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.

  • The Mail He Carried With Him

    Some awesome entries from the Inbox today:

    Can you write an article...any article. Without mentioning race?  No one really gives a crap about your race. Just write something that's informative.  We or at least I get it. You are not white. No one cares. Every single thing that happens in this world is not about race. You are doing a disservice to yourself and this web site.  I stopped reading your articles. Once in a while I check back and yep...it's about you... not being white...

    Well, no. It's about you...not being black...

    Here's a more benevolent one:

    Its very simple. As a a recent convert to your blog (being a huge reader of your neighbor Andrew), I have learned more about race in three weeks than Lord knows how many years.

    Its nice to hear your voice. Franklin Douglass would be proud that the baton was passed to you.

    You're now on my mac toolbar. Pressure's on! heh heh heh Keep up the good work.

    White people: I appreciate your patronage. In fact, you comprise most of my audience. My black readers are cool, but I deeply suspect that none of them bought my book. Plus Negroes don't click through ads.

    That said, I do have one request--I'ma need for ya'll to not call Frederick Douglass, Franklin Douglass. The man was too bad-ass for that. Give em his 'spect.

  • The Fierce Politics Of Expedience

    Heh, that headline from Andrew's post was so cool, I had to rip it. Anyway, here he is with a typically great take on Obama and the gays. I think the post is, for the most part, spot on. I think he may be a little too hard on Obama--but only a little. That said, I think this statement deserves some consideration:

    And it's tedious to whine and jump up and down and complain when a wand isn't waved and everything is made right by the first candidate who really seemed to get it, who was even able to address black church congregations about homophobia.

    Longtime readers know about the respect I have for Andrew as a thinker and writer. That said, I think, like a lot of whites, Andrew has a particular blind-spot on race--one that I think Obama greatly benefited from  during the election.

    The problem with this thinking is the presumption that there is some monolith called "The Black Church" which Obama should, and has, confronted. In fact, I deeply suspect that the way the "The Black Church" responds to gays is varied. Obama went to Atlanta on MLK Day and said the following:

    And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean.  If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community.

    We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community.  For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

    I understand why this could be read as a powerful, courageous statement. But it actually is a pretty vague call for tolerance, made on MLK day, in a city with arguably the most politically potent black gay population in the country. I'm aware of Ebeneezer's problems with Rick Warren. But somehow, I just don't see that as the sort of statement that risks any political capital. Seriously, what's the constituency he's offending? Did Nikki Tinker teach us nothing?

    It's the same with black men--Obama got a lot of mileage among white people for his Father's Day Speech. The sense was that Obama was saying something that blacks could not say themselves, that we were so immature, and so corrupted that we actually excused deadbeat-ism.

    I think people who think that black men who address homosexuality deserve a medal of courage, need to go back and re-read Huey Newton. I think people who think Obama is the first person to say "Any fool can make a baby. A real man is a father," should really listen to more Ed O.G. They should study the Million Man March. Atonement was the theme for a reason.

    I'm thinking of Will Smith in Six Degrees. White writers (whose contact with black people often seems to be limited to Harvard Law, Crown Heights and Northwest D.C.) believe us to be a gang of Farrakhan-quoting, Marion Barry-supporting, homophobic deadbeats. And then Obama shows up, and is not only not that, but actually attacks the homophobes and the deadbeats. And white writers stand up and applaud.

    But the whole game is based on a deep ignorance, and arrogance--an inability to confess how little they know about race. It really is the twisted vestiges of segregation that allow Obama to stand up in front of a bunch of black Democrats, and say something as banal and qualified as "The scourge of anti-Semitism, at times, revealed itself in our communities" and then get credit. It's what allows Obama to say what black mothers have been saying for three decades now, and garner applause.

    White people should demand a little more.

  • I'm In Ur Base, Imitatin Ur Doodz!

    Often when a white person wants to give his opinion on something racial, he'll preface it with something like "Now, I'm not black but..." or "Hey, I'm just white but..." or "Hey, I'm the spawn of Yakub, so take this with a grain of salt.."

    Whenever someone says that to me, I just kinda shake my head and give them that annoyed "Will you just make your fucking point, white boy" look.

    And then I started writing about gay marriage, and yesterday, about the ethics of outing, and I found myself in my head saying, "Now, I'm not gay but..." or "Hey, I'm just a straight guy but..." or "Hey, I'm totally obsessed with boobs, but..." It's the weirdest thing. You keep thinking to yourself, "Maybe I should shut the fuck up now." And yet, you don't...

