Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

  • Clarence Thomas Thinks He Has It Hard

    But really he has no idea. Dig this:

    Especially harsh reprisals could be brought against blacks aligned with conservatives and Democrats, for they were generally regarded not merely as opponents but as "traitors."...In the rural hinterlands of Portsmouth, Virginia, black Republicans attacked "colored conservatives" at a prayer meeting and beat two of them badly. In southside Virginia's Campbell County, a black man who betrayed the Union League was tied up by his heels and suspended from a tree for several hours until he agreed to take an oath of loyalty. Two "conservative negroes" in Lincoln County, North Carolina, had their houses stoned and doors broken down...One black man living outside Augusta, Georgia, went so far as to insist that he would cut the throat of any son "willing to be a Democrat."

    Even knowing the history, it's surreal to read about a black dude saying he would "cut the throat" of any of his kids, should he turn about to be a Democrat. This is taken from Steven Hahn's wonderful and epic history A Nation Under Our Feet. I want to thank all the commenters and e-mailers who urged me to read this book. It really is incredible and it gives such a textured portrait of black people living in the 19th century.

    As I've talked about before, it's really unfortunate that our narrative of black life goes something like this--Slavery, Civil War, Dark Ages, Civil Rights, Dark Ages Again, Barack Obama. Maybe those last two can still change. But my point is that this notion of summits and valleys does a disservice to all the black people, many of whom were killed, who worked to make all those summits possible. There's a portion in the book where Hahn just reads down this list of names of black folks who were murdered for defying the the conservative white supremacists in the South. The handles are so ordinary and there's an incredible power in seeing them one after the other. So many people who are just names. So many martyrs forgotten.

    I think Hahn's book will be hard for those who don't have an intense interest in the subject. It's really well-written, but also dense (as it should be).  Still this is a major, major work in the effort to break this notion of black passivity and victimhood. I'm 160 pages out. I'll write again when I'm done.

  • Segregated Proms

    Not that this was the first we've heard of it, but this piece on segregated proms was pretty interesting. I wish the editors had opted for a full on feature, instead of just a photo essay. Still, one theme came across that I found, at once, depressing and uplifting. The notion of segregated proms, really, is about the inability of white parents in the town to let go:

    Black members of the student council say they have asked school administrators about holding a single school-sponsored prom, but that, along with efforts to collaborate with white prom planners, has failed. According to Timothy Wiggs, the outgoing student council president and one of 21 black students graduating this year, "We just never get anywhere with it." Principal Luke Smith says the school has no plans to sponsor a prom, noting that when it did so in 1995, attendance was poor.

    Students of both races say that interracial friendships are common at Montgomery County High School. Black and white students also date one another, though often out of sight of judgmental parents. "Most of the students do want to have a prom together," says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. "But it's the white parents who say no. ... They're like, if you're going with the black people, I'm not going to pay for it."

    "It's awkward," acknowledges JonPaul Edge, a senior who is white. "I have as many black friends as I do white friends. We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don't think anybody at our school is racist." Trying to explain the continued existence of segregated proms, Edge falls back on the same reasoning offered by a number of white students and their parents. "It's how it's always been," he says. "It's just a tradition."

    It's obviously cool to hear that young people are leading integrated social lives. You could see people like this ending the tradition once they become parents. Or not. I kept thinking that if you're the sort of person who is pissed that your town had a segregated prom, you're also a likely candidate to leave and raise a family elsewhere.

  • Sotamayor To The Supreme Court

    If Obama gets his way. I'll have more thoughts on this later. But one thing that's clear to me, is that this notion that Obama won't fight, really doesn't hold up. He sometimes doesn't fight for things that we want him to fight for. But he isn't afraid. I don't know if it's because of that Rosen piece, or what, but my initial impression is that this is very good fight to engage--politically and otherwise.

    Back to that first point, Obama is tactical as always--I just don't think Jeff Sessions, with his history, really wants it with a Puerto-Rican woman who worked her way up from the projects and went on to be summa cum laude at Princeton, and went on to Yale Law. Not to mention you have the first Latina Supreme Court judge, appointed by the first black president. Just on the crass politics, it ain't a good look.

    Maybe, I'll feel differently after I think on it. But that's my initial thought.

    UPDATE: The presser is scheded for 10:15. You should be able to see it, at this link below.

  • OK, I'm No Longer Surprised

    It's just who they are:

    She's the 69-year-old speaker of the House of Representatives, second in the line of succession and the most powerful woman in U.S. history.

    But when you see Nancy Pelosi, the Republican National Committee wants you to think "Pussy Galore."

    At least that's the takeaway from a video released by the committee this week - a video that puts Pelosi side-by-side with the aforementioned villainess from the 1964 James Bond film "Goldfinger...."

