The Education of Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 2, 2017
By Jordan Michael Smith

In March, some of the country’s foremost historians gathered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University for a conference on "Universities and Slavery: Bound by History." Annette Gordon-Reed, Sven Beckert (who helped organize the conference), Craig Steven Wilder, and Adam Rothman were among the experts from more than 30 schools. More than 500 people attended, and the conference — which examined the delicate topic of Harvard’s profits from slavery — was covered in The New York Times.

And yet, for all the academic firepower in the room, the keynote speaker was someone who lacks a university degree of any sort and has no scholarly publications to his name. But such is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s standing in academe that he not only delivered the keynote but also sat down for a one-on-one session with Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust.

It is impossible to imagine any other journalist today being accorded the same privilege by professional historians. Coates occupies a unique position — a writer who has a huge and devoted readership both inside and outside the academy; who insists on foregrounding scholarly work in his popular writings; and who has a reputation among historians as, well, almost one of them. "I really think he should have been a historian," the University of Connecticut historian Manisha Sinha told me with a laugh.

Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power (One World), is a collection of eight of his pieces in The Atlantic, where he’s a national correspondent, with a short essay introducing and contextualizing each. Marrying all of them is a reckoning with the problem of racism in U.S. history. The essays are arranged chronologically, but the sequencing also doubles as an interesting intellectual trajectory, tracking Coates’s journey as he becomes better versed in American history.

"Marking the moment of awakening is like marking the moment one fell in love. If forced I would say I took my tumble with the dark vision of historian Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom," Coates writes of his arc. We Were Eight Years in Power deepens his acknowledgment of his scholarly inheritance with annotations of the ideas he explores. For example, he adds a note to his essay on mass incarceration that originally ran in October 2015: "Without the work of Khalil Gibran Muhammad, this section would not be possible." A paragraph follows on the Harvard historian’s book, The Condemnation of Blackness (Harvard University Press, 2010).

"Still later," he writes in another essay, "I read Ira Katznelson’s history of discrimination, When Affirmative Action Was White, which argued that similar exclusions applied to other ‘color-blind’ New Deal programs, such as the beloved GI Bill, social security, and unemployment insurance. I was slowly apprehending that a rising tide, too, could be made to discriminate." He knew where credit was due: "A raft of well-researched books and articles pointed me this way."

When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Coates was no less effusive about the significance of scholarship. "I really enjoy talking to historians, for the most part, because there’s so much — this is going to sound elitist but it’s true — there’s just a basic ignorance about facts in American history" among members of the public. He points to recent debates over the Confederacy, spurred by attempts to have monuments of Confederate leaders removed from public spaces. The disputes over whether Confederates were fighting to preserve slavery or states’ rights "would not fly in most history programs in this country," he says. Even among journalists, he argues, there is a dearth of knowledge about something as crucial to understanding America as the Civil War.

There is in Coates’s work evidence of a fanboyish enthusiasm, an earnest affection for certain people, places, and things. They include rappers (his Twitter avatar is an image from an album by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan), the French language, and comic books. Among the adored are historians, political scientists, and sociologists. "He’s like our biggest supporter, and that’s really refreshing," says Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University. "I don’t know anyone else who deliberately" foregrounds a reliance on the work of academics to the same degree.

Sinha describes Coates as "one of those rare writers who can effectively mine historians’ work. He has an intuitive grasp of the issues involved." What Sinha finds particularly interesting is that Coates will develop his own take based on his reading, making him as much an active participant in the historicizing process as the people he reads.

Indeed, part of what sets Coates apart from other journalists or public intellectuals is that he tells his audience that historians’ works need to be consulted if they want to understand American history. Like any good high-school math student, Coates shows his work, illustrating which history books lead him to his conclusions.

His blockbuster 2014 story on reparations relied heavily on the assistance of Beryl Satter, a Rutgers University historian. Coates had read Satter’s book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America (Metropolitan Books, 2009), an investigation of the sources of segregation in postwar Chicago. He contacted her, and she helped him connect with her primary sources and coordinate interviews with some of the people she wrote about. "He used my work as an entryway to discuss other historians’ work," says Satter. "He does a magnificent job of synthesizing the work to intervene in current political disputes."

