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.

  • Mark Twain and Grant's Memoirs

    Why don't we want to believe that Grant wrote his own memoirs?

    I mentioned this in the post below, and it came up over the weekend on Twitter. (We were discussing the most underrated president of all time. Of course Grant came up.) A lot of really intelligent people are under the impression that Grant's lucid prose are really the result of Mark Twain's editing hand.

    I was lucky enough to talk with Aaron Lisec a couple of years ago about this. Lisec is one of the editors of Grant's papers. Here is what he told me:

    Completely baseless. Aside from the consistency with his diction and syntax, much of the manuscript survives, in Grant's hand, and what isn't in his hand is accounted for by letters describing secretaries hired to take dictation. You may know that the Memoirs originated in four articles Grant agreed to write for the Century Magazine, which ran a series on civil war battles told by the generals involved. He had turned down many such offers before, citing laziness, and only agreed after he lost all his money in May 1884, and had to raise funds fast. 

    In Volume 31 of the Grant Papers, we document how he turned in the first article, on Shiloh, and had to be gently told that it sounded like an official report--the editors came down to his summer house in Long Branch and coaxed him into rewriting it in his own voice, with his own observations. You can see how the article changed after that, and how much better the next one was, and about that time he was diagnosed with cancer and decided to turn the whole thing into a memoir, forgoing the last two articles. I could go on, but you get the gist.

    This note means a lot to me because I think the assumption that drunken failure (as he is often depicted in history) like Grant has implications beyond the White House. The beautiful thing about writing is it has no real respect for credentialism. You can get various degrees in writing. (Indeed my initial plan was to get an MFA.) But a degree can't make you a writer in the way that JD can make you a lawyer.

    Great writing comes from all classes people and all kinds of experience. Edith Wharton was raised rich. E.L. Doctorow was not. 

    When I visit schools around the country I consistently repeat this -- not because I think school is worthless, but because, very often, there are kids in the audience who are lost, just as I once was. I don't come there to contravene their education. I don't come there to tell them to drop out. On the contrary, I try to reinforce the ethic of hard work. But they need to know that a grade in a class, is not who they are -- and I would say that whether the grade is an A or an F. I failed English in high school. And then failed British Literature in college. For whatever reason, it simply wasn't my time. But had I taken those grades as an eternal mark, I doubt I would be talking to you now.

    My sense is that people read Grant's writing, hear about the association with Twain and assume that that explains it. But what actually explains is working in a profession in which lives often hung on clear communication. It wasn't abstraction that gave him this:

    It did seem to me, in my early army days, that too many of the older officers, when they came to command posts, made it a study to think what orders they could publish to annoy their subordinates and render them uncomfortable. I noticed, however, a few years later, when the Mexican war broke out, that most of this class of officers discovered they were possessed of disabilities which entirely incapacitated them for active field service. They had the moral courage to proclaim it, too. They were right; but they did not always give their disease the right name.

    It was his lived experience. (And a God-given wit, no doubt.) Grant's life is a great example for young people who, like me, might find themselves lost with little immediate evidence that they will ever find their way. I hate how we have to clean this up by giving credit to Twain. It has echoes of the charges against Frederick Douglass and Obama. We hate that intelligence is so messy, that it would show itself in people we disdain or think we know.

    But the fact that the best writing of the Civil War came from a frontiersman like Lincoln and middling West Point student like Grant is powerful. We should let it be true.

    As an aside, there's also a rather nasty political aspect to the charge that Grant didn't really write his memoirs which Cynic covers here.
  • Writing Is a Practical Skill

    Matt Yglesias defends the liberal arts from a hackish utilitarianism:

    In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications. Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos. 

    If you can compose an email that's 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you're going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who's pretty good at his job and a person who's able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana.

    Allow me to use this instance to turn back to the only subject that matters--the Civil War. 

    All kidding aside, people are often shocked Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs because they communicate with such incredible clarity. Today you can still find people who argue that the real genius behind Grant's writing was Mark Twain. 

    More »

  • The Nirvana That Is NBA League Pass

    How the NBA sucked me back into basketball

    As I've said before, the biggest loss in not having a television--by far--is the loss of live sports. I pretty much stopped following the NBA circa 2008 after cutting the cord. I still read the papers and kept up, but I didn't really watch much basketball. If there's been a paucity of basketball blogging here over the years, it's not because I don't like the game, it's because I haven't really had the means to watch.

