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.

  • These Streets, No Game. Can't Ball, Don't Play...

    A few people have asked me to comment on this. I'm a bit hesitant, because this tape hits me somewhere very personal, and requires that I say some critical things about people I like. I think Mos Def was offering up that corner consciousness, in which brothers preach nihilism under the cover of an alleged "Knowledge of Self" or "Thinking for oneself." I think Christopher Hitchens, rightfully, sonned him. As a Mos Def fan, and member of the hip-hop generation (whatever that means) I felt embarrassed. That's probably not my right, but I felt that way. Here's where it gets really weird, I held one person responsible for the whole debacle--Cornel West.

    I don't know that this is fair, but I immediately thought back to when West and Mos Def were on The Bill Maher show and Mos basically said he didn't believe Bin Laden brought down the towers. West pointed out that he disagreed, but instead of pushing Mos, he went into this explanation for why black people tend to be paranoid. His explanation was perfect in substance, but bad for Mos Def. I thought the elder radical owed it to the younger radical to challenge him, to push him past nihilism and paranoia.

    Again, this is all about me and my constant ruminations over my status as a lapsed black nationalist. With that in mind, two things need to be said.

    The first is about what I still hold on to. I came up in the "conscious" community, and the one value that the Babas and Mamas taught me, that I hold with me to this day, is the sanctity of the relationship between the elders and the young, the sense that the elder doesn't exist to simply cosign the emotions of the young, he exists to push the young past that, to challenge them, to force them to be better despite themselves.

    The whole notion of "It takes a village" was pushed by the conscious community. That idea has been wailed upon by people who don't know what the fuck their talking about, who've never sat on a stoop in a ghetto, who file reports and columns about people who are Martians to them.  At its core, it simply means caring about people who are younger than you, in the way that you care about your child. I get the conservative critique of that ideal--it's certainly Utopian, but no more so than, say, "love thy neighbor." My interpretation (others may not share it) of the "It take a village" mantra would have called on West to pull up Mos Def, as opposed to making excuses for why he would think that way.

    The other thing I learned in the conscious community was the value of critical thinking. The idea was that you live in a world where the Tuskegee experiments actually happened, where the FBI did plot to destroy the Panthers, where J. Edgar Hoover terrorized black leaders from Garvey to Huey Newton. In that vein, you should be skeptical of what you see and hear. This is the perspective Mos is coming from. (Note the Assata reference.) But here's the thing--if you really get that message, it ultimately leads you to be critical, not just of the larger white narrative, but of the narrative put forth by those around you.

    So here's the deal--I was a history major at Howard University. I came to that school believing very much in an Afrocentric view of history. From that perspective, my first semester was just devastating. I had a professor, Dr. Linda Heywood, who specialized in taking on kids like me (the ones who believed ancient Egypt built fighter jets) and forcing us to face facts. She was, of course, a trained historian who was used to debating kids like me, and for every Chancellor Williams or Diop I whipped out, she had a David Brion Davis or a Eugene Genovese.

    I couldn't escape by dismissing her as part of a white plot--she was not just a black woman, but a black woman with a PhD in African History, who was teaching at the most storied black university in the country. I couldn't attack her street cred, and so I had to engage the argument. I found her infuriating--which led me to take two more classes from her. A buddy of mine recalls the most poignant moment for us under her tutelage. At the end of a particularly debilitating lecture, she looked at us and said, "So with all the evidence I've given you, explain to me why blacks are not inferior to whites."

    She didn't believe that of course. The point was preparation for what we'd encounter out in the world. Here is thing--my best professors at Howard (and there were many) knew that those of us who fashioned ourselves budding intellectuals would have to debate people who did not believe that it took a village, people who'd gone to the best schools in the world, and who were armed with the latest facts and science, and Ma'at would not save us. We could not hide behind myth--even if our opponents could. We were black. We had to be better than they'd heard.

    I watched that clip of Mos Def, and thought back to my own rather tortured relationship with my past. I guess I'm a bit narcissistic. But you guys already know that. Still, I couldn't help but feel that someone should have prepared him, should have made him better than what Christopher Hitchens had heard. That people who loved him should have pulled him aside after his last appearance, and said "Like it or not, you represent us. You can't lean on myth and paranoia. You do a disservice to yourself, and to black people, when you do."

    I thought Cornel should have pushed him away from being slippery with the facts, away from media conspiracy, away from that "I'm from the projects" pose, and out into the real. I thought he should have went at him brutally. Because somewhere out there a Christopher Hitchens was waiting, and when they met, he would have no mercy.

    What you are getting here is the raw. Words and emotions that will likely come back to haunt me. I don't know that it's right--but it's what I feel, it's what I aspire to, even as I fall short on a daily. I believe that we have to be prepared for these motherfuckers. I believe we have to be equipped. I believe that the world is not Martha's Vineyard. But I also believe that the world is not the ghetto. I'm due for shape-up, like all the rest of us. But there's a reason this sort of shit stays in the barbershop.

    This is supposed to be real talk, right?

  • The Obama Administration And BSG

    He just can't quit Roslyn:

    Since the end of the series, Obama has reportedly brushed off key budgetary decisions, ignored his wife and children, and neglected his daily workouts, claiming that he no longer cares if he lets himself go "just like Lee did before the rescue on New Caprica."

    In addition, sources confirmed that instead of meeting with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Monday, the depressed president sat alone in the Oval Office, scouring Internet message boards for posts by other fans about the series conclusion.

  • Franken On The Move

    Or so it seems:

    A three-judge panel ruled that only 400 absentee ballots -- far fewer than Mr. Coleman had sought -- should be examined for possible counting. If the ruling stands, it could be devastating for Mr. Coleman, who trailed his Democratic challenger by a mere 225 votes out of some 2.9 million cast and had hoped that nearly 1,400 absentee ballots might be recounted.

    After seven weeks of deliberations, the court said it will decide which of the 400 ballots would be counted in open court by April 7. But even if the results put Mr. Coleman further in the hole, as expected, he could fight on, before the Minnesota Supreme Court or perhaps in the federal courts. His lawyer said the senator had not given up.

    The three-panel said it based its decision on "a complete and thorough review of the 1,717 exhibits and transcripts of testimony," and that it had made every effort to determine that the voters complied with Minnesota law.

    "To be clear, not every absentee ballot identified in this order will ultimately be opened and counted," the panel wrote.

    Nonetheless, the political terrain as well as simply mathematics appeared to give Mr. Franken a big advantage, and the lawyers for the two sides recognized that fact.

  • A Damn Good Blog

    I've already recommend my man Brendan's blog. But this morning I got some insight into how good it actually is. The thing is completely apolitical and filled with just weird-ass entries on Dehorning Paste and firefighters who turn to arson. I was trying to find something to excerpt, when I simply gave up--every entry defied synopsis. You guys should just go see it to believe it.

  • The Futility Of Black Media

    The old lions of black magazines, Ebony and Jet, are in trouble. PostBourgie elaborates:

    The argument that they matter because of their historical import shouldn't be too easily dismissed. But that feeling of familiarity and cultural obligation, of supporting these publications because they're black publications has essentially been their entire business model for their entire runs, even as the media landscape changed in cataclysmic ways.

    In terms of functionality, they don't do anything so superlatively (or even competently enough) that it would make me, an admitted magazine junkie, ever seriously consider buying them. At this point, you're more likely to find thoughtful and well-researched  journalism/essays on issues that affect black people -- por ejemplo, here, here, here or here -- in mainstream publications than you are in either of them. They've completely ceded that space.  They're just not very good magazines by most measures.

    I think this is basically true--all of it. For various reasons, I've had to think about the future of "ethnic" media. This isn't an Obama, post-racial problem--it's been going on since the 90s when I was in college. I think The Source and, more specifically, Vibe, in their heyday, really pointed the way forward. They both were, in many ways, black magazines. But they weren't in the old way. At their best, they used hip-hop, a cultural movement with roots in the black community, to look out at the broader world. I think Vibe and The Source messed up by not moving away from hip-hop, as music per se, circa 99. Hip-Hop should have been the lens, and sometimes--but not always--the subject matter. But they had the right idea.

    The closest I've seen to what a black magazine--or any black media--might look like in this era died shortly after it was birthed. That would have been Suede, the urban fashion magazine launched with much fanfare a few years back. It really looked gorgeous, and it had some great people working on it--including the best copy-chief in the business, one Kenyatta Matthews.

    The less said about Suede's end, the better. But I think they had the right idea, and one that folks haven't really followed up on. You can't really have--nor should you want to have--an exclusively "black" media product. But you can have a vehicle informed by a black perspective that looks everything from Jay-Z to Tom Cruise. And the Dallas Cowboys. And wood elves. And Star Trek. What? I'm just sayin...

  • Those Moments When I'm Glad I Don't Have Cable

    John Cole summarizes Lou Dobbs:

    First, he is mad because Obama "fired" Wagoner.

    Then he weeps for the future of capitalism with the government involved like this.

    Then he gets mad because Obama doesn't know how to handle this crisis and isn't doing more.

