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 Irony Of Jane Harman

    Glenn Greenwald points the way:

    Jane Harman is so shrill and angry today.  She sounds like some sort of unhinged leftist blogger.  As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank so insightfully asked this week, what could any Democrat possibly have to be angry about?  After all, they won.  I wonder how long it's going to be before Harman joins the ACLU?  What's that old saying -- a "civil liberties extremist" is a former Bush-enabling, Surveillance State-defending Blue Dog who learns that their own personal conversations were intercepted by the same government that they demanded be vested with unchecked power...
  • Capitol Men

    I'm reading Phillip Dray's rather incredible history of Reconstruction, Capitol Men, told from the perspective of the nation's  first black Congressmen. I'm only 90 pages in, but I'm immediately reminded of why I love great books about history. Probably out of necessity, history is taught to us in a utilitarian form--a list of facts, dates, names and ultimate results. But a great book doesn't go from event to event, and it's not over-interested in getting to the end. This is sort of an extension of my comments about plot and character, and the problems of Black History Month.

    Capitol Men is, in many ways, a sad book. But that isn't the point. The point is Robert Charles Smalls, a biracial black man born into slavery, who plots with his fellow slaves to steal a Confederate ship, and upon reaching Union lines exclaims to his black brethren, "We're all free niggers now!" The point is the rather mystical, and likely fraudulent, Robert Brown Elliot, who was trilingual and had this mysterious past--almost literally hailing from parts unknown. In 1869, Elliot accused a Union vet of trying to woo his wife, then whipped him in the middle of Columbia, South Carolina. The next day the local paper ran the following headline--"A Negro From Massachusetts Cowhides a White Carpetbagger." The point is  Elias Hill--a 50-year old black preacher and dwarf who was beaten by the Klan, and immediately left, with his congregation in tow, for Liberia.

    The point is people, people, people. We should never presume to know too much of them. They always surprise us. Anyway, it's a great book.

  • The Road To 60

    Via Yglesias, Jim John Cornyn surveys the electoral landscape, and doesn't like what he sees:

    "That's going to be real hard, to be honest with you," Cornyn said of keeping Democrats from reaching 60 seats, adding:

    "Everybody who runs could be the potential tipping point to get Democrats to 60. We've not only got to play defense; we've got to claw our way back in 2010. It'll be a huge challenge."

    So far this cycle, Republicans have been faced with retirements in four swing states, emerging primaries against at least three of their members and a map that, after two cycles of big GOP losses, continues to favor Democrats.

    For Cornyn, the man tasked with avoiding sinking below 41 seats, it's become a very tough job. And it's clear he's nervous.

    Aside from all the developments so far, the one race Cornyn brought up unprompted in a lengthy interview with The Hill was Texas, where Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) is aiming for the governor's mansion and could vacate her seat at any time, paving the way for an open, no-primary free-for-all in the Lone Star State.

    Indications lately have been that she will remain in her seat, which isn't up until 2012. But her Texas colleague made it clear Monday that he's not counting his blessings just yet.

    "What I am concerned about is that it will be a special election that will be held perhaps as early as May 2010," Cornyn said. "I don't want this to turn into a situation where we elect a Democrat in Texas and further erode our possibilities."

    I don't think Cornyn should worry so much. The way forward is clear: Talk more about tea parties and torture. Have thrice-married, known adulterers, offer more sanctimonious lectures to Americans on "traditional marriage." Then have thrice-married, cross-dressing Manhattanites make the case against gay marriage. Make Sarah Palin the face of your party. Keep Dick Cheney talking. And when all else fails, just ask yourself this question, "What would Rush do?" Follow these steps, and I promise, you will give new meaning to the term "minority party." You have the power.

  • Because It's Wednesday

    I thought about linking some old New Edition videos. Maybe later. For now, I'll indulge myself. Here I am reading two poems by Frederick Seidel at Russian Samovar. All you need to know about this reading is they gave me free vodka--thus explaining my inability to pronounce "exemplar."

    Props to Lorin Stein at FSG for putting this together. Props to Ben Kunkel who also read from Siedel. I wish Sam Lipsyte's reading was on video. He was amazing.

    Anyway, there was something transgressive about this entire exercise. The first poem is about a son who's father exhibits a kind of paternal racism toward his black servants, and how the implicit brutality of it all thrills the son. The second poem ends with Seidel admiring the woman's "blond hair at dawn"--among other things. Readers of this blog will know how distant I am from both paternal racism, and any woman's "blond hair at dawn." OK, being from Baltimore where the black girls dye their hair all sorts of colors, I confess to knowing a little about "blond hair at dawn."

    But my point is that reading these pieces was like living in someone else's skin for a moment. And yet, in some deep sense, finding myself there at the bone. It is human to revel in brutality--race is irrelevant to this fact. It is human to revel in beauty---race is irrelevant to this fact.

  • The Intellectual Dishonesty Of "Looking Forward"

    Hilzoy goes off on Robert Gibbs:

    That's why I found today's White House briefing so infuriating:

    "Q So I understand, you're saying that people in the CIA who followed through in what they were told was legal, they should not be prosecuted. But why not the Bush administration lawyers who, in the eyes of a lot of your supporters on the left, twisted the law -- why are they not being held accountable?

    MR. GIBBS: The President is focused on looking forward, that's why."

    You know what? I'm focused on looking forward too. And as I gaze into my crystal ball, I see a world in which members of the executive branch take it for granted that they can do whatever they want with impunity. Why not break the law? Why not eavesdrop on Americans? Why not torture people? Why not detain citizens indefinitely without charges? Heck, why not impose martial law and make yourself dictator for life? There is nothing to stop the people who make these decisions. They have nothing to fear. Because once they've made them, their actions are back there, in the past that no one ever wants to look at.

    I also see a world in which everyone takes it for granted that there are two kinds of people, as far as the law is concerned. If most people tried to make the case that prosecuting their criminal acts was just "looking backwards", or a sign that the prosecutor was motivated by a desire for retribution, they'd be laughed out of court. Imagine the likely reaction if your average crack dealer were to urge the judge not to dwell on the past, or if someone who used accounting fraud to flip houses told offered a prosecutor the chance to be "very Mandelalike in the sense [of] saying let the past be the past and let us move into the future", or if I were pulled over for speeding and, when asked if I knew how fast I was going, replied that "Some things in life need to be mysterious ... Sometimes you need to just keep walking." I don't think any of us would get very far.

    The only way you can embrace the "Looking Forward" line of logic, or the "some things in life need to be mysterious" line of logic, is to accept that the law works one way for people who've accrued political power, and another way for those who don't. The worst part is its not even necessary. I think a lot of us would accept what Obama said yesterday. A lot of us have sympathy for troops in the field who, as Hilzoy, were following the OLC. But from those who drafted the guidelines, we'd like some answers.

  • Some Explanation Is Due

    A friend wrote me this morning to say I was unduly harsh in my reply to KCN. This is likely true. One problem with highlighting your commenters is you have to respect the basic asymmetry--you have the megaphone, not them. Smugness and sarcasm doen't really exhibit that sort of respect.

    Having said that, I wanted folks to understand why this line of cultural argument rankles so much. For those who know this, I'm sorry to repeat. But it's indispensable to what I'm about to say.

    You guys know me--I came up in Baltimore, during the crack era, across the street from Mondawmin Mall (before they added that Target). I was born out of wedlock (my parents married when I was four) to a father with kids strewn across the city. I went to public school all my life. I spent much of childhood underachieving in school--until high school when I summarily failed out of school. Twice. I went to college, but dropped-out. I've got an eight-year old son out of wedlock. I've been living in sin with his mother for years now. For the vast majority of those years, her income has dwarfed mine--some years even tripled it.

    From a socio-economic perspective, that's my biography. Rightly or wrongly, I identify with people who come up in a similar fashion, while at the same time recognizing the great diversity amongst them.

    This isn't about hood credentialism. I ran from more fights than I stood for. I think Dungeons & Dragons changed my life. I never lived in the projects. I never worried once about what would be for dinner. I rocked my share of off-brands, but all I ever really wanted for, as a child, were a pair of Lottoes, a Le Coq Sportif sweat-suit, and cable television. When I talk, my diction bears all of those experiences, and one of the reasons I chose not to change it, is because I want you to know who I am and where I've been, because that's exactly what I'd want out of you.


    What I know about "inner city blacks," of those who "act ghetto," is the same as what I lately came to know about about suburban whites, about Puerto-Rican New Yorkers, about Ivy Leauge graduates, about gay conservatives, and Israeli-Americans. That they are all different from us all and from each other, that they deserve to be treated with the same nuance, with the same soft touch, with the same eye for complexity and dimension that you'd want for your own family in friends.

    My partner Kenyatta says that one of the things that convinced her to go to Howard was a habit she observed among some of her white friends. She was a smart girl, well-spoken and kind. Sometimes when she'd gotten close to a white girl at her school, the girl would make some casually prejudice remark about black people and then say, "But you're not black." The point being that, despite Kenyatta darkness, what they saw as "black" was everything that she was not. She talks about jhow she initially took this as a compliment, and then she realized the true insidiousness within it--that had they exchanged no words, said white friend would have drawn the same conclusions about her.

    In that same spirit, I think people who meet and talk to me, who read this blog don't think of me as "ghetto." But I'm not sure they'd think the same if they saw me at 8 A.M. on Lenox Ave, rocking the black hoodie and grey New Balance, on my way to the Associated. Ghetto, in its most unironic usage, is a word for people you don't know. It's word that allows you to erase individuals and create boxes. It's true that I was different than most of my friends--but most of my friends were different from my friends. All people, at their core, ultimately are. A man has to stand for those who intimately loved him and intimately hated him, for those whose stench he was raised amongst. They get to be human to.

    All of this is a long way of explaining why I get ticked by this line of thinking. I probably should have offered this instead of sarcasm--but this is my stench. And I get to be human to.

    More »

  • The Men Who Would Teach Us About Family Values

    One reason why I reject the hamfisted argument that marriage is the best option for everyone, everywhere, at all times, as well as its oft-invoked corollary that none of this applies to gays, is that it's an argument that overstates our knowledge of other people's lives. In its worst form, its invoked by characters so sanctimonious that you smell the bad faith on their breath before they utter a word.

    Thus Yglesias brings us the exhortations of men like Rudy Guliani and Newt Gingrich in favor of traditional values. What a joke. As Matt says:

    Far be it from me to say that Newt Gingrich's 1981 decision to ask his first wife for a divorce while she was in the hospital recuperating from cancer should bar him from commenting on the value of traditional marriage. But six months after the divorce was finalized, he married a new woman, Marianne Ginther, which suggests there was some infidelity involved. Then in 2000 he divorced Ginther and married a third woman with whom it turns out he'd been having an affair. That, I think, is a bit much. Then after that, he became a Catholic!

    As for Guliani, I don't know how much his postion is going to help him. He's in favor of "civil unions."

  • Not Out Of The Woods Yet

    Nice piece in the Times outlining the current debate around torture. I think people will find this interesting:

    On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program "This Week" that "those who devised policy" also "should not be prosecuted." But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale.

    Three Bush administration lawyers who signed memos, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury, are the subjects of a coming report by the Justice Department's ethics office that officials say is sharply critical of their work. The ethics office has the power to recommend disbarment or other professional penalties or, less likely, to refer cases for criminal prosecution.

    The administration has also not ruled out prosecuting anyone who exceeded the legal guidelines, and officials have discussed appointing a special prosecutor. One option might be giving the job to John H. Durham, a federal prosecutor who has spent 15 months investigating the C.I.A.'s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations.
  • Fear Of A Native Black Planet

    Commenter KCN writes:

    I would really love to hear TNC's thoughts on the NYT article on "downward assimilation" among second-generation Latinos. I agree with Storm that the article really made me squirm. I am married to an African immigrant and the article basically described my husband's worst nightmare--that our kids would grow up to act "ghetto."

    Every African immigrant familiy knows a family whose kids (usually US born although this also happens to kids who immigrated at a young age) ended up doing poorly in school, abusing substances or otherwise acting "ghetto" like the girl in the NYT article. My husband has made it clear to our kids that "ghetto" speech, dress and attitudes are not welcome in our home and that anyone who has a problem with this policy is welcome to go back to Africa to live with relatives (usually this comes with a reminder like, "did you know that 5 gallons of water weighs 40 pounds? Forty pounds is a lot to carry on your head....."

    I think a lot of Black Americans interpret African immigrants as being snobbish (or dare I say uppity?) but the root is a deep fear that our kids will grow up to be entitled and lazy.

    I'm flattered by the eagerness for a response, but I really don't know what there is to say. I think if you truly believe that "African immigrants are snobbish" you should avoid "African immigrants" at all costs. I'm sure said immigrants would appreciate it. Greatly.

    Likewise, if you really believe that the negative potency of native black kids is such that mere socializing will cause your "kids to grow up and act ghetto" then you should avoid native black kids. As the father of a "native black kid" and, as the partner of a native born black woman, as someone who has grown up and regularly acts ghetto, I can tell you that we would, likewise, appreciate it. Greatly.

    I generally avoid talking to people who insist on thinking in broad generalities. I imagine a lot of Africans, immigrants or not, could understand why. I'm a fan of people's right to be as prejudice as they wish. But I think those who truly believe in their prejudice shouldn't talk our ears off--they should get to stepping.

    The prejudiced mind has made its judgment--that's what it means to be prejudiced. Life is too short to spend it washing other people's laundry. These are my personal limitations. Better men than me can spend their hours disabusing people of their notions. I have my own issues to wrestle with.

    As to the article, I didn't get the sense that the Latinos were blaming their own issues on black culture. Nevertheless, if you want to credit us with MS-13, we'll take that. Whatever you need to get through the day. That's what we're here for.


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A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion


What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.


Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."


The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?



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