    "It's an attempt to demean your opponent, rather than debate them. If they're serious that this is an issue of national security, then you'd think that one would want to debate it on the merits," she says. "It's almost as if they can't help themselves." 
  • Conservative Radio Host Has Himself Waterboarded (Video)

    Via Yglesias, and Jon Chait, we have conservative shock-jock Erich "Mancow" Muller has himself waterboarded to prove that it isn't torture:

    "I want to find out if it's torture," Mancow told his listeners Friday morning, adding that he hoped his on-air test would help prove that waterboarding did not, in fact, constitute torture..."

    "The average person can take this for 14 seconds," Marine Sergeant Clay South answered, adding, "He's going to wiggle, he's going to scream, he's going to wish he never did this."
    With a Chicago Fire Department paramedic on hand,  Mancow was placed on a 7-foot long table, his legs were elevated, and his feet were tied up.  
    Turns out the stunt wasn't so funny. Witnesses said Muller thrashed on the table, and even instantly threw the toy cow he was holding as his emergency tool to signify when he wanted the experiment to stop.  He only lasted 6 or 7 seconds.

    Below is a video of Muller, post-waterboarding. For those who can't watch this at work, suffice to say he had a change of heart.

    View more news videos at: http://www.nbcchicago.com/video.

  • Gotham Under Pressure

    Megan hears the footsteps:

    The first model for an urban renaissance was, after all, New York.  But while New York's renaissance was certainly a product of a lot of factors, all of the institutional improvements were funded by the post-1982 financial services boom.  New York City is projecting its 2010 revenue will be down 30% from FY2008.  That's three years after the recession started.

    Those tax revenues supported New York's extraordinarily odd income structure.  New York has extraordinarily generous poverty benefits, made possible because so many of its residents make so much money that they don't really miss the extra taxes.  A city with a more normal income distribution couldn't support that level of spending.  So if the financial industry really is permanently smaller and less lucrative, what happens to the 650,000 New Yorkers in public housing, the one in three New Yorkers on Medicaid, the 50,000 or so on TANF, and so forth?

    Presumably they get fewer services, and get angrier, and commit more crimes, which don't get solved as rapidly by the smaller police force.  And the families with children start moving back out.  And presumably this problem is replicated in cities like San Francisco and Seattle which depend, indirectly, on revenue generated by the financial markets.

    Heh, I wish. Then maybe I could afford to actually live in a city. OK, that's a pretty stupid way of looking at cities. The larger problem, at least here in NY, is the seeming insanity of being middle class and living here. I'm slowly coming to grips with the fact that we probably can't continue to live here--the boy's getting big, Kenyatta has dreams, and I'm writing. (Always a bad idea, if you wanna be rich)

    I love Harlem, but I don't know whether it's worth crying over it's rise. And, despite Megan's prognosis, I'd be shocked if prices (over the long term) didn't keep going up. The world changes. We like yesterday better because it's the devil we know, and the one we've faced.

  • Especially The Blacks And The Jews...

    Continuing on the Ofra Haza\Rakim tip, I'd like to report that Adam Serwer sent me a business-like e-mail this morning announcing "We're Taking Over." The news? Well as Adam notes, "being a black Jews, just got a little less lonely"

    Growing up in a black, Pentecostal family in Cleveland, Alysa Stanton never imagined the day when she would be preparing to be ordained as a rabbi.

    But that day will come June 6 for the single mother who will be ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, becoming the first African-American female rabbi in the world.

    Awesome. Rebuilding the coalition one step at a time. Or not. A little more from Adam:

    Ironically, I think that the fact that Stanton is a woman will be more trouble for her trying to find a congregation than the fact that she's black. Sadly, female rabbis are still somewhat controversial--there's that apocryphal saying from a rabbi that "a woman will be a rabbi when there's an orange on the seder plate." That prompted a number of Jewish families to actually start putting an orange on their seder plates. Something for President Obama to think about if he does another White House seder next year.
  • Just When I Thought I Was Out...

    John has a bone to pick with Hua, Alyssa and Gauthum, in regards to  political hip-hop:

    For example, the participants look back fondly on the days when more of the music was "political,"  with Alyssa Rosenberg opining that it's unrealistic to decree that musicians follow our bidding and be "constructive." But this whole wing of the discussion presupposes a hypothetical possibility that hiphop could serve some kind of purpose beyond being just entertainment, that it is at least worth discussion whether rappers have some kind of "responsibility." Gautham Nagesh even thinks that way back, rap actually did play a crucial part in making people aware of ghetto life ("rap has played a key role in raising awareness of issues such as urban poverty").

    The question here is: what is the purpose of this supposedly politically important rap supposed to be? Let's even say consciousness is raised: now that Scarsdale Chad knows what it's like growing up in the 'hood, then what? What does Chad do besides walk down the street lurching and mouthing along to Tupac or whoever it was he learned this from in the early nineties? The consciousness was raised - and what legislation did it create? In a history book 100 years from now, we will see it written that "Because of hiphop raising consciousness of ghetto poverty starting in the late 1980s, _______." Fill in the blank. Note the difficulty.