    Then he is mad because Obama didn't fire the head of the UAW.

    And then he is mad because Obama might require the unions to make concessions.

    And then he is mad because the Obama team is not doing enough for the traditional economy (which I guess is the economy outside of the financial markets and not having to do with the auto industry but doesn't involve concessions for blue collar workers).

    And that was in one 5 minute portion of the show. No mention that half the things that upset him are at odds with the other things that upset him.

    I've come to the conclusion that Lou Dobbs is just barking mad. CNN, it is time to put the crazy uncle out to pasture.

    Dobbs has never been for me. But I've caught him on TV a couple times, when I was traveling. Am I hallucinating, or has he actually gotten angrier? It's pretty amazing.

  • The Tragedy And Betrayal Of Booker T. Washington

    I've been (slowly) making my way through this Booker T. Washington biography. It really is a great read. But that aside, I think that it also highlights a great tragedy in race relations in this country. Washington is arguably the most effective and powerful black conservative in this country's history. (I maintain that Malcolm X was, for much of his public life, a black conservative.) Unlike today, Washington lived in a time when there actually was a credible black conservative tradition. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" is remembered as a betrayal and a sell-out because it accepted segregation, and argued against black political agitation. But in fact, at the time, the response from black America to the "Compromise" was at worst mixed, and at best quite positive. No less than W.E.B. Du Bois called the speech, "the basis for a real settlement between whites and black in the South."

    It makes sense, when you think about it. Washington basically said to the white South in 1895. "You win. We don't want the right the vote. We just want to till our farms, better ourselves, and be left alone. Leave us in peace, and you'll here no more of this voting or integration business." You have to remember the state of mind of black people, at that time. Reconstruction had been rolled back. The South was wracked by race riots. Three years after Washington's speech, the only coup in American history was orchestrated in Wilmington, North Carolina by racist thugs. Washington was basically conceding what he'd already lost. In return he hoped to simply secure the right of good Christian blacks to work the land in peace.

    The dominant logic of the post-Reconstruction era held that the real problem wasn't white racists, but carpetbaggers and meddlers from up North who'd elevated illiterate blacks above their station. The white Southerner, presumably, had no existential objection to blacks, they just didn't want to live next door to them or have an illiterate and morally degenerate population electing their politicians. To this Washington, and much of black America, said Fine. Cease fire. You let us be, we'll let you be.

    In retrospect, this was a grievous error. In point of fact, whites actually did have an existential objection to black people. Their beef wasn't that illiterates and moral degenerates might get too much power. Quite the opposite. Their beef was that blacks would prove to not be illiterates and moral degenerates, and thus fully able to compete with them. To see this point illustrated, one need only look at the history of race riots in the South. When white mobs set upon black communities they didn't simply burn down the "morally degenerate" portions--they attacked the South's burgeoning black middle and working class and its institutions. They went for the churches, the schools and the businesses. It's one thing to be opposed to black amorality. It's quite another to be opposed to black progress. The lesson blacks took post-Atlanta Compromise was that whites had used the former to cover for the latter. These days, it's popular to bemoan the fact that Washington has fallen into disfavor. But it wasn't blacks who proved the Atlanta Compromise fraudulent--it was the whites of that era.

    You must understand the chilling effect this had to have on black people. To actually concede to all the racist propaganda out there, and then to be rewarded by hooligans burning down your community must have been psychologically devastating. People wondering why the GOP can't get a foothold in the black community, need to not just think about Goldwater and Nixon. They should think about Du Bois telling black men to go fight in The Great War, and then having those veterans come home to the Red Summer of 1919. They should think about the pogroms that greeted Booker T's compromise. There's a lot of hurt out there. A lot of ancient hurt. A lot of it, even in these times, quite deep.

  • The Case Against Michael Vick

    CHFF says Vick needs to play his position--running back:

    Vick's major problem as an NFL quarterback has been that he simply does not pass the ball nearly as well as the game's elite quarterbacks. He's never completed 57 percent of his passes, he's never thrown for 2,500 yards and he's never thrown more than 20 touchdowns. And his career passer rating of 75.7 is below average (typically about 80.0) and far below the elite status that might inspire a team to take a chance on him three seasons after he last took a snap from center.
    Atlanta's running game has certainly suffered severely without Vick. The team's historic 5.47 YPA on the ground with Vick in 2006 fell sharply to a middling 3.95 YPA in 2007, before recovering in 2008 (4.36 YPA) behind Pro Bowl RB Michael Turner.
    However, Atlanta's passing game hardly missed a beat without Vick. 
    In fact, it improved dramatically in the two years since Vick left football. We all know that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 2008. His 87.7 passer rating easily exceeded Vick's best efficiency mark (81.6 in 2002). But the most damning indictment of Vick's passing capabilities is that the Falcons rose from 32nd in passing yards with Vick at the helm in 2006, to 18th in passing yards in 2007, when the team was led by rotating collection of castoff quarterbacks who filled the void in Vick's absence: Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich. 
    The Falcons averaged 5.70 YPA passing behind Vick in 2006, and 5.93 YPA passing behind the back-up all-stars in 2007.
    I agree with the case against Vick as a QB. I'm not sure I agree that he's the heart to take the sort of pounding that a running back has to endure. There were quite a few running backs who were faster, bigger and stronger than Emmitt Smith. There weren't many that were tougher. Think how Walter Payton used to finish his runs. It takes something internal to deliver like that. I could see Vick as a third down back, a kind of Brian Mitchell back--but not much more.

  • Y Control

    Nick Catucci spends some quality time with Karen O and her mens and them:

    Chase describes it as a "new cool detachment." But let's just say it: Despite the detours into atmospheric balladry, this is a dance album. To some fans--the ones drawn to the band because, like the also bass-free White Stripes, their emergence promised a rock resurgence in deafening guitars--that might sound a little too cool. Their self-titled first EP, in 2001, and 2003's Fever to Tell trafficked in raw: Shouty, guitar-driven, and entirely one-of-a-kind, they were that rare band that maintained their indie patina even with a mainstream single (the transcendent "Maps"). When they dared to dabble with texture and instrumentation, to facilitate a bit of introspection on 2006's Show Your Bones, there was backlash. If Karen O came out of the gate a rock star, the thinking seemed to go, why should the band need to tweak their sound, for fame or any other reason?

    O & Co. were therefore nervous about how the new album would go over. "We were concerned what their hard-core fans would say," says the band's lead producer, Nick Launay. "The new direction was a very, very brave decision--a strong and confident decision not to want to repeat themselves ... And Karen was definitely the main person who was adamant that we had to change direction."

    It really is a dance album. $100 to the man or woman who hears "Dragon Queen" in the club and doesn't move. Alright, so I'm not exactly "in the club" anymore. Still up here, just off Lennox, that joint do make em yell go Karen and do the whop. We gotta work on the boy's rhythm. But we're getting there.

  • Even Though We Had Fun In 91...

    Folks always note my penchant for announcing my public appearances at the last possible instant. (Reading in Cumberland, Maryland in two minutes! Catch it if you can!!) In an attempt to actually get people to come out, I'm offering advance warning. Next Tuesday evening I'll be in Brooklyn, at the Court Street Barnes & Nobles, reading with Adam Mansbach. I'll be, as always, hawking copies of The Beautiful Struggle.

    Sorta. Actually, I'll also be previewing a project I'm working on--The Beautiful Remix. The idea is to take a few chapters from my book and do what Kid Hood did for Tribe in 92. Could be shockingly awesome and revealing. Could be shockingly derivative and redundant. Who knows until it's done. I'm not even sure how I, or if, I'm going to publish it. I may just throw it up on the blog. The more important point is that I'm having fun working on it, which is really all that matters. Takes me back to being a 16 again, when all I wanted was to do something like this. Feh, who am I kidding, even today, all I want is to do something like this.

  • Hey Ladies...

    I'm sure there are some real hotties who frequent this blog. I am aware of the effect I have on women. All the Jennies love a Star Trek fan who spends his days listening to MF Doom, playing WoW, and bragging about having a kid when he was 24 (making me practically a teen parent) and not marrying the mother. Teh Sexah, indeed.

    But even if it wasn't locked down, I can't see myself going where Ann Althouse has gone. I don't disapprove (who cares if I do?) but I'd be too scared.

    It's funny because I've actually seen relationships come out of online gaming. When I used to play Everquest back in the day, I ran with two Wood Elves (I was a Euridite wizard. Even when I'm fantasizing, I'm a black nerd) who were hooked up in real life. I only figured this out as I hung out with them more. Whenever we'd go to Karnor's or the City Of Mist, this dude would follow us. Later the couple told me the dude was the girl's ex--in real life. They used to game together, but she met this other dude (the other Wood Elf) and left her man to move in with him. That just blew me away--but it really shouldn't. Virtual communication is a lot like real communication.

    Anyway, if teh ladies weren't sweating me before this post, having heard me hold forth on Wood Elf mating rituals should do the trick. You may now mob me. I'm all yours.

