Fear of a Black Pundit

Rising star Ta-Nehisi Coates raises his voice in American media

Before Ta-Nehisi Coates was a superstar at The Atlantic, he was fired from three consecutive writing jobs. Well, not quite fired. “I’m still not exactly sure what happened,” he said, sipping a single espresso at a Morningside Heights bakery near his Harlem apartment, where he lives with his wife, Kenyatta, and their young son. What is understood is that over a seven-year span beginning in 2000, Philadelphia Weekly, The Village Voice and Time consecutively hired Coates and then promptly released him.

Nobody is going to fire him anymore.

At 37, Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States. His Atlantic essays, guest columns for The New York Times and blog posts are defined by a distinct blend of eloquence, authenticity and nuance. And he has been picking up fans in very high places.

Fans such as Rachel Maddow, who tweeted: “Don’t know, if in U.S. commentary, there is a more beautiful writer than Ta-Nehisi Coates.” The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg described him as “one of the most elegant and sharp observers of race in America,” when announcing that Coates had won the 2012 prize for commentary from The Sidney Hillman Foundation. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who recently hosted a book reading at MIT with Coates, a visiting professor at the school, said “he is as fine a nonfiction writer as anyone working today.”

Without a Ph.D., Coates is an uncommon visiting professor at MIT. In fact, he doesn’t even have a college degree, having dropped out of Howard University, failing both British and American literature. Before that, he failed 11th-grade English.

“If you had told me he would be a big deal, I would have said, ‘Get real,’” said Times media critic David Carr. Coates’ first writing gig was at the Washington City Paper, where Carr was his editor. “He needed work. He was not a great speller. He wasn’t terrific with names. And he wasn’t
all that ambitious.”

Indeed, it was an inauspicious beginning.

The article that launched Coates toward stardom, his first for The Atlantic, came on the heels of his departure from Time. In that piece, “This Is How We Lost to the White Man,” Coates situated Bill Cosby’s attention-getting criticisms of black men within the tradition of African-American self-help conservatism championed by Booker T. Washington.

Published in 2008, the article was well-received and eventually included in the collection Best African American Essays 2010. And yet, it almost was never printed. Coates had started working on the piece the previous year, when he was at Time, and it was rejected by several publications before Coates asked Carr if he knew of a home for it. The Atlantic editor James
Bennet was receptive.

“I’m very grateful to both those guys,” said Coates, who was inked to a blog deal by The Atlantic soon after the article came out, “but it shows the power of that networking. I couldn’t help notice that it was one well-placed white dude talking to another well-placed white dude to get it published.”

Ideas about race and racial identity have always been with Coates. He was introduced to the writing world by his father, a former Black Panther and Vietnam vet who ran an Afrocentric publishing house out of the family’s home in West Baltimore. “I was surrounded by books and ideas. We literally had the machinery for creating books in our basement,” said Coates, who is tall but carries himself casually. (In his Atlantic author photo, he sports thick black-framed glasses and a driving cap, which is what he wore on the day we met as well.)

The printing press existed alongside the geek paraphernalia that Coates constantly mentions in his writing—video games, comic books and Dungeons & Dragons are among his obsessions. Coates’ writings are also filled with anecdotes and lessons extracted from his time spent in an urban reality most American journalists know only from watching Season 4 of The Wire (which was actually filmed at Coates’ old school, William H. Lemmel Middle). In this way, he finds relevant insights into debates that are mere abstraction for so many other pundits.

Of course, growing up in difficult circumstances doesn’t inherently confer wisdom. In another writer’s hands, the constant invocation of childhood adversity would seem like a ham-handed attempt to assert credibility. But Coates’ talent is a lottery-ticket-rare ability to both reveal his personal life and seem extraordinarily humble. He also has a disarming habit of smiling as he speaks.

Once, when confronted by the conservative Daily News columnist John McWhorter about something mean-spirited Coates had written about him, Coates immediately apologized, saying, “It was tremendously unkind.”

McWhorter was taken aback by the honesty. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he admitted.

