Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.
After Pearl Harbor, after Vietnam, after World War II, after the 9/11 attacks, even after civilian disasters like the Challenger explosion or Katrina, there were official efforts, of varying seriousness and success, to find out what had gone wrong, and why, and to yield "lessons learned." That hasn't happened this time, for a lot of reasons.For the Bush Administration, there was no "failure" to be examined and explained. For the Obama Administration, the point was to "look forward not back." People in the media and politics who were against the war know that it can grow tiresome to keep pointing that out.Example: Barack Obama would not be president today if he had not given a speech in Chicago in October 2002, saying that he (as a mere state senator) did not oppose all wars but was against a "dumb" and "rash" war in Iraq. Listen to how he talked in those days! He also denounced "the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne." Because of that speech, six years later Obama could argue that his judgment had been right, and the vastly more experienced HIllary Clinton's had been wrong, about matters of war and peace. But there's no percentage for him in bringing that up now.
[B]y the late 1960s, the system began to falter. Buildings were in such a sorry state that buyers were increasingly likely to put $100 down, make a few months of high payments, and then, overwhelmed by the avalanche of expenses necessary to make their new homes livable, abandon the properties. Without steady contract payments, Lawndale's contract sellers had no intention of continuing to pay their own mortgages.Instead, they defaulted on their loans, dumping hundreds of crumbling, overmortgaged buildings back onto the lending institutions. Since the near-ruined buildings were now worth only a fraction of the original loans, the institutions essentially lost their loan money, amounting to millions of dollars. These losses pushed First Mutual to the point of collapse. Desperate to recoup something, the company offered the buildings for sale, at "rock bottom prices," to whoever would take them.The scavengers who gathered to buy were often the same men who had dumped them in the first place. In one day alone, Moe Forman turned six slums over to First Mutual; five of the six ended up back in his hands, with Gil Balin as copartner. Al Berland dumped approximately sixty buildings onto First Mutual and then repurchased them at a fraction of their former worth.By 1968, First Mutual was out of business, and 659 of its defaulted mortgages--worth $7.8 million--landed with the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), the governmental agency that insured savings and loan deposits. Many of these debts had been owed by Lawndale's worst contract sellers. They included $756,920 in delinquent mortgages owed by Berke, $280,000 by Berland, $502,323 by Forman's F & F Investment company, $28,945 by Forman himself, and $241,658 by Fushanis's estate.
Some observers found it difficult to understand why Forman and his circle were so eager to reclaim the buildings they had so recently shed. "Slums don't pay. If there was a conspiracy, it was stupid," claimed Pierre DeVise, an urbanologist who taught at the University of Illinois in Chicago. In fact, the "stupid" one was probably DeVise. As the Tribune commented, "Such disbelief ... has been the slumlords' greatest ally." For those ruthless enough to stomach the consequences, it was easy to make profits out of buildings for which one paid cash and on which one owed nothing. As Timothy O'Hara pointed out, "If you're not making repairs ... you are making 100 percent profit."However, O'Hara noted a growing trend among slum landlords: to "avoid paying gas bills until your tenants freeze." Leaving one's building without heat during Chicago's winters was of a different order from refusing to fix faulty wiring or broken windows. It indicated a new phase in their operation, in which the goal was not to get money from tenants but to force them out altogether. For tenants, the results could be lethal. After her nineteen-month-old son, Scott, died of pneumonia, Mary Miller told reporters: "We had to huddle together around the stove and pile on coats and blankets. But it didn't do any good." Every time she complained, "the landlady would say 'If you don't like it get out.'" In the winter of 1969, three babies died over a three-week period because their West Side slum apartments had gone unheated. Their deaths confirmed the insight of the Chicago Tribune's investigative reporters, who noted that, "when someone has to die in this shabby shell game played for money, it is usually a child."Slumlords' eagerness to rid their buildings of tenants was part of yet another profit-making scheme. It involved the manipulation of the Illinois Fair Plan, which was established in the aftermath of the 1968 riots to ensure that black neighborhoods were covered by fire insurance. As a result of the Fair Plan, buildings in Lawndale were now insurable for the same amount as those on the city's North Side Gold Coast. Slumlords realized that they could insure their rotting, neglected structures for twenty to thirty times what the buildings were worth. Of course, as one observer noted, they "aren't worth anything unless you burn them"--but if you didn't mind arson, then "even an abandoned building could be turned into a $60,000 windfall."Al Berland didn't mind. By August 1970, fires had broken out in forty-seven of his buildings and he had collected $350,000 in insurance. In one case, a tenant saved the lives of his four children by dropping them one at a time from a second-floor window. In another, Berland and Wolf were observed entering a property they owned at 715 South Lawndale "carefully" carrying some liquid in a bucket. The two men left "in a hurry" and shortly thereafter the building went up in flames. Later that day the police found Berland at his paint store, still wearing the clothing described by a witness. The witness later withdrew from the case "after his car caught fire mysteriously in front of his home." Chicago police sergeant John Moore, an arson expert, said that in his department Berland was known as "a torch."
Bonjour la famille d'xxxxx. Comment allez-vous? Je suis Ta-Nehisi Coates. Je crois que je resterai à chez vous pour quatre jours. Je voudrais vous remercier pour votre hospitalité. Mon français n'est pas bien. Mais, j'adore le langue et j'espère l'apprendre. Donc, quelque chose ne le sujet de moi. Je m'appelle Ta-Nehisi. Je suis américain. J'habite à New York avec ma femme Kenyatta et mon fils Samori. (J'envoye un photo de ma famille aussi.) J'ai 37 ans et je suis en écrivain. J'aime leer, regarder le film et courir (faire du jogging.)Et je pense que c'est toute. Merci beaucoup pour toute le chose. Excusez mon français s'il vous plait. Merci beaucoup.
First, when men register their thoughts wrong by the inconstancy of the signification of their words; by which they register for their conceptions that which they never conceived, and so deceive themselves. Secondly, when they use words metaphorically; that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for, and thereby deceive others. Thirdly, when by words they declare that to be their will which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another: for seeing nature hath armed living creatures, some with teeth, some with horns, and some with hands, to grieve an enemy, it is but an abuse of speech to grieve him with the tongue, unless it be one whom we are obliged to govern; and then it is not to grieve, but to correct and amend.
By this it appears how necessary it is for any man that aspires to true knowledge to examine the definitions of former authors; and either to correct them, where they are negligently set down, or to make them himself. For the errors of definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds, and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoid, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lies the foundation of their errors. From whence it happens that they which trust to books do as they that cast up many little sums into a greater, without considering whether those little sums were rightly cast up or not; and at last finding the error visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to clear themselves, spend time in fluttering over their books; as birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.So that in the right definition of names lies the first use of speech; which is the acquisition of science: and in wrong, or no definitions, lies the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senseless tenets; which make those men that take their instruction from the authority of books, and not from their own meditation, to be as much below the condition of ignorant men as men endued with true science are above it. For between true science and erroneous doctrines, ignorance is in the middle. Natural sense and imagination are not subject to absurdity. Nature itself cannot err: and as men abound in copiousness of language; so they become more wise, or more mad, than ordinary. Nor is it possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs) excellently foolish. For words are wise men's counters; they do but reckon by them: but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.
@tanehisi Only a mood in English, but it is used with dreams, doubts, wants and possibilties. It's why ppl say "if I were" instead of "was."-- Erin (Q.) Hinson (@myriare) March 1, 2013
To help with understanding the subjunctive, my French instructor has started giving me these "Subjonctif ou Indicatif" quizzes. The subjunctive is the terror of French students. You can go through any of my French posts and find people generally lamenting their ability to master the subjunctive. Part of the problem is that the subjunctive mood very much seems like a "mood." In other words, as much as it carries literal information, it seems like the subjunctive also emotes. Likely other moods also emote information (hence the point in calling them moods)
As someone who began his career in poetry, and is constantly telling his kids that language must carry both emotional and literal information, I love the subjunctive. It's like this dark, mysterious, achingly beautiful stranger. Which is different from saying I've mastered or I totally understand it. Mastery isn't the point. This is language study and study--in and of itself--is rewarding.
Part of the problem is that we think of foreign language as something to be conquered, or completed. We grade people in foreign language classes. The 'net is filled with sites that make claims like "Speak Fluent In French In Three Months!!!!" Everyone--including me--wants to know how long it will take to be fluent. But yesterday my French instructor told me there is no fluency, even she isn't "fluent." This is a person who speaks beautiful, beautiful French. Her point isn't that there is no literal "fluency" but that this isn't the best way to think about language study.
So these "Subjonctif ou Indicatif" quizzes are really about "study." They are about learning how the language feels. This isn't to say there aren't rules--there are. But the rules aren't enough. You have to try to understand the intent of the speaker, and then pick a form that best matches that. This is really just the essence of writing. It's not just matching words to thoughts, but finding words and ordering them in such a way so that they carry the full range, the full body and all the color of thoughts. "Subjonctif ou Indicatif" is basically what I try to do every day. I am amazed, and depressed, that it took me this long to get into foreign language.
As I said in comments on Monday, I think Eva14 pretty much offers up the most trenchant critique of The Atlantic not paying for freelance work:
...the company has been in the news as posting growing profits as a result of its web set-up. I don't generally applaud corporations that expand their profitability by shifting from low-paid workers to unpaid workers, do you?
I don't know how much of a shift there's been, but that's beside the main point. The Atlantic is now profitable, and we have been very happy to tell other media outlets that this is the case. It strikes me as fair to then ask by what means that profit has been attained. I've said in comments that "work for free" content doesn't actually drive traffic. But clearly it does something, because otherwise we would not use it. The spectacle of a major magazine achieving its profitability, in any part, by not paying freelancers for work on the Internet should concern its readers.
Let us take this out of the theoretical. I am implicated in this. As I've said before, I've asked several people over the years to guest-blog here. The work that they put in generally took longer than the work Thayer was asked to put in. I never once offered to pay them. I just went through my emails to check, and it never even came up.
They were not all academics with institutional support, a frequent argument for not paying writers. Some of them were freelancers like my friend Brendan Koerner, or artists like my buddy Neil Drumming. Others were commenters here, Breakerbaker or Andy Hall. And they worked for free, turning out excellent work. Yes, they were commentators, not shoe-leather reporters: "reporting" seems to have talismanic effect over the consciousness. But labor is labor. If you have a problem with Thayer not being offered monetary payment for his labor, then you should have a problem with every guest post you've ever seen on this blog.
And having discovered that you have a problem, you should think about how we might make things better. I would strongly urge you against the idea of nostalgia. It is not at all clear to me that the past was better. First, there are all kinds of ways I can make you work for free. I can sign you up to a contract for very little money (say ten cents a word) and then tell you I won't pay until the month after publication. I can then "forget" to send your check and make it so you won't be paid until you spend a great many hours effectively as a bill collector. You will then have to decide what is worth more to you -- the three or four hundred dollars I owe you, or the time you will spend chasing me to get it. And this is to say nothing of reimbursing you for expenses.
What I just described is very real situation of magazines in the past. There were (and are) magazines that existed seemingly wholly by not paying writers. And it's not always the case that the writers regard those magazines as vampires. When I freelanced for the Washington Monthly, I was told by an editor that checks were not cut unless the writer specifically called for his or her money. The thinking was that the Monthly was fighting the good fight, and many of the people writing for them weren't actually doing it for the money. At the time, that was generally true. The Monthly was one of the few outlets doing really good reported opinion journalism. And it was always struggling to stay afloat. As it happened, I needed whatever checks I could get. But I never held their payment policies against them.
That was at a time when I was still completely a creature of print, and the Monthly was the only place that really allowed me to do what The Atlantic allows me to do now. When my friend Prince Jones was killed, it was the Monthly that gave me space to take a hard, reported look at the police department. It was the Monthly that gave me its cover to consider the decline of Louis Farrakhan as a political force. The New Republic would not have done that. No other magazine I pitched was at all interested in anything about Farrakhan, beyond his anti-Semitism. They just did not care.
Which is to say something more -- they did not care about the political and cultural imagination of black people. They didn't care not because they were evil or scheming to keep black people out. They didn't care because they could not afford to care, or had decided they could afford not to. Magazine editors who agree to pay agree to invest in your thoughts and conception -- both when those thoughts and conceptions are rooted in reporting, and when they are not. When you bring them stories from a world they do not know, and when you are a writer in your 20s they do not know, there's very little upside in their investing in you or your ideas.
Theoretically, paying people to write is not just a moral good but a service to your publication. A budget forces editors to think hard about what they publish, since every article is an investment of resources. But in the crush of deadlines and work, there is great pressure to simply go back to the well of those you know can deliver. When I came into this business, those who could deliver were almost always white -- or those who got the chance to show that they could.
The vast, vast majority of magazine editors then were white. Before I placed my Bill Cosby story here, it was rejected by a major magazine. The magazine editor told me that the top editor would only want the piece if it was "a big-picture, intellectual take by someone like Skip Gates."
This note was written by someone who was actually advocating on my behalf. The person was not filled with animus, or a desire to prevent me from writing for the publication. The editor's job was to convince the top editor to invest in me and my vision of Bill Cosby. The top editor was only willing to do that if the investment was made in someone the magazine knew -- such as Henry Louis Gates. (You may also see in this why I don't want to be anyone's HNIC. Ever. I don't ever want my name raised in any conversation like that.)
Two things helped me break through. The first, being vouched for by someone in a position of power who had a relationship with someone else in a position of power. I met that person when costs of investment were low: I worked for David Carr at a rate of $100 dollars a week and ten cents a word for anything I published. The first summer I worked for him, I made $1,700. I did not consider myself underpaid. This was 1996. The New Republic had just told the world that black people had evolved to be stupid, and it seemed like every week they were saying something just as racist. I was at Howard University, surrounded by a community of brilliant black people, cut off from the Ivies. None of them had the contacts or the resources to reply. They just had to take it. I can't tell you how much that angered me. I was made in that moment. And when I got my first break in writing, I didn't think about being ripped off. I thought about whipping ass. I haven't changed.
The second thing was the destruction of the monopoly on publication by gate-keepers. When Yglesias wrote me, I didn't care a whit about payment. I cared about a world wherein writers wrote stories like this, and no black people were around to answer. Matt didn't have to ask himself whether I was worth investing in. He just had to like what I did. What we call "paying for work" in magazines is certainly that. But for those of us trying to break in, it also meant a system of soliciting sponsorship rooted in a finite budget. In order for me to fight with people, some white male had to believe enough to put up funds. Matt didn't have to put up any funds. And now everyone got to fight. Some of the writers I most admire -- Jamelle Bouie, Adam Serwer, Gene Demby -- advanced themselves, in part, by writing for free in the form of blogging. These people are warriors. And fifteen years ago -- under the system that is so lustily praised -- they would not have existed.
When I came to The Atlantic, I saw guest-posting as an opportunity, not just for black writers but for anyone who had something to say and had found themselves foiled by the sponsorship system. They too deserved to fight.
I am not saying that this is a perfect, or even ideal, system. On the contrary, an ideal system would be one in which people's labor was paid for -- regardless of color, regardless of whether they are writing "commentary" or "reporting," regardless of whether they are established or not. It would be paid for because their ideas deserve to be heard.
What I am asking you to do is to avoid an appeal to a more noble past. I lived there. It wasn't noble. It was fucked up. Like right now is fucked up. When you ask me to show solidarity with writers who aren't being paid, you should also ask yourself what solidarity white magazine writers have shown over the years with struggling black writers who could not break in. You are appalled that Nate Thayer was once offered $125,000 to write for The Atlantic, and was then offered nothing. Fair enough. Are you equally appalled that there were virtually no black writers who could have gotten the same deal?
Over the past few days, I have been told that I am the "exception," that I "won the lottery." No one thinks that Thayer won the lottery when he was offered his contract. No one sees the compromised ground underneath. I am sorry this new world is not fair. I am all for doing something to make it more fair. But while we are doing so, remember something: The old world was never fair. It was war.
I am, indeed, an exception to the rule. But not the rule you think.
The film, fresh from Sundance and having its television premiere Friday night on Showtime, is a sturdy but ultimately stifled exercise in the most polite methods of interrogation -- to which its subject is entirely immovable and not prepared to surrender anything, even a smile. The lone artistic move in "The World According to Dick Cheney" is to hire actor Dennis Haysbert as narrator -- the voice of Allstate insurance, presently, but, more important, the fictional president of the earliest seasons of Fox's "24," a show that absorbed some of our culture's excess panic attacks about counterterrorism, torture and general millennial doom. Here, Haysbert's voice is a nostalgic touch in a film that badly needs any help it can get to keep the viewer engaged.
Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can't pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that's not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested. Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.
I don't need the exposure. What I need is to pay my fucking rent. Exposure doesn't feed my fucking children. Fuck that!" he continued, adding that he can't even afford to get online. "I actually stick my fucking computer out the window to use the neighbor's Internet connection. I simply can't make a fucking living."
"I understand the position she is in and I do not know her and I am sure she is simply doing her job," said Thayer. "I would reject such a position on ethical and moral grounds, personally, which is maybe why I'm broke."
Hey -- we don't know each other, but I've been reading and enjoying your blog since I read your great Bill Cosby piece in the Atlantic and I saw I'm on your blog roll, so I figure you probably know who I am and I might as well reach out. In part, just to say that I like your blog, but more selfishly because I'm trying to put together an elite roster of guest-bloggers to help me out the week of Memorial Day (May 27-30) when I'll be on vacation. The idea is to get a bunch of people so that nobody in particular is expected to produce much volume. I'm not in a position to offer any compensation, but I think it is a good opportunity for a newer site to get introduced to a wider audience and build traffic, and self-promotional posts about a new book aren't out of bounds.What do you say?matt
I say I'd love to do it, but I need a day to juggle some things and make sure I can. My main concern is I've got a couple pieces do right around then, and I need to make sure I'm not over-committing. You and Andrew post a TON, whereas a good day for me is probably, five or six posts. What would you be looking for from each person, in terms of daily post rate? And wouyld I be able to cross-post from my blog or would you want exclusivity?
The compensation is a non-issue for me.
"As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community."
"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."
During the hot summer of 1882, the installation of the new moon towers became its own kind of brilliant spectacle. People gathered to witness the building of structures that represented Progress and Ingenuity and, in a very real sense, The Future. They also gathered to witness some drama. Since electrical engineers were just learning their trade -- that trade, in Detroit's case, being the erection of 150-foot-tall poles anchoring 500 pounds worth of lights -- accidents were, perhaps, inevitable. And falling towers -- thin metal, plus gravity -- had an uncanny way of slicing through roofs as they toppled toward the ground.The light itself, though, was the true attraction. It was, as Brush had guaranteed, "picturesque and romantic," one observer put it. Within the glow of the manmade moons, "the foliage is weird and beautiful. All places within the scope of light are bathed in the faint but fairy-like illumination of the moon in its first-quarter."But not all of the crowds were excited about the new buildings studding their town's landscape. On the contrary, "many Detroiters," Freeberg writes, "were skeptical from the start." Some found the towers to be eyesores, each structure braced with a chaotic network of wires and posts. (One man even tried to chop down the wires that hung near his home, an act of civic-cosmetic rebellion for which he was arrested.) The lights also brought unanticipated complications along with their steady illumination. Animals, for one thing, were unaccustomed to the newly extended daytime. Chickens and geese, unable to sleep in this new state of omnipresent light, began to die of exhaustion.Humans, too, found the high-slung orbs to be as disorienting as they were ethereal. As tall as the towers were, they still left shadows in their wake -- shadows tinged with sharp blue light, Freeberg notes, which left pedestrians "dazed and puzzled." Foggy evenings, combined with the air pollution of a newly industrialized America, could thrust all of Detroit into effective darkness -- meaning, Freeberg writes, that "Detroiters could only speculate about the lovely sight that their lights must be creating as they shone down on the blanket of mist and soot that smothered the city." Even during occasions when the fog broke enough to allow some light to penetrate to the streets below, "many found themselves groping along sidewalks in an eerie gloom."
Using even more formal means, in 1968 a Boston rabbinic court, or beit din, forced three brothers -- Israel, Joseph and Raphael Mindick -- to make repairs to their buildings. When the Mindicks failed to comply with the initial ruling, the beit din took action again. In their book "The Death of an American Jewish Community," Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon recount: "Tenants in twenty of the brothers' buildings went on a rent strike that winter, charging that the landlords had failed to live up to the terms of the rabbinic court's agreement. The rabbis concurred and slapped the Mindicks with a $48,000 fine to be distributed among the affected tenants."Just three years later, another Boston rabbi, the newly ordained Daniel Polish, publicly confronted Jewish slumlord Maurice Gordon, a prominent member of the Boston Jewish community. Speaking at a protest against an Israel Bonds event honoring Gordon, Polish said:Our gut instinct is to come to the defense of any of our own who are criticized or attacked for whatever reason....It is no accident that the office of Bonds of Israel and Capital for Israel Incorporated and the Development Corporation for Israel are all located in the building at 141 Milk Street, a building owned by Maurice Gordon. And it is no accident that these organizations, along with others in the Jewish community, have repeatedly showered this 'philanthropist' and his family with honor and distinction. ... It is time the Jewish agencies severed their dependence on, and desisted from honoring and elevating men whose values are in explicit conflict with the Jewish people and whose conduct can only be described as contemptible.It has now been four decades since the rabbis of Boston took action, and almost two years since the Madoff scandal rocked the Jewish world. Have we learned anything? Will Jewish organizations continue to accept donations from landlords whose wealth comes at the expense of guaranteeing safe living conditions for their tenants? Will these landlords continue to be accorded positions of honor in their Jewish communitiess? Or are we finally ready for teshuvah?
At 37, Mr. Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States. His Atlantic essays, guest columns for The New York Times and blog posts are defined by a distinct blend of eloquence, authenticity and nuance. And he has been picking up fans in very high places.
"[Saddam] is a threat. He's a murderer and a thug. There's no doubt we can do this. We're stronger; he's weaker. You're looking at a couple weeks of bombing and then I'd be astonished if this campaign took more than a week. Astonished."
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Pardon my French
As a candidate, Barack Obama said we needed to reckon with race and with America’s…