Not all the academic responses to Coates’s work have been positive, as he himself admits. "It went through phases," he says. Initially, the scholars he "leaned on," as he puts it, were pleased with how he was using their work. But a set of critics emerged, particularly as his piece on reparations and his book Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) catapulted Coates into intellectual-superstar territory.

Some scholars thought he was being unofficially appointed as a spokesman for black people— Toni Morrison had anointed him the next James Baldwin — and found that problematic. He cites bell hooks, Cornel West, and Glenn Loury as examples. "It wasn’t academic engagement. It was, ‘Why is Toni Morrison blurbing this dude?’" he says. He points to Loury literally counting up Coates’s money on a episode with John McWhorter. "When that happens … now we’re talking about something else — this is no longer a debate about points," he says. (Loury and McWhorter declined to speak for this article.)

Sometimes those criticisms hurt. "At one point I was watching bell hooks and [activist] Kevin Powell, and bell hooks was like, He writes for academic white people. And I was like, Jesus, you know what I mean?" These were the type of people who, only a few years earlier, had invited him to converse. "I think what I got caught by was the basic politics of academia." He laughs. "To anybody in academia," he says, "it probably sounds like academia to them."

Coates hasn’t been entirely comfortable with becoming a household name. And there is something in the criticism leveled by people like bell hooks that nagged at him. "A question — from other black writers and readers and a voice inside me now began to hover over my work — Why do white people like what I write?" Coates writes in his new book. "The question would eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did." Indeed, I profiled Coates for the New York Observer in 2013, calling him "the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States." Coates writes that that profile made him "retch." Coming from a white writer, the praise undermined his sense of mission. "How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?" he asks.

That pessimism persists — when I asked him about his reaction to my profile, he said it was inevitably colored by, well, color. Such is racism in America that a white critic admiring a black writer can never be simple. "As we have it set up right now, it can’t be," he says. "Maybe one day it will be, but not right now."

Not all criticism of Coates is petty. Several professors I spoke to mentioned that he simplifies parts of American history, suggesting that some eras were uncomplicated in their bigotry when periods of resistance or multicausal phenomena were also at work. Others believe his worldview is too bleak. "For all of the channeling of James Baldwin, Coates seems to have forgotten that black folks ‘can’t afford despair,’" UCLA’s Melvin Rogers wrote when Between the World and Me came out (though Rogers also wrote that he planned to use Coates’s book in two courses). Meanwhile, other scholars argue that Coates exaggerates black victimhood, elides black cultural failings, and promotes a "one-sided nuance-free narrative," as Brooklyn College’s Robert Cherry wrote.

But such critiques have hardly dimmed Coates’s star in academe. In February, he delivered a lecture to a standing ovation at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, where Between the World and Me was given free to every freshman student as part of the university’s "common reading" selection. He got the same "common reading" treatment at UCLA, Washington University in St. Louis, North Carolina State, NYU, Brooklyn College, Eastern Mennonite University, Adelphi University, and California State University at Northridge, where students in an illustrating class created posters for the book. The list of places he’s lectured at is long: the University of Detroit Mercy, the College of Charleston, Michigan State University, Iowa State, and more.

Coates has even inspired new courses. Bryant Simon this spring has been co-teaching classes at Temple around Coates’s concept of "plunder." "A lot of my students were raised on the idea of endless progress when it comes to racial issues," says Simon. Between the World and Me and its attack on the Whig Theory of History — that moral progress is inevitable — offered a very different perspective.

And he has also become a teacher. In January, he will teach a journalism course at NYU. It’s not his first time — Coates was a visiting scholar at MIT from 2012 to 2014 and loved it. "If my family had been in Boston, I would have stuck with that," he says. "Somebody pays you to talk with young people about writing and how to make writing better — if you’re someone like me, how can you be opposed to that?"

The more complicated relationship he now has with scholars hasn’t diminished Coates’s enthusiasm for them. "The majority of folks, to this very day, have been very supportive — by which I do not mean [they] agree with me — but have been willing to engage and go back and forth with me and make suggestions," he says. He has never been shy about sharing his ardor. Shortly after we spoke, he took to Twitter: "Without the historians digging in the trenches, I got nothing. Appreciate all of you. I hope you know it."

Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic.

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