Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 30, 1975. His father, William Paul Coates, was a former member of the Black Panther Party. The younger Coates studied journalism at Howard University for five years but failed both British and American Literature, and thus never graduated. Nonetheless, he was appointed as a visiting professor at MIT, one of the most prestigious universities in …
Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 30, 1975. His father, William Paul Coates, was a former member of the Black Panther Party. The younger Coates studied journalism at Howard University for five years but failed both British and American Literature, and thus never graduated. Nonetheless, he was appointed as a visiting professor at MIT, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, where he complained about his disadvantages in “racist” America because of his skin color. He was also hired to write for several prestigious publications between the late 1990s and 2007, when he worked variously for the The Washington City Paper, The Philadelphia Weekly, The Village Voice, and Time. Moreover, he has been a guest columnist for The Washington Post, the Washington Monthly, O Magazine, and The New York Times (which once offered Coates a job as a regular columnist, only to have him turn it down).Coates is an anti-American racist in the vein of his idols Jeremiah Wright and the late Malcolm X. In his most celebrated book—one which earned him a MacArthur Foundation “genius award”—he writes: “’White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.”
Raised with racist attitudes toward white people from an early age, Coates found a pretext for his racial malice in a September 2000 incident when his friend and former schoolmate, a young man named Prince Jones, was wrongfully shot and killed by a white undercover policeman in Maryland. Jones’s death, says Coates, “took me from fear to a rage … and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”
On the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that occurred a year after Jones’s death, Coates, stoned on marijuana, felt (by his own account) no emotion whatsoever as he stood on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment building and watched the World Trade Center collapse in the distance—largely because he believed that his own racist homeland was getting a dose of what it richly deserved. When he subsequently saw video clips of police and firefighters—whom he viewed as symbols of racist American institutions—trying to save civilians amid the ruins of the Twin Towers, Coates felt only contempt for those rescuers: “They were not human to me,” he recalls. “Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.”
Coates initially gained wide public acclaim in 2008 when he wrote his first article for The Atlantic, titled “This Is How We Lost to the White Man.” In that piece, he explored entertainer Bill Cosby’s controversial criticisms of black male criminality, black fathers who had abandoned their children, and the violent lyrics of gangsta rap. Coates likened Cosby’s perspective to the self-help black conservatism that Booker T. Washington had espoused a century earlier. Soon after Coates’s article appeared, The Atlantic hired him to write a regular blog column. Today he is a national correspondent for the same publication, writing about culture, politics, and social issues—with a particular emphasis on race.
In 2008 Coates published his first book, a memoir titled The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. In it, the author reflects upon his relationship with his father, the street crime that surrounded him throughout his youth, the challenges he faced as a student in Baltimore-area schools, and his eventual enrollment in Howard University.
In 2012 Coates drew much attention for his article “Fear of a Black President,” which asserted that “part of [Barack] Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites,” and to downplay his own blackness in order to mollify an “infantile” country that feels threatened by any black man who fails to “talk in dulcet tones” at all times.
In June 2014 Coates wrote what became perhaps his most famous article, “The Case for Reparations,” which claims that “America begins in black plunder and white democracy,” and that the entire remainder of U.S. history has been little more than an ugly continuation of that sinful genesis. While reparations payments to contemporary blacks would be, by Coates’s calculus, insufficient to truly settle the historical score, they would at least serve as a statement acknowledging that “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” is “the price we must pay” to address the fact that “American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution.”
In a subsequent article that same year, Coates recalled: “Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness…. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed.” Moreover, Coates deemed it futile to “urge young black children toward education so that they may be respectable or impress the ‘right people,’” because the latter—whose minds had been poisoned by “a country rooted in white supremacy”—would inevitably “remain unimpressed.” “For most of American history,” Coates said in yet another piece, “it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation….”
In 2015 Coates published Between the World and Me, which became a #1 bestseller, captured the National Book Award for Nonfiction, earned the author a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and garnered nearly universal praise from the political left. Written in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori, the book articulates a father’s worries about the dangers his boy will inevitably face as a black male growing up in America. Telling his son that “you have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels,” Coates urges Samori to live boldly and defiantly rather than “constrict yourself to make other people comfortable” in a nation where blacks always have “the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket.”
Coates presents American history as an unbroken narrative of white-on-black atrocities. The nation, he charges, was developed “through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me [blacks] the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
With regard to a number of recent, highly publicized killings of blacks by police, Coates informs his son that “there is nothing uniquely evil” about these officers who were “endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” They “are merely men,” he explains, “enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body,” Coates elaborates. “It is heritage.”
