Newsletter: What happened to Ta-Nehisi Coates?

Credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

As far as I can tell, Ta-Nehisi Coates has disappeared from the world of journalism. He deleted his Twitter account in 2017 and resigned from The Atlantic in the summer of 2018. He is still writing — he’s reportedly working on film, television, and comic book projects and he has a forthcoming novel — but for the moment he has no public perch from which he routinely offers essays and reportage on America politics and identity as he used to.

Some people see this as the loss as one of the country’s greatest commentators. But I think it might be a good thing that he’s stepped away.

This isn’t to say that I don’t miss Coates’ writing. I certainly wish I could still watch him think out loud. I feel the absence of his epic lyricism and sanguinary preoccupations, influenced by his consumption of Civil War history, hip hop, Shakespeare, and comic books. I was very fond of his blog at The Atlantic, which was uniquely dialogic in nature. Coates engaged in careful conversation with books he was reading, songs he was listening to, the thinkers he disagreed with or found interesting, and the huge set of commenters on his blog. Technically all public intellectuals are meant to be doing this, but in reality very few do it in a manner that’s so fruitful for the reader. Unlike most journalists and essayists, Coates felt no shame admitting agnosticism or non-expertise or even total ignorance on a variety of subjects. Whereas most of his counterparts either cover up or distract from being out of their intellectual comfort zones, he saw those situations as learning opportunities, and reveled in embracing the mindset of the student, in channeling “the magic of childhood.” How many people whose job requires a reputation of intelligence film themselves stumbling confusedly through a foreign language they had just begun learning? (I can assure you nobody will see any such thing from me as I study and butcher the language of Spanish these days.) And in the instances when he had total clarity regarding an idea or an event, he was masterful at interweaving lived experience with the abstract.

I diverged from Coates on many issues. I found his work to often elide human agency and to imbue the horrors of American racism with a kind of mystical and transcendent quality. Despite grounding his analyses in historical context and grappling with the corporeal aspect of white supremacy, I found his writing to engage inadequately with the workings of political economy. I will have to revisit Between the World and Me, but in my initial reading — which I found far less compelling than his blog posts and shorter essays — I found no persuasive theory of change. Yet because Coates is such a pleasure to read and so deliberate with his chisel, even the writing I disagreed with was enjoyable, and a surefire way to sharpen my own thinking.

I miss his blogging, but it might be a good thing that he’s taken a break from the conventional journalistic world. Ta-Nehisi Coates had become larger than life. His fans had formed a religion around him and his work. Many of his critics reserved special stores of venom for him that were overly personal. I came to believe that both those who revered him and loathed him were suffering from the same affliction: they were trying to extract too much from one man.

The kind of critical acclaim Coates had received before he left The Atlantic was very strange. The fervor of a lot of Coates fans — most prominently, white liberals — suggested that his writing achieved something superhuman, something akin to levitating or seeing the future. His fans displayed unbelievable theatrics online in response to his essays and seemed to find something either otherworldly or life-sustaining about them (the New York Times’ A.O. Scott deemed his writing “essential, like water or air”). In a leaked recording, the editor of The Atlantic told his staff that he would “die for [Coates].” When Coates is described by his admirers, his name is invariably surrounded by superlatives and he is constantly deemed the “best” or “greatest” essayist/writer/intellectual alive or even of all time. He is compared relentlessly to James Baldwin, who is often hailed today as a prophetic figure, even though Coates is very young and very alive, at the age of 43. As the Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada put it, Coates had been ordained“America’s conscience on race.”

I found all this troubling. Not because I think Coates in particular doesn’t “deserve” it — I find him to be a marvelous stylist and an original thinker — but because I don’t think anyone should be described this way. Just as I wouldn’t be able to declare something the “best” book or meal or film or jacket or tree in America, I can’t bring myself to make that claim about any kind of creator. What an incredible rejection of the diversity of life! What a dizzying obliteration of the countless facets and moods of the human mind! It’s not just that evaluating something like writing is a subjective exercise, it’s also that writers have so many different responsibilities and powers, and it is inherently impossible to excel at too many of them at the same time. The polemicist, the pedant, the policy wonk, the futurist, the historian, the social scientist, the epistemologist, the moralist, the avant-garde poet, the physicist: they all matter. As a social/intellectual exercise we could establish specific criteria and vote on who is best at what in particular in a given moment and contemplate the results with a bit of irony, but that’s not what’s happening with worship of Coates.

The key question is what fuels the energy of those who obsess over him. And I think a significant part of it stems from their perception of themselves more than of Coates.

In educated white liberal circles, reading Coates and, more importantly, sharing his texts and talking about Coates, is the premier badge of commitment to antiracism. As Lozada puts it, “‘Did you read the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates piece?’ is shorthand for ‘Have you absorbed and shared the latest and best and correct thinking on racism, white privilege, institutional violence and structural inequality?’” Coates is conspicuous consumption for identitarian liberals, a kind of currency that shows investment in the fight against racial oppression. (It’s worth nothing that there is also something subtly paternalistic about it from some white readers who haven’t read much literature by non-white writers — a kind of amazement at prowess they apparently hadn’t encountered up to that point.)

