I’ve said more than once that Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most important writers today. If not the most important when it comes to matters of race in America. Especially matters of black and male in America.
His book Between the World and Me is written for his son explaining how to survive in a world where, “… navigating his Baltimore neighborhood was rife with literal boundaries and secret codes, any violation of which could get him beat up. Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to make sense of the senseless. While explaining to his son, it becomes clear that there is a sort of sense in the chaos, but only to those who are so invested in making sure the ‘other’ oppressed.” (7 Stillwell review, January 16, 2017)
Then came The Beautiful Struggle about his chaotic upbringing in Baltimore surrounded by his father’s collection of Black Panther and black power movement books. The only thing I could really identify with was being the nerd wanting to be left alone to read. For Coates, it was comics. For me, books. And we were both greedy for them.
These two books offer an insight into a world I could never know, and never truly understand. But Coates’ writing is eloquent, teaching many things along the way.
During interviews, he is gracious and thoughtful. At one point, he mentioned driving to the venue and seeing a billboard with his face on it. “It’s just unreal,” he said.
There was his infamous Twitter fight with Cornel West, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, and professor emeritus at Princeton. In 2003 (ish) a friend and I were moseying the Stanford Campus when we happened upon a lecture by Dr. West. I found it to be obtuse and inexplicably over-complicated. All I remember of it now is how he would lean into the lectern after a question from the audience and say, “I think the brother (or sister) for asking that question.” And would go off on an answer which made no sense to me. The upper class white people around us nodded their heads in sage agreement. My friend and I looked at each other quizzically.
To be sure I hadn’t missed something, I grabbed a copy of one of his books and diligently slogged my way through it. No wiser than before. Maybe Philosophy just ain’t my thing.
Anyway, Dr. West and Ta-Nehisi Coates got into this righteous Twitter feud which ended with Coates leaving Twitter for good after Dr. West called him a “house n….r.” I still don’t know what to make of that, or understand what prompted that particular epithet.
Coates’ third book, We Were Eight Years in Power languishes on my to be read stacks. Sometimes I nip over to The Atlantic website and read his columns from there.
I was reminded of his work in a Brain Pickings post about Coates, in which Maria Popova highlights the “terror of kindness” where we have been culturally conditioned to expect the worst from those we encounter and must face our disbelief that people can actually just be kind.