In particular, Coates articulates the outrage he felt over a July 2014 altercation where an African American New Yorker named Eric Garner died of a heart attack after having resisted several police officers’ efforts, which included a headlock/chokehold, to arrest him for illegally selling cigarettes on the street. Medical examiners subsequently concluded that his death was the result of an interplay between the policeman’s hold and Garner’s multiple chronic infirmities. But Coates describes the incident as one where Garner was simply “choked to death for selling cigarettes.” The officer’s intent was “neither important nor relevant,” writes the author. “It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”
Contending that the racism of earlier ages persists virtually undiminished, Coates writes: “As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers … our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white.”
Coates makes numerous references to these so-called “Dreamers” and their fanciful “Dream” which, by his telling, offers a false depiction of the United States as a decent, generous nation. It is a Dream, says Coates, that “rests on our [black people’s] backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” In the tradition of pre-Civil War America where “slavery was the dream,” Coates declares, today’s Dreamers are guilty of “pillaging Ferguson,” “torturing Muslims,” bombing wedding parties” with drones, disingenuously “quoting Martin Luther King,” and “exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong.” They “accept this as the cost of doing business,” says Coates, “accept our [black] bodies as currency, because it is their tradition.” As Coates sees it, “the policy of Dreamers”—rooted in “the reduction of the black body”—literally created “the killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit,” where black-on-black crime has turned entire neighborhoods into war zones.
Indeed, by Coates’s reckoning, even these intra-racial black transgressions (and others like them) are ultimately attributable to white racism. For example, he describes the violent abuse he received from his father during childhood as “the correct and intended result of policy” rooted in white supremacy. His father beat him, says Coates, “with more anxiety than anger” because he (the father) was “so very afraid” that “someone might steal me away, [which] was exactly what was happening all around us” in “White America.” Expressions of concern about “black-on-black crime,” Coates adds, are nothing more than “jargon” and “violence to language” intended to obscure the guilt of whites who oppress blacks in every way imaginable. “To yell ‘black-on-black crime,’” he argues, “is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
As noted earlier, Coates has been able to secure multiple journalism jobs despite having dropped out of college. Even more unusual is the fact that in2012-13 he was the MLK Visiting Scholar for writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—virtually unheard of for someone without a PhD, let alone no bachelor’s degree. Moreover, in the fall of 2014 Coates joined the City University of New York as its Journalist-in-Residence. And among the numerous professional honors and awards Coates has received are the following:
- 2012: Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism
- 2013: National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism
- 2014: George Polk Award for Commentary
- 2015: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice
- 2015: MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, or “genius grant,” and its accompanying $625,000 stipend (for Between the World and Me)
In light of the long list of job offers, professional honors, and monetary rewards Coates has received in exchange for his work as an agent of racial discord, conservative author and activist David Horowitz has described him as “America’s most pampered racist.” In a similar vein, author and columnist Daniel Greenfield characterizes Coates as “the literary version of Kanye West; an absurdly privileged second-generation radical stuck on self-pity, touring European capitals while whining about racism, responding to white liberal adulation with fresh reserves of victimhood…. He’s a success story whose topic is his own oppression…. The more the media panders to Ta-Nehisi Coates, the more he claims to be the victim.” Adds Greenfield:
“White supremacy is Coates’ religion. It causes all things and explains all things as Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to peddle the shopworn Afrocentric ideas he grew up with to a modern audience. White people represent the omnipotent evil that Ta-Nehisi Coates needs in order to pretend to be an oppressed man engaged in a struggle while marketing that same struggle to the evil white people….
“The world of Between the World and Me is a cramped place in which white people are forever spindling, exploiting and mutilating black bodies … White people have oppressed Ta-Nehisi Coates in every literal and metaphorical sense possible, before moving on to oppressing his son and his descendants after him until the sun finally explodes and the earth dies. White evil is a remorseless historical force that has taken everything from black people while giving them nothing except visiting professorships at MIT.
“Between the World and Me is bad poetry. It’s a racist screed that masks its hatred in self-pity. Its strained attempts at lyricism are meant to cloud and confuse the underlying toxic ideas….
“Ta-Nehisi Coates is always on the verge of being shot by a police officer. Any police officer. When he isn’t sipping lattes at Starbucks while churning out new memoirs about his oppression, he is always one second away from having his ‘black body’ shattered by a random passing police officer or firefighter. This pretense of vulnerability is just bigotry. If a white person had written a memoir in which even minor encounters with black people instilled in him a sense of panic and hatred, the same critics praising Coates would be calling him out as a racist. But it’s a testimony to Coates’ black privilege that the same paranoid racist screed turned inside out is instead described as ‘passionate’ and ‘moving.’”
In February 2016, Coates announced that he was supporting Senator Bernie Sanders‘s campaign for U.S. President. It was “awesome,” said Coates, that “an avowed socialist” like Sanders was seriously “contending for the Democratic Party nomination.”
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