At Book Riot in 2017, one Coates fan wrote that she felt wounded when she heard him explain in a podcast that his imagined audience was always African-American and that he was frustrated that Between the World and Me was being depicted on shows like SNL as the book of choice for white liberals living in the anti-Trump bubble. She wrote that “a good portion of the ‘woke’ white world lost it’s ever-lovin’ mind” at Coates’ comments:

I wont lie, my initial instinct was to feel hurt. I was concerned that my motives had been misconstrued. I fully admit to living in “the bubble.” It’s part and parcel of being raised white in this country. I want people to know I’m not a racist, that I absolutely abhor Donald Trump’s message of hate and fear… so I want to make sure you know I’m trying. I’m reading the right books. I’m following the right social justice warriors on Twitter. I’m having the hard conversations.

Does this mean that every white liberal who loves Coates is reading him for the optics? Of course not. But I think the quote above captures a very real phenomenon: The consumption of Coates is not just about the text itself but about politico-cultural socialization and signaling.

Much of the radical left’s response to this was to say that Coates was to blame for the way white liberals fetishized him. The argument offered by various leftist critics, most notably Cornel West, was that Coates’ analysis allowed liberals to feel personally exonerated by reading him without having to actually change anything about themselves or society. That the ferocity of hid prose had the aura of radicalism, allowing people to feel rebellious while reading him, while ultimately accommodating the neoliberal status quo. And they homed in on how his writing either omitted or negated the possibility of radically restructuring society through collective action as a way to combat white supremacy.

As I alluded to earlier, I myself have always had major points of disagreement with Coates’ worldview that emanate from a leftist perspective. But I was also taken aback by the intensity and vulgarity of some of the criticism of him.

I think some people on the left fail to appreciate that Coates really does awaken different things in different kinds of people, and there is real radical potential for liberals who read him. UCLA historian Robin Kelley has written convincingly about how Coates’ iconic pessimism doesn’t necessarily thrust all of his readers into a state of resignation:

[E]ven if Coates says he has very little hope, many read him and see for the first time the deeply entrenched and hidden processes that reproduce inequality within the United States. And they’re not all white! I’ve had literally hundreds of students—black, white, Latinx, Asian American—read Coates’s work on reparations or Between the World and Me (which was core reading for most first-years across our campus) and come running to my courses, questioning their liberalism, seeking out more radical critiques of racial capitalism, some even jumping headlong into groups such as Refuse Fascism [A radical leftist organization with which Cornel West is associated]

I think some leftists might actually overvalue the importance of spelling out a blueprint for change or laying out what the good society should look like. Not everything has to be a liberatory text. Sometimes tales of darkness work as well.

The other major concern I had was that it seemed many leftists were effectively punishing Coates for something he could not control. Even if it’s true that a large swath of white liberals are seduced by Coates because they see his writing as offering them redemption without work, I don’t think it’s his fault that this set has tried to turn him into the all-knowing sage whom everyone should turn to.

It’s crucial to remember that canonizing is always a power play. When people say that a specific creator or work is to be considered special and exemplary, that person is making a claim to be an arbiter of our attention. And, look, it shouldn’t be surprising who feels entitled to engage in that enterprise of agenda-setting. In 2013, Jordan Michael Smith, a white generalist writer with no particular expertise in race relations, wrote in the Observer when profiling Coates: “Mr. Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.”

I find that pretty remarkable for a lot of reasons, but I’ll put it this way: I could never fathom writing this sentence: “X person is the single best writer on the subject of gender in the United States.” Coates apparently felt similarly. He later wrote that the profile made him “retch.” And I suspect the many such profiles that came after made him feel uncomfortable as well.

Despite Coates’ disinterest in being treated this way, it became a kind of liability for him.

In his book, We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates grappled with criticism that fixated on his huge fawning white audience:

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? The question would eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did. Either way, there was a lesson in this: God might not save me, but neither would defiance. How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?

I don’t have any special insight into why Coates left The Atlantic and Twitter, but from what I’ve read in a handful of interviews it seems that these questions and the culture wars surrounding them played a significant role in his departure. “When I used to write, it was like I felt like I had more freedom to write as I felt. I didn’t think I was representing anything more than my own feelings and thoughts,” he told the Washington Post around the time that the left The Atlantic.

I admire Coates’ impulse to retreat from the curse of being treated as a symbol and a signaling mechanism instead of a writer. Many journalists would kill to wield the kind of power that he garnered during his decade at The Atlantic, and would knowingly take advantage of mass adulation, even if they knew it was problematic. But he’s stepped away from it, at least for now, because it was interfering with his abilities and focus as an intellectual. He put the craft first.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing in the past tense during this essay (probably a bit inconsistently), but of course Coates is still working on a ton of major works that will likely continue to shape American life, and he may return to a conventional journalistic position at any point in the future. I hope that the change of pace is useful for him, and helps him stay centered and productive, although I have to say if he makes a return I’m not optimistic that the reception to him will be much different. There’s something about people wanting heroes that I’m not sure I’ll ever quite understand. In the meantime, it would be nice to see the huge array of talented people of color who write about race and politics in country get more attention as they debate our past and our future.

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