For Colored Bloggers

Over at Racialicious, Guest-poster Renina Jarmon considers a post I wrote a few months ago about For Colored Girls, as an example of my rather woeful gender politics:

I have found Ta-Nehisi's Black gender politics to be lacking on his blog and in some ways the questioning of whether or not For Colored Girls is classic symbolizes some of what troubles me about his Black gender politics. 

When reading this post Moya asked me two questions. The first was, "Why does it matter to Ta-Nehisi Coates whether For Colored Girls is a classic?" The second is "Is he saying that because it is not a classic that it doesn't matter if Tyler Perry butchers it?" 

This is not to say that For Colored Girls should not be questioned. Work around Black gender relations should be given a critical eye. The issue for me is his reliance on his memory as a basis for questioning whether or not it is a classic. 

What does it mean that a Black man, at a popular White publication openly questions whether or not a work by Black feminist artist is a classic, having not read the work since his was younger?

She concludes:

In the essay, "Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Crisis of African American Gender Relations" Michelle Wallace said that a significant aspect of the Black feminist work is to, 

"get black scholars and intellectuals of Orlando Patterson's superb caliber to think seriously and write publicly about Black gender relations." 

In many ways Wallace's sentiments towards Patterson captures my sentiment's toward Ta-Nehisi. 

Given Ta-Nehisi's ability to dig in deep on a topic, AND the audience and platform that he has, he could conceivably impact the tone and content of Black gender discourse in profound ways.

A few things. When my book came out a some years ago, and I was basically a struggling freelancer with no shiny Atlantic blog, Renina was nice enough to check it out and review it rather favorably. I could be wrong, but I believe she was the first person to do this--surely she was one of the first. I'm in her debt for that, and still, deeply appreciative. 

Second, I think it's generally a bad idea to question the place of any work in the canon, when you haven't recently interacted with the work. I think I assumed ownership that wasn't actually mine. I tried to say as much the next day.That's really all I can say on the specifics, but I'd like to engage the broader--and oft-made--point of this blog's failing gender politics. 

In the broadest sense, I think this is critique--and its frequency--comes, in part, from the nature of this blog and where it lives. Unlike Fallows and Andrew, I tend to talk back in a very direct way which, I think, gives people a greater sense of ownership and community. I also tend to be wrong a fair amount, and have been--and will likely be again--wrong in some of the threads relating to gender. 

Moreover, on the entire Atlantic roster, there's only one woman, and her politics are not of the sort that writers concerned with "black gender politics" would find consonant. That's not a shot at Megan. My point is that her politics, in the main, fall out the range of the people making the critique. Fallows is much more engaged with his magazine work, and Andrew still considers himself a conservative. 

That leaves me as the closest thing to someone willing to fly the banner for Team Commie. Across the blogosphere, Team Commie is often concerned with representing for the whole coalition and making sure the voices of feminists, anti-racists, the Democratic Socialists etc. all have a place. The problem is this blog only represents for Team Commie by default. This space really has a singular purpose--helping me figure out what I really think about whatever subject I'm preoccupied with at the time. If that furnishes an interesting read, that's good. If it gives you ammo to shoot down your racist Facebook friends, all the better. But that isn't what gets me up in the morning. 
To the extent that this blog delves into gender discourse--black or otherwise-- I tend to trust my natural curiosities, and passions.  So if we're talking about the Civil War and slavery, then we're going to consider Clara Barton and Sojourner Truth. If we're talking about abolitionism, we're going to consider it's relationship to women's suffrage. If we're talking about Frederick Douglass, we're going to consider Helen Pitts. If we're talking about the Confederacy we're going to consider women in Southern slave-holding families.  If I'm thinking about the after-shocks I'm going to read up on Ida B Wells. And then from time to time we'll dig into the politics of something gender-related--maybe even something black gender-related. And so on...

That brings me to the Michelle Wallace quote which argues that part of the work of black feminists is to 

...get black scholars and intellectuals of Orlando Patterson's superb caliber to think seriously and write publicly about Black gender relations.

I leave it to black feminists to define their priorities, but this strikes me as passing the buck. James Fallows, Ezra Klein, Dahlia Lithwick, Jane Mayer and Andrew Sullivan are all thinkers of a "superb caliber." It is neither my place, nor frankly, my wish to get them to "write publicly about Black-White relations." I read their work to see them grappling with the questions that dog them at night, not the ones that dog me. And from their grappling, I take inspiration, and advice on how to proceed in my own, specific, campaign. 

If you are truly dissatisfied with this blog's take on black gender relations, with its lack of black feminist politics, then grab a sword and make your vision manifest. It is no more important that I consider For Colored Girls high literature, than Stanley Crouch consider Illmatic high literature. Given For Colored Girls' place in the canon (it's considered in The New Yorker, this week) probably less so. 

Renina says her critique originates in the fact that I was re-reading The Autobiography Of Malcolm X and blogging about it, as opposed to doing the same with For Colored Girls. A considerable portion of that blogging dealt with the Autobiography's gender politics. The critique on one side is that I was too hard in assessing Malcolm's backward view of women. The critique on the other is,evidently, that I shouldn't be discussing Malcolm at all. The upshot here isn't that I don't delve into gender politics, it's that I don't do it in the way that some would like.

My response is simple--Do For Self. To the extent that this blog has impact, I hope that it is to push people toward that impulse. My hope is not to bear your flag, but to inspire you--in the manner that I am so often inspired--to bear it yourself.

Forgive the length of this post. I fear it communicates a level of animosity toward Renina (not Renata, who I went to college with. My bad.) which I do not intend. I take note of it, mostly, because I have fairly often found myself confronting this critique. I have tried to cop to my blind spots, and consciously work toward abolishing them. But I do not think bad impersonations of a gender studies professor are the way forward. 

My work here is terribly selfish. I never wanted more black people on Seinfeld. I wanted a Seinfeld of my own.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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