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 Problem Of King, Obama And Heroic History

    As a lot of you know my interest, of late, has dipped toward Reconstruction and immediate post-Reconstruction black America. One side effect of a lot of my recent reading is a reevaluation of some of my childhood prejudices toward the South. I started school just 13 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Whenever we had Black History Month, his legacy was simply dominant. I don't just mean King the man, but the portrait of black people during the King era, and especially black Southerners. According to the films we saw, all black Southerners, in King's era, were Christian, law-abiding, nonviolent, salt of the earth types besieged by hooligans. In those days, Malcolm X wasn't talked about at my school.

    Anyway, you hear about the Edmund Pettis bridge enough times, and you come think of the rest of your history as a kind of Dark Age, peopled with a few peanut scientists, heart surgeons, and traffic light tinkerers. All those folks are complicated in their own right (read this piece on Garrett A. Morgan) but they got reduced to a list of "firsts" and one sentence deeds. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, rises Martin Luther King, who redeems the country, and saves us all.

    But you get no sense of agency from people in the meantime. You get no sense of how and why the world had changed over the course of a century. And most of all, you get no sense of the complicated people who laid the path. I thought about this this morning, because I was reading about P.B.S. Pinchback, whose colorful biography I would only disservice by summarizing. But my point is that the world comes alive so much more when you can see the past in detail, and not always and only as a narrative of black Messiahs triumphing over white racists.

    I worry about Barack Obama being discussed in this same King-like way--as though nothing changed among the people to make him possible, or no actors before existed, like Jesse Jackson, for all his flaws, didn't make Obama possible. This isn't a shot at Obama or King, as much as its a collection of rather random thoughts and observations. I'm just walking my way through some things.

  • Cougardom! Rawr! Ahem...That's, Rowr!

    Heh, Troy Patterson and Rebbecca Traister look at the new, unprecedented, never before witnessed phenomena of 40 year old women bagging 20 year old dudes. Evidently there's not just a reality show about this on TV, there's actually a sitcom coming out which will explain to us why "The Graduate" never got made. Meh. Here's Traister on the show:

    So because the men her age have a ticking clock and she no longer does, she tries to fulfill her romantic dreams by moving in with 20 men under 30, the kinds of guys "who can keep up" with her. Evidence that they can "keep up" begins with their arrival on some kind of frat party bus, where they are shown swigging beers and saying things like, "I can't wait to meet this cougar!" and "I really hope this cougar likes lamb, cause I'm nice and sweet and tender." Ah, liberation! Sweet, hot congress with dudes you were so glad you never had to deal with again after graduation! Mee-ow.

    Is it possible that Stacey -- and all the other women who embrace the term "cougar" -- don't know that, on some level, they're being laughed at?

    Original "Cougar" author Valerie Gibson has claimed that the term was coined as derogatory (no shit!), in reference to older women who went out drinking and went home with whatever guys were left at the end of the night -- like the weakest members of the pack, see? And even though women are making extravagant efforts to reclaim it as empowering, it remains offensive and dehumanizing on almost every level, as "Daily Show" senior women's issues commentator Kristin Schaal illustrated in a piece in which she had an animal handler carry a grown woman to the news desk, Jack Hanna style, so that Jon Stewart could examine her up close: "Do you want to hold her, Jon?"

    Slow down Rebecca, you're killing em.They aren't laughing at her because she's enjoyed the company of young dudes--they're laughing at her because she's called a cougar. Much as I would, now, laugh at any dude who, with no sense of irony, referred to himself as a "sugardaddy."

    Look, people come together in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. I'm a huge believer that the human race's survival depends on this fact. If you're 20 and you fall for someone older than you, it's all love. If you're 40 and you fall in love with someone who's 20, it's mo' love. If you just have a friend with benefits who's half--or twice--your age, it may not be love, but it hopefully it's peach pie. But all of that said, don't let them turn you into a name,  into a marketing ploy.

    On another note, a lot of this reminds me of the 70s, and blaxploitation's odd obsession with white women. There was this whole line of Cleaveresque Black Power logic that argued that it was somehow empowering to mimic one of the more repulsive relics of White Power--the sexual subjugation of black women. This isn't a perfect parallel, I know. But there is that kind of, "Well, if my ex-husband can be lecherous, so can I."

    The obvious backdrop is a long history of men engaging whatever fantasy suits them, and then standing in judgement of women's sexual predilictions. That's a nasty problem. But I don't think embracing a sexuality, which much be animalized in order to be accepted, helps much.

  • 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.

    [MORE]

    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.


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