    Anyway, I think this is part of my continued evolution into a white guy. I'm digging on your music. I'm working at The Atlantic (first black guy, since Frederick Douglass). And now, I'm even lecturing oppressed minorities on how to respond to their oppression. Pretty soon, I'll be foreclosing on motherfuckers.

    Yes, yes I know. Patience, young grass-smoker. Your time will come...

  • The End Of The Torture Debate

    I think Digby is right--we've lost this one. It's deeply disconcerting to watch journalists embrace the language of politicians. I think it says a lot that we hear those claim to be "keeping them honest" using terms like "enhanced interrogation." 

    This is a deeply depressing failure on so many levels--and yet I feel like I should have seen it coming. My own deep personal experience with police violence says that people will accept the brutality of the state, if they think the state is trying to protect them. Not to flog this, but I keep going back to how my buddy was killed in PG County, and nothing happened to the officer who did it.

    The fact is that that officer represented something about us, something about our hatred of drugs and crime, as well as our self-absorbed lack of empathy for any innocent--especially an innocent who we consider as "other"--caught in the crossfire. Likewise, Cheneyism says something about who we are, and where we're willing to go.

    I think our politicians failed us. But it's weak to put it on them. I think journalists failed us. But it's weak to put it on them. We have too much faith in our innate goodness, in our exceptionalism. And if there's one big failing of Barack Obama it's that he continues to sell us on this notion that we're special. Maybe that's how it has to be. I'm admittedly confused by all this. I just suspect that someday soon we're going to find out how "special" we really are.

    We really have no idea how low we can really go. And when confronted with evidence of it, we obfuscate. As a black man living in this country, I should have known better. It all makes too much sense.

  • A Little More On Outing

    I think a couple things bother me:

    1.) The notion that one can actually betray the gay rights agenda. This feels dangerous to me. I think it's easy on bright line issues like gay marriage, or even gay adoption. But my experience in the post-civil rights era says that the further you move forward, the more complicated the issues becomes. It's not hard to see a point (and maybe we've reached it) where there are serious fault-lines over what makes the agenda and what doesn't. But once you've embraced the tool of outing, it really can be deployed by any one claiming the sword of righteousness.

    This, from a commenter, gets at what I mean:

    I'm not concerned for the Ted Haggards and Larry Craigs of the world. This is what bothers me- who draws the line at who is "important" enough to forcibly out? I am worried that someone will interpret this as open season for anyone in any sort of leadership position, no matter how loosely defined. To add to that, while there might be legitimate evidence for people like Larry Craig, what happens when everything trickles down to the micro level and it becomes a battle of (s)he said-(s)he said? Bigotry is unacceptable at any level, but when one outs the head of the neighborhood association (S/he is in a leadership position, after all) over hearsay evidence, is that really advancing the cause.

    It's worth listening to this interview with an RNC staffer who was outed. He's a conservative operative who was working, in 2004, to help Bush get re-elected. He despised the GOP's stance on gays, but was, in his heart, a conservative. He was outed because the GOP disseminated anti-gay fliers, and the belief was that he could have (or should have) stopped them. I think it's fuzzy enough to make me uncomfortable. Who draws the line on this stuff? It's not enough to feel like it's justice. You have to be able to live with all the implications.

    2.) Which brings me to this: How do you know you're right? Seriously. What if you're wrong?

    Here's a response from Dan Savage to the earlier post. He concludes:

    And here's the funny thing, Ta-Nehisi: these outed politicians--the Craigs, Haggards, Crists, et al--they never off themselves. Everyone talks about the potential of suicide when a high-profile hypocrite like Charlie Crist is outed. But they never kill themselves, do they? That cocksucker Crist just announced his run for US Senate. Outing "victims" either come out or they burrow deeper into their closets. You know who kills themselves when they're outed? The nobodies rounded up when the police departments conduct stings on cruising areas. Small town newspapers typically print names and mug shots after raids on rest stops and cruisy parks, a practice that has lead to suicides.

    But no one gives a shit about these guys--they're nobodies, just small-town closet cases looking for a little cock, not powerful politicians doing violence on a daily basis to gay people and our families while scarfing down cock in toilets and bedding their aides.