And while it must be said that Coates’ memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, fails in pulling off the delicate balance between remembrance and braggadocio, the book does advance a theme that has underscored much of his work—that the dismissal of hip-hop as merely “a symbol of the decline of the West if ever there was one,” as the National Review recently argued, is only a subtler form of the same lazy ignorance that runs through centuries of racist stereotypes of young black men.

“I learned about writing from hip-hop,” he said. “More than any books I’ve ever read, hip-hop’s use of language and sense of geography influenced me—there is something about the condensed space that music forces you into.”

But he is no music critic. Coates’ writing about hip-hop is normally a segue into his main subject: race. In a February Times column, he suggested the White House study the rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album as a way to understand the effects of gun violence, among the most unlikely public policy proposals of recent years. But Coates bristles at suggestions that race is his beat. “I think I write about America, and about things that interest me,” he told The Observer.

When The Village Voice asked Coates to write a column about black men, he objected. “The moment you put that upon yourself—‘black correspondent’—that’s always with you, you never get rid of that,” he said.

Still, racial issues are what Coates writes about most, and what he is best known for. Everything Coates has written for The Atlantic’s print magazine, for which he serves as senior editor, has regarded race in one form or another.

Perhaps his best-known piece is a 10,000-word article called “Fear of a Black President,” about Barack Obama’s inability to mention race without alienating white voters. It snakes through the importance of Obama’s presidency for African-Americans while showing the limitations of that
achievement. The article “had the kind of impact for which magazines hunger,” wrote a blogger at Harvard’s Neiman Foundation.

For Coates, the job of the writer, even the pundit, is not to persuade. “The job of the writer should be one of humility, I think, one of being ignorant and learning—not to stand up and pretend to know everything,” he said. “I’m not a consultant or a race expert.”

Indeed, Coates is particularly anxious about being seen as some kind of black spokesman. And even Stephen Colbert poked fun at this idea when, in January, Coates appeared on The Colbert Report and the host asked him: “Are you guys still all excited about this first black president thing, or have you gotten over that?”

Coates says he is uninspired by the emails he receives telling him how his writing has helped someone win an argument. “That ain’t my burden. I don’t write to help others with their racism, and I’m not here to educate you,” he said. “I’m here to be insanely curious.”

It’s not hard to see how Coates’ sphere of influence has grown along with his outsized online community. Some even say he has redefined the blogging form. “There’s really nobody else who does what he does, in terms of creating a community of people around his blog,” Carr said. “He does a ton of moderating that blog and putting in time with it, and it’s become a self-policing community, which is really remarkable. He goes where he wants to go, and the community goes along with him.”

According to Natalie Raabe, communications director for The Atlantic, it has “by far the most engaged community in our comments section.”

If Coates is notable for popping into his own comments section to praise or criticize posters, it’s because he has a distinct vision of blogging. “It is its own space; it’s not the entire Web—there are plenty of places to go if you want to do other things,” he said. He gestures to the establishment we’re in. “This is an individual place—if you started yelling in here or screaming that they need to be serving chicken if they don’t want to, they’d kick you out. They have the right to be their own spot.”

And yet the blog might end soon. “Managing a community is tough,” Coates admitted, adding that he’d like to be able to just be a fan of things without feeling the need to constantly comment. “I’m leery of talking too much—I feel like I need to sit with an idea for a year or two if I want. Isn’t that what a writer’s supposed to do?”

Coates is finishing a novel on the Underground Railroad and will soon be submitting to a publisher a book of essays about the Civil War, a subject he has been infatuated with on his blog for five years.

And blog or no blog, Coates is likely staying at The Atlantic. The Times asked him to become a regular columnist, but Coates rejected the most coveted real estate in American journalism. He would not comment on the matter, but recently wrote on his blog about the difficulties of writing a twice-a-week Times op-ed column. He suggested that he would be taxed writing so frequently at such length, and feared his writing would suffer.

“I won’t go so far as to say I’d fail,” he wrote. “But I strongly suspect that the same people who were convinced this would be a perfect marriage, would—inside of a year—be tweeting, ‘Remember when that dude could actually write?’” Of course, that humility is exactly what makes readers want to see Coates on the op-ed page twice a week. The fact is, wherever he writes next, the man has arrived.

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