  • The Fetish Of Centrism

    He doesn't come out and say it, but I think Jonathan Chait's piece on the Democratic congress, really puts the lie to this idea that what we need right now is group of Senators assembled to prevent the Democratic Party from tilting to the left. My beef isn't with people who aren't as liberal as me--it's with people who call themselves moderates because it polls well, or to cover for their fundraising efforts. As Evan Bayh admitted, these dudes have no stated platform. They're just yelling "Centrism!" into a crowded room.

    So what do they want? Who really knows. But here's Chait on Mr. Moderate Ben Nelson:

    The most emblematic objection has come from Nelson, who is balking at Obama's plan to save money on college loans. You might suppose that a fiscal conservative like Nelson would agree with Obama's plan to save $4 billion on a social program. But he does not, for reasons that provide a useful window into the rot afflicting the congressional Democratic Party.

    For many years, the federal government supported college education by guaranteeing bank loans to students. If a student defaulted on his loan, Washington would simply pay back the difference. In 1993, Clinton undertook to reform the program by cutting out the middlemen and simply having the federal government issue the loans directly. Clinton hoped to save money for the government and plow some of those savings into lower interest rates for students. Of course, private lenders who benefitted from the no-risk profit stream balked and forced a compromise whereby both kinds of loans--guaranteed private loans, and direct loans from the government--would exist side by side.

    Recent years have shown beyond a doubt that the direct lending program works better. Every independent analysis--by the Congressional Budget Office, by the Office of Management and Budget under each of the last three presidents, and by the New America Foundation--has found that direct lending is cheaper. The guaranteed-loan program managed to cling to life through its congressional patrons and through simple graft. In 2007, a major student-loan scandal emerged when it turned out that private lenders paid off college administrators to drop out of the direct lending program and steer students to them.

    Obama thus proposes to save the taxpayers more than $4 billion per year by ending the guaranteed loans. This is as straightforward a case as you can find of a fight between special interests and the public good. Nelson opposes it because one of the lenders that benefits from federal overpayments is based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

    There's so much more. Read the piece.

  • White Music For Black People

    Some initial impressions on the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs joint. I really, really like Karen O's voice, and I can't even tell you why. It really is the weirdest thing. I didn't come up in the church, but like a lot of black folks, my ideal is Aretha--in other words when I say I like someone's voice, I'm usually saying I think they can blow. I don't think Karen O "can blow." And I don't much care. She makes me feel like singing. I don't know what else to say about that. Besides, we live in an age of oversinging--too many motherfuckers doing the technical Aretha thing, but without any real passion.

    More on the album itself--I think I must be the only person who's liked each one of the YYY albums better than the last. I know Show Your Bones had its critics. I think It's Blitz may be my favorite--but I should give it more time. "Dragon Queen," "Soft Shock," "Hysteric" and "Little Shadow" are just great.

    I think my opinions are shaped by basically missing any music created by white people during the mid to late 80s. Kids like me would have been dismissed as "acting white" for listening to a ban like the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs. OK, that's dishonest--I would have been the one doing the dismissing. What can I say? I was young and stupid, and thought the Bomb Squad and Marle Marl created the world. To get a listen from me, you had to run game--think George Michael who half my hood thought was black. We couldn't get cable in the city, and so we missed a lot of videos. (Hell, even Madonna got cut off, post "Get Into The Goove.")

    Kenyatta, who did listen to a lot of white 80s acts, was saying how much of the stuff I'm digging today is derived from her childhood. I can vaguely hear that. But not really. The YYYs offer a shot at redemption, a chance at forgiveness for that imaginary black kid who I mocked as white because he dug Flock Of Seagulls. Forgive me Derwin. Everyone else, cop It's Blitz. Derwin already has it.

  • Tell Us How You Really Feel, Rod

    Hilzoy pulls out this amazing nugget from a Dreher post on homosexuality:

    If homosexuality is legitimized -- as distinct from being tolerated, which I generally support -- then it represents the culmination of the sexual revolution, the goal of which was to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth. It is to lock in, and, on a legal front, to codify, a purely contractual, nihilistic view of human sexuality. I believe this would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human. And I fully expect to lose this argument in the main, because even most conservatives today don't fully grasp how the logic of what we've already conceded as a result of being modern leads to this end.

    There are these moments when, even during polite dialouge, you have to concede that you aren't living in the same world as other people. I'm at one of those moments. The idea that two gay cats marrying "would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human" leaves me flabbergasted. I thought "Rock Of Love" took care of that. But again we see a social conservatism that defines itself by a stigma of others, by an insistence that it has monopoly on what it means to be human, that the world would be a better place if we had more Ted Haggards, not less.


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