    But I subscribed to League Pass this weekend, and picked the perfect time to do it. I actually hadn't seen Kevin Love play until this weekend. I had seen Kevin Durant, but it was really good to see him go unconscious yesterday along with Russell Westbrook. My wife (who's a fan herself) groaned last night after the OKC game, "There literally is basketball every night."

    Yes, dear. Yes there is.

    Long story short. Expect more basketball blogging.

  • The Killing of Ramarley Graham

    When people talk about ending the War on Drugs, or decriminalizing marijuana, or reining in stop and frisk, they are not simply talking about the right of private citizens to get high

    When people talk about ending the War on Drugs, or decriminalizing marijuana, or reining in stop and frisk, they are not simply talking about the right of private citizens to get high, they are talking about the right of private citizens to not be subject to lethal violence at the hands of the state:

    The fatal shot came shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday. Members of the Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, who had pursued Mr. Graham based on a report that he was armed, broke open the door to the second-floor apartment where he lived with his family on East 229th Street, Mr. Kelly said. 

    As the first officer came through, Mr. Graham emerged from the back of the apartment running toward them, then veered into the bathroom, the police said. "Show me your hands! Show me your hands!" the officer yelled, said Mr. Kelly, who cited the account of a second officer who trailed the first officer into the apartment. The police did not release the names of any of the officers. Mr. Graham was black; the officer who shot him is white. 

    Inside the apartment, Mr. Kelly said, the first officer, who was in the hallway outside the bathroom, yelled, "Gun! Gun!" suggesting to the officers behind him that Mr. Graham was armed. "The partner said he then heard a shot," Mr. Kelly said. "It is at that point we believe the shooting officer fired once from his 9-millimeter service firearm." 

     The bullet hit Mr. Graham in the upper chest, striking a lung and his aorta, killing him, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner. Mr. Kelly added that investigators had yet to find evidence that Mr. Graham was armed. 

    "No gun was recovered," the commissioner said. Rather, the police said, a bag of marijuana was found in the toilet, raising the possibility that Mr. Graham bolted to the bathroom to try to dispose of it.

    If you want some sense of the human dimension of what happened here, watch this video. There are now calls for a criminal investigation and charges. I think charges are possible, but a conviction almost extremely unlikely. 

    For all practical purposes, if an officer, pursuing an arrest, believes you have endangered his life, and can demonstrate that belief, he or she can kill you. 

  • 'An Outdated and Ignorant Stereotype'

    What was Max Bretos thinking?

    Heh. SNL goes there, while ESPN fires the anonymous employee who wrote the "Chink In The Armor" headline for Jeremy Lin. It also suspended Max Bretos for using the phrase in an interview with Walt Frazier. I actually am sympathetic to Bretos.

    Making catchy puns is part of writing headlines. Headlines are also written--you actually have to take a moment to think about them. With that in mind, it's really hard to believe that the person who wrote "Chink In The Armor" to describe Lin didn't see the double-entrendre. If they didn't, they shouldn't be writing headlines anyway.

    Bretos's case is a little different. The phrase a "chink in the armor" is often applied to the weaknesses of athletes presumed to be unstoppable--not as a pun off of their name or ethnicity, but as a way to strictly describe a weakness in their game. In text you probably want to avoid that sort of phrase--much as you'd want to avoid referring to a Tiger Woods triumph as a "a black day for Woods' opponents," though it would less egregious than a headline.

    But I think on air is considerably harder. I can easily see how Bretos used that phrase with no ill-intent at all, and he certainly didn't seem like he was going for a pun. My sense is that ESPN is covering themselves. An on-air apology (in Bretos) case probably would have sufficed.

  • Anthony Shadid's Insatiable Curiosity

    My old colleague Bobby Ghosh remembers Anthony Shadid, who sadly passed yesterday, in Syria.

    My old colleague Bobby Ghosh remembers Anthony Shadid, who sadly passed yesterday, in Syria. Bobby recalls one instance when Tony came for dinner at the TIME bureau in Iraq:

    The next morning, I learned that while the rest of us were exchanging war stories, Tony had spent much of the evening chatting with our drivers and security guards, asking them about life in their neighborhoods, what their kids were studying in school, and what they were hearing from relatives in other parts of the country. Our staff marveled at his keen interest in the minutiae of their lives. Raed, our security chief, said, "He was more interested in why my son is studying than I am." 