    I think that the point about "legislation" is important, because it underlines the problem with McWhorter's critique. A commenter said this earlier, but this notion that rappers should be responsible for inspiring legislation is rooted in some kind of weird communist/utilitarian view of art, that holds that any "political art" which can't be directly tied to a political act is entertainment. Fair enough--as long as we acknowledge that "Change Is Gonna Come" is also entertainment. I don't think Sam Cooke signed any civil rights legislation. I don't think Bob Dylan ended the Vietnam War.

    To take John's argument to its logical conclusion, one could fairly ask "Because of Robert Hayden raising consciousness about the slave trade "____"" Note the difficulty. What legislation did "Middle Passage" inspire? No political art can live up to that standard, and let's hope it doesn't. When art starts to resemble position papers, it tends to be didactic and fail at, both, influencing and the basic mission of art.

    I think political art--like all art--isn't judged by what it makes you go out and do, as much as by how it makes you feel. I love John Coltrane's "Alabama," not because I think it chills the hearts of racists, but because it allows me to feel a particular time and place. I wouldn't confuse Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" with L.C. Dyer's anti-lynching bill. But one reason I don't play that song, to this day, is because it fills me with a deep and particular sadness emanating from half a century ago. I love "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," not because it facilitated the March On Washington, but because it expresses the optimism of the period.

    These songs, as Gautham pointed out, make you more aware. They allow me to feel some sliver of a world that is impossible for me to inhabit. Likewise, if you want some "awareness" of how it might feel to be a black male, in the inner city, in the early 90s, Illmatic is a good start. Death Certificate, with all its unfortunate racism, is a good start. It Takes A Nation, is a good start. They allow you to feel a place that is not your own, and yet in the end, is ultimately human. That's what art is supposed to do.

    Now, you may well disagree that with the notion that any of these albums succeed--just like you may think "Alabama" is kind of boring, or Nina Simone is overly sentimental. I think that's fair. But asking for hip-hop to do the work of Congress seems a bit much.

  • Mississippi Cooling

    Things just ain't the same for Klansters:

    The city of Philadelphia, Miss., where members of the Ku Klux Klan killed three civil rights workers in 1964 in one of the era's most infamous acts, on Tuesday elected its first black mayor.

    James A. Young, a Pentecostal minister and former county supervisor, narrowly beat the incumbent, Rayburn Waddell, in the Democratic primary. There is no Republican challenger.

    The results, announced Wednesday night, were a turning point for a mostly white city of 7,300 people in east-central Mississippi still haunted by the killings, which captured front-page headlines across the nation and were featured in the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."

  • Know The Ledge

    A couple commenters and e-mailers were a little miffed that I didn't join in on the Atlantic's rap convo. One comment from below:

    When people like you opt out of these discussions, the discussions are framed by either:

    1. (mostly white) rock/pop critics who don't know or care much about rap beyond what appeals to (mostly white) rock/pop critics.


    2.) rap revisionists, KRS-type 4 elements zealots, hip hop "activists," simpletons who think in binaries ("conscious vs gangsta...underground vs. corporate...hip hop vs. rap"), and out of touch hip hop academics, who care so much about hip hop that they have an unhealthy and unrealistic view of its history and importance.

    The absence of voices such as yours is why mainstream rap criticism is so terrible these days. Even worse than the music.

    I used to care a lot about the race of the writers talking about black music, culture, history etc. Then I realized how much awful writing there out there about black people, authored by writers of all races. Moreover there's the fact that a lot of the work I adore about African-American culture is, in fact, written by white writers

    This isn't because black writers lack any sort of ability or insight. It's because writing is a luxury occupation which requires time and resources--something black people are lacking in at the moment. We're still in the "Go to school, study something that can get you a job" phase. A brief perusal of the wealth stats in black community, as compared to white community, will demonstrate why this is the case.

    One way to add to the pile of ill-informed opinion out there is to presume to know more than you do. When you do that on the basis of skin-color ("I'm the black guy, I have to have an opinion on all things colored") you do a disservice to the noble aims of diversity. You really shouldn't be making big pronouncements about the current state of hip-hop if (like me) you don't know what the Asher Roth or the latest Kanye West sound like. You especially should not be making pronouncements if you don't really care what either sounds like. It may be genius, or it may be whack--I knew what Hammer sounded like, I knew what Vanilla Ice sounded like. And I knew why they sucked.


    More »

  • The Soundscape Is Flat

    But not really. Richard Florida, guesting for Andrew, notes the concentration of musical talent in the country:

    While conventional wisdom holds that modern technology allows musicians to work from anywhere they choose (while weakening the influence of traditional record labels and rights-management organizations), the reality is music, like many other industries, is actually becoming more concentrated and clustered over time.

    In 1970, Nashville was a minor center focused on country music. By 2004, only New York and L.A. boasted more musicians. The extent of its growth was so significant that when my research team and I charted the geographic centers of the music industry from 1970 and 2004 using a metric called a location quotient, Nashville was the only city that registered positive growth. In effect, it sucked up all the growth in the music industry.

    There's a cool graphic there too. Check it out.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



From This Author

Just In