    It seems to me that your sympathies are misplaced, Ta-Nehisi.

    It's true that the suicide thing is a hypothetical, and an unlikely one. Fair enough. But I think the "sympathies" critique misses the point. Being against the death penalty isn't the same as having sympathy for ax-murderers, or a lack of sympathy for the victims.

    UPDATE #2: Meh, so much for legs to stand on. I just re-read my post. I actually did strongly imply sypathy for people like Craig and Haggard

  • Outing Gay Politicians

    It's worth listening to this interview with Kirby Dick, about his new film Outrage, which investigates closeted politicians, who presumably are supporting an anti-gay agenda. I think I get the impetus--there's certainly a kind of cowardice at work in being in the closet and supporting homophobes.

    That said, I'm deeply skeptical. When white gays compare their experience to African-Americans, the response is often to note that blacks have no closet, and thus no choice about how to live. They're going to experience racism, no matter what. It's a fair distinction and an important difference. But I suspect (though I'm not sure) that it undervalues the way blackness in this country forces you face yourself, while overvalue the virtues of concealing yourself.

    I'm in the realm of theory and imagination here--being black is elemental to me, almost in the way that religion is elemental to the devout. I can't imagine myself without it, and more to the point, I think I'd be deeply unhappy if I had to conceal anything that important from my family, friends and colleagues. And it's not just concealing, it's accepting a presumed inferiority, an assumed deviance, and in that acceptance, a spiritual corruption. The closet may be choice--but it isn't one I'd want, anymore than someone who's white wants to afraid of the police.

    I find these discussions of who has it worse ("black male/black female" "white woman/poor white man" "gay asian" "straight native American") to be reductive. They smell of my conversations hatched at midnight in Howard's dorms, when I should have been out chasing girls. Who can know what is worse? I'm black and straight and thus would never want to be white and straight, or white and gay. Were I white and gay, I think I'd never want to black and straight. You take life as it comes.

    My point is one of basic human compassion--I have no idea what was going through Larry Craig's head. I have no understanding of his own private hell. What I know is I watched a "reformed" Ted Haggard and thought he was being torn apart by vultures on the inside.

    I'm skeptical of man's ability to bring justice to these people, in this fashion. It smells of divine retribution dispensed by childish mortals. What if the guy you outed kills himself? Can you wash your hands of that? Would you truly feel no guilt?

    As I said, I'm out of my lane. I'd love to hear from more experienced hands.

  • Politicians And Comedians Don't Mix

    Robert Gibbs complaining that his steak dinner taste too much like beef:

    "I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection rather than comedy," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. "I think there's no doubt that 9/11 is part of that."

    I think respectable comedians should keep their distance from politicians, and specifically from Obama. This is the second time he's willing attended a comedian's performance and either feigned shock (shock!), or had his henchmen feign shock. Here's Bernie Mac during the campaign:

    "Being a president is tough 'cause you're not just running the county. You got to run your family too," Mac said. "Having a black first lady is different. You're still going have to do the dishes and the laundry and all that ...you got to pick up the kids. You didn't pick up the kids? I just came from Korea, talking about nuclear weapons. You were on Air Force One and you couldn't stop to pick up the kids?"

    Mac also told Obama to be cautious of the rumor mill. "People like rumors. They are going to say things like, you know, you was in the club with Lil' Kim and you and Kanye West got in a fist fight."

    Here's Barack Obama trying to be cool and straight all at once:

    "We can't afford to be divided by religion, or by region or class. Or by gender," Obama said and joked, "That means, by the way, Bernie you got to clean up your act. This is a family affair. I'm just messing with you!"

    Shortly after the fundraiser ended, the campaign issued a statement denouncing Mac's comments. "Senator Obama told Bernie Mac that he doesn't condone these statements and believes what was said was inappropriate," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

    I re-watched Sykes show yesterday and I thought the Limbaugh/20th hijacker was the least funniest part. But not because 9/11 shouldn't ever be joked about, but because it felt forced. ("I hope his kidneys fail" didn't by the way.) But so what? Some jokes work, others don't. This idea that there are certain topics that can only be talked about in serious, solemn ways, by all people at all times, is ridiculous. I don't want Wanda Sykes near the launch codes. Conversely, I think artistic advice from the president is, with all due respect, an oxymoron.

    Bleh. Anyway here's Chris Rock joking the Iraq War, Anthrax in the mail, and James Byrd's death. I laughed all the way through. I'm still laughing. And let me keep laughing until they put my dick in the dirt. Otherwise, what the fuck is the point? Run the damn country. And if comic's jokes make that too hard, save it for retirement.

  • How Bad Is It For Newspapers?

    Even the politicians are feeling bad. Still, I'm with David Carr on this one--I'm not sure government funding is the answer:

    I'm all for journalists swarming the Hill, especially now that about half of the reporters who used to work there are gone, potentially leaving much of government to its own devices. But to leave our industry tin-cupping its way around a government it covers seems desperate and ill-advised: a cure that might be worse than the disease.

    No one is arguing that the situation is not dire. Though Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president, calmly told the senators on the panel led by Senator Kerry that "it's still very early," we all know better. In the past six months, five major American publishers have filed for bankruptcy.

    Given that monopolies that drove the business are falling apart, some antitrust relief that would allow the industry to collectively hit the reset button seems reasonable. But how exactly is the rest of it an agenda item for an elected government? Besides all the esteem we seem to hold ourselves in, it is difficult to make a rational economic argument for granting special favors to a relatively minor part of the American economy. Alan D. Mutter, who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, said that newspapers "collectively employ a mere 0.2 percent of the nation's labor force and generate only 0.36 percent of the gross national product." In other words, we are not, like the bankers and the auto industry we have covered so ferociously, too big to fail.

    Wasn't it up to publishers when things were fat and happy to invest for this foreseeable crisis? And wasn't it the publishers themselves who leapt into the arms of online aggregators and now want government intervention for what seems to be a business negotiation gone bad?

  • The Deeper Meaning Of Star Trek\Wolverine\Terminator

    Alyssa Rosenberg's take on fanboyism and the summer blockbuster is pretty damned good, and a welcome counter to those of us (me included) who like to inveigh against the horror of Hollywood's marketing of geekdom. Forgive me for quoting at length:

    Despite that financial success, the critics are growing restless. The New York Times' A.O. Scott declared that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is "the latest evidence that the superhero movie is suffering from serious imaginative fatigue." Slate's Dana Stevens announced that "I'll be holding comic-book-based blockbusters to a more robust standard" this summer. And Anthony Lane, a film critic for The New Yorker, took a nasty shot at comic book enthusiasts in his review of Watchmen earlier in the year, saying the film "should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex."

    It's easy to dismiss sci fi flicks as clumsy and loud, but the critiques miss a key virtue. Unlike other genres, fanboy blockbusters are a constantly innovating form, with an important message about the present even as they outline visions of our future. In romantic comedies, the scene can shift from the Civil War to the Los Angeles real estate market as long as boy meets girl amidst the bayonets or billboards. Horror movies can switch weapons with no fall-off in audience long as there are coeds to dice. Come Oscar season, World War II films are such a reliable source of nominations that Kate Winslet's turn as a sexy Nazi became a simultaneous joke on the genre and a lock for the Academy Award.

    Science fiction and superhero movies don't have the luxury of simply finding the latest neighborhood where attractive singles are settling or the flashiest car on the market and plugging those accessories into a formula. By nature, those films have to imagine the future, to put something on screen that audiences would never see in their everyday lives. Sometimes, those visions are farfetched, unrealistic, paranoid, immature, or deeply cheesy. Of the four major sci-fi movies being released this spring and summer, two feature vengeful giant robots. Another centers on a guy who metalizes his skeleton, and the fourth plants spaceships in Iowa cornfields. They'll vary in quality, and plausibility, but at least they have something to say about the perils and opportunities of the future.

    X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first of these movies, is a perfect example of the power of a bad fanboy movie. The film is far too full of cheap-looking special effects and dialogue that seems ludicrous outside a cartoon bubble to be really absorbing. But Wolverine has far more to say about its chosen subject, the scientific manipulation of the human body, than, for example, the romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has to say about relationships between men and women.

    I think Anthony Lane has constructed three or four of my all time favorite sentences. (Of Yoda's tripe ramblings in the Star Wars prequels, he once quipped, "Break me a fucking give.") But I think Rosenberg makes a great point here. At some point critics (once again, including me) will have to start judging these flicks on their own terms.

    And with that, I guess I now have to go see Star Trek. Damn. I thought I'd be able to worm out of that one.


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