    But that was Tony's great gift: his insatiable curiosity about -- and deep empathy for -- ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. His journalism was shot through with this quality, enriched by it. Yes, he interviewed heads of state and talking heads, but it was his familiarity with the lives of Iraqis, Lebanese, Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians that made him the best journalist operating in the Middle East.

    Before I started writing professionally, I assumed that those qualities--deep empathy and insatiable curiosity--were essential to a career in journalism. They are not. Indeed, they are quite rare. And this is a real loss.

  • Pat Buchanan Out

    The End Of White America begins with Buchanan's (temporary) exile from the airwaves. Good for MSNBC.

    The End Of White America begins with Buchanan's (temporary) exile from the airwaves. Good for MSNBC. It's amazing he lasted so long. It's worth remembering who Buchanan is:

    Thus, Sotomayor got into Princeton, got her No. 1 ranking, was whisked into Yale Law School and made editor of the Yale Law Review -- all because she was a Hispanic woman. And those two Ivy League institutions cheated more deserving students of what they had worked a lifetime to achieve, for reasons of race, gender or ethnicity.
    Anyway. Can we get some outro music?

  • Please Stop Using Jeremy Lin to Illustrate Your Pet Theories

    If your writing file displays little interest in professional sports, Jeremy Lin is a really bad place to start.

    If your writing file displays little interest in professional sports, Jeremy Lin is a really bad place to start. There are just too many trip-wires. From David Brooks:

    Jeremy Lin is anomalous in all sorts of ways. He's a Harvard grad in the N.B.A., an Asian-American man in professional sports. But we shouldn't neglect the biggest anomaly. He's a religious person in professional sports.

    This is precisely backwards. The fact that Jeremy Lin is "a religious person in professional sports" may well be the least anomalous thing about him, short of him being an actual athlete. As any casual sports fan knows, America's major sports are overrun with God-thanking, Bible-study-convening, Christ-quoting athletes.

    Brooks seems to be aware of this when he says "We've become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach," but that directly contradicts his original point. He then goes on to argue that "the moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith." A sympathetic reading says that the point about Lin being an anomaly was poor-wording on the way to this much more substantive argument.

    Fair enough. But I don't really see why sports is any more in "tension" with the "moral ethos of faith" than a great variety of other human endeavors. I'm not even sure that it is. And if we agree that Lin is, in fact, not an anomaly, then why are we talking about this now? Why not with Tony Dungy? Or Charlie Ward? Or Kareem-Abdul Jabbar? Why now?

    I think we need to clear about something: Jeremy Lin is a human being with the athletic capacity to play, and evidently, excel at professional basketball. That fact differentiates him from the vast majority of the population--regardless of ethnicity. As Stacy said in comments a few days ago--Jeremy Lin is a freak athlete. Like Michael Vick is a freak athlete. Like Wes Welker is a freak athlete. Like Peyton Hillis is a freak athlete.

    Lin's religiosity, it turns out, tends to be fairly common among freak athletes. I'd push it further and (disagreeing with my label-mate Robert Wright) say that the fact that Lin's ability to see the floor in a way that most civilians don't, is also fairly common among freak athletes who excel at playing point-guard. There is a great significance in the fact that Lin is Asian-American--but that significance, I would argue, lies more in what we see, than in what he is.

  • 'We're Going to Have Our Own Tank'

    Why does a town with almost no crime need a $300,000 armored truck?


    Radley Balko highlights my old stomping ground, (sorta) Keene, New Hampshire, the sight of only two murders since 1999, and finds the cops adopting the Lenco Bearcat (pictured above.) I love the logic from the arms merchants:

    Jim Massery, the government sales manager for Pittsfield, Mass.-based Lenco, dismissed critics who wonder why a town with almost no crime would need a $300,000 armored truck. "I don't think there's any place in the country where you can say, 'That isn't a likely terrorist target,'" Massery said. "How would you know? We don' t know what the terrorists are thinking. No one predicted that terrorists would take over airplanes on Sept. 11. If a group of terrorists decide to shoot up a shopping mall in a town like Keene, wouldn't you rather be prepared?" 

    Massery said Keene's anti-Bearcat citizens deliberately mischaracterize how the vehicