The writer, journalist, and thinker Ta-Nehisi Coates has been embroiled in controversy for years now. Seemingly his every move attracts controversy, (for reasons mysterious to small-town hick yours truly). Near as I can tell Coates has not been doing anything another prominent and successful writer wouldn’t like to do, such as moving to Paris for a year with his family in 2009, or writing and publishing the great The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic, or for winning the National Book Award, or for attracting a vast following on Twitter, or for purchasing a brownstone in Brooklyn, or for today abruptly pulling the plug on that media.
On December 17, 2017, the philosopher and activist Cornel West published an editorial in The Guardian with the title: “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”. The premise of the article was that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy” and, in West’s view, represents “narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neo-liberalism” by wrongly casting former PresidentBarack Obama as a successor to such figures as Malcolm X as an African-American hero. West believes that Obama (which on a previous occasion he had called a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface“) should never be compared to activists, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., who in their fight against white supremacy spoke out against systemic biases in predatory capitalism and war; according to West, this is because Obama, while he is of the same racial class, is part of the system that the activists should fight against.
The same day, West shared the article on Twitter, attracting tweets in response from many others, including hundreds of supporters of Coates. The next day, West’s tweet was retweeted by the alt-rightwhite supremacist, Richard Spencer, who indicated tacit agreement with West’s criticism of Coates. Shortly afterwards, Coates, who had enjoyed a following of over 1.25 million other Twitter users, deactivated his Twitter account.
As Jonathan Chait remarked from bitter personal experience, “neoliberal” has become the Left’s favorite insult, and seems to mean more or less not living up to the legacy of FDR in the Great Depression. In an essay about this insult, Chait includes a pretty great joke from Lyndon Johnson, who although lionized among liberals today for the Great Society and civil rights legislation, in his time was considered a sell-out by the Left:
“What’s the difference between a cannibal and a liberal?” Johnson joked during his presidency. “A cannibal doesn’t eat his friends.”
But Coates, as that look indicates, isn’t here to joke around, he’s got something important to say, and frankly, part of what he’s saying is that the news isn’t good. That’s part of his message. To make that point (in an interview lost to memory) he spoke admiringly of Elizabeth (Betsyu) Kolbert, the indefatiguable chronicler of climate change and The Sixth Extinction.
That’s why I was so appalled when Krista Tippett, the usually thoughtful spirit animating the On Being podcast, insisted on asking Coates “the optimism question,”: even after specifically promising him she wouldn’t. It’s kind of incredible and it’s right in the transcript.
Ms. Tippett: And I told you before we walked out here that I’m not gonna ask you to be optimistic.
Mr. Coates: OK, but now you are?
Ms. Tippett: No, I’m not, because I see that everywhere you go, you’re telling this truth, and then white people want you to say, “OK, so where can we find our hope?” And I was watching you on Colbert recently — somebody saw that? He really wanted you to give hope.
Here’s what I find when you write: “Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me.”
Amazingly, that eloquent defense is not enough. It’s as if Tippett is driven to insist on that most American of demands from a public performance: a happy ending.
Ms. Tippett: You don’t have hope. Or you don’t want to use that word, because that word —
Mr. Coates: No, no, no.
Ms. Tippett: But you are — there’s a focus. There’s an energy…
Mr. Coates: You know what it is? I don’t actually think I’m that singular in this. I don’t know — and I don’t know if there are journalists here, but you have to understand: That’s my training. I was trained as a journalist. Journalists go out and look for things that are wrong in the world, and then they write them. And it is not the case that your editor says, “OK, that’s a cool story, but there’s no hope at the end.”
That’s not a thing editors say to journalists, which is what I am. And so it’s not so much that I even object to hope. It’s just that the thing I do, that’s not a criteria for. You know what I mean?
She actually still doesn’t understand, but finally corners him on one corner of American life which does “give him hope” and inspiration.
Ms. Tippett: Where I find you to be closest to what I think other people are wanting from you, when they want you to be hopeful, is when you write and speak about Malcolm X.
Mr. Coates: Yeah, he gave me hope. He did, he did.
Ms. Tippett: You talk about — he presented, more than anybody else, the possibility of what you call “collective self-creation.”
Mr. Coates: Right. Well, you know what? I would listen to his lectures, and I just felt free. It’s not “hope” like — I think what people want is, “Tell us that we’re going to get past this.”
Ms. Tippett: That it’s going to be OK.
Mr. Coates: “Tell us it’s going to be OK.” So that’s one thing, right?
But there’s a different kind of hope. There are people in the world who accept that their life ends in death, and that’s bad, but that’s what’s gonna happen. And then within that, they find joys and hopes in between: “Oh, I have the ability…”
So for Malcolm — to me, it was: I can speak about the world in a way that is reflective of my life and my community. I can do that. I don’t have to calibrate my speech. I don’t have to calibrate how I look. I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right.
And so that was big for me, as a writer. When I started writing, there was a school of writing that says: Given that the audience is obviously — when you reach to any size, is not gonna be majority-black — that you have to hold people’s hands. You have to explain to them. And the Malcolm influence on me said: No, you don’t. Write as you hear it. Write as you hear it.
And in fact, I don’t even think that’s a particular black thing, because if you’re black in this world, and you are gonna become educated on the — what is considered mainstream art in this world, mainstream traditions — nobody slows down for you. Nobody is gonna hold your hand [laughs] and explain The Brady Bunch to you. Nobody’s gonna do that. Catch up.
Yes. “I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way.” Or talk, or write. Facing unpleasant facts, as Orwell said, is a job too — a job for a writer.