicity stunt, but what was more striking to me was the lesser examined segment about his own personal struggles with fame that quietly found its way into the piece: “I want to tell you a story about the time, still ongoing as of this writing, when I almost lost my mind.”

He goes onto vent the pitfalls of notoriety and how it affected his sense of reality and community. “The terrible thing about that small fame was how it undressed me, stripped me of self-illusion, and showed how easily I could be swept away, how part of me wanted to be swept away..” It’s hard to know what to make of this personal diatribe, but it rings like a kind of confession. It’s telling that this was his last piece featured in the Atlantic before he moved into a pure creative space — writing comics for marvel and starting his own novel. After reading virtually everything the man has ever written, I personally believe Coates is more of an artist or a poet than he is a polemicist or rhetorician, and I would imagine being deemed a public intellectual or an authority on explicitly political matters would amass a heavy burden when you feel like a creator at heart. Obviously, this is pure speculation. But the Coates phenomenon offers a fascinating case study into the costs and benefits of embedding oneself, which is to say one’s inner sense of identity and deepest heartfelt longings, into an objective critique of the world at large.

A useful philosophical tool to better understand where the conception of a given thinker falls along the ideological spectrum can be found in Thomas Sowell’s renowned book “A Conflict Of Visions”, where Sowell diligently argues that our political disagreements can be boiled down to divergent assumptions about human nature. In the book, he distinguishes the unconstrained vision from the constrained vision, which respectively act as the two opposite poles in a bi-model distribution of conflicting worldviews. In a nutshell, the unconstrained vision sees human nature as intrinsically benevolent and views maligned social structures as the central corrupting force in our world, and the constrained vision sees human nature as being intrinsically flawed and views our social structures as attempts to mitigate our own inherent limitations. Most of us are nested somewhere in between these two poles, yet find ourselves gravitating towards one vision in defiance of the other on varying topics. Upon this a priori perceptual foundation, our understanding of the world rests.

The curious case of Ta-Nehisi Coates exemplifies a hybrid of these distinct visions, as he is both constrained in his conceptualization of the brutal limitations of the human condition, and unconstrained in that he holds out hope for a great awakening when American will come to terms with historic racism. Coates has repeatedly professed that he is an atheist who rejects magical narratives and harbors no faith in the realization of cosmic justice — “Nothing in the record of human history argues for divine morality, and a great deal argues against it” — “Ideas like cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption had no meaning for me” — “The truth was in the everything that came after atheism, after the amorality of the universe is taken not as a problem but as a given” and yet readers would be hard-pressed to internalize that hardened realism next to his more orphic religious projections elsewhere displayed, such as in The Case For Reparations: What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that will lead to a spiritual renewal”.

This is not to say that he is lying or engaging in a performative contradiction, just that his vision is both constrained and unconstrained in its tonality and application, adding more fodder still to the ambiguity surrounding the Coates affect. The paradoxical nature of his vision allocates him greater breadth and scope philosophically, but lends itself to logical incongruities and prescriptive deficiencies that can be both self-defeating and ethically inoculating. All one need do is read his books, reflexively nod along in abject disgust of our fellow countrymen, dream of an eschatological future while venting the ugliness of the present, and then go about our day. No reckoning is required.

What to make of Coates’ perennial impact on the cultural dialogue?

It was probably inevitable. The anti-racist vision — which sees modern society as a totalizing system of oppression that disproportionately marginalizes certain groups by virtue of historical power relations — isn’t going anywhere. Coates is the patron saint of this vision, the foremost critic of the principle of colorblindness and the supreme arbiter of authentic blackness — the high priest of the church of anti-racism. His story represents the ultimate deposition to the American conscience, putting our checkered past under the spotlight of contemporary ethical standards with all the pretension of hindsight. Whether seen as a prophet, a provocateur, a poet, a philistine, or just a bare-bones wordsmith, Ta-Nehisi Coates lit the public discourse around race on fire and we are still reeling from the embers.

The reader may have guessed that I personally don't jibe with the racial tableau that Coates has spent his career grafting onto our collective imagination — that a high-resolution interpretation of the country necessarily involves recognizing racism as the central organizing and determining force of the western world — but I believe there is great benefit to unpacking the Coates phenomenon and recognizing how it reflects the magnetism of social justice ideology writ large. Call me naive, but I still seek solace in the humanist vision laid out by Dr. King, namely that our value judgements are better ascribed to the content of our character than the content of our skin cells, that color is just the banal residue of our evolutionary heritage that need not be fetishized any more than it already has been. That vision is losing in our culture right now, and for those who share my naiveté, I think it’s essential to understand why.

On a side, there is much to appreciate about Coates himself: His unfiltered honesty and unalloyed openness, his undulating prose that bears the musical cadence of a symphony, the intellectual humility that remains steadfast through his writing, and his love of language that is characteristic of all literary savants. Coates has taught me how to genuinely appreciate and respect my ideological opponents, and for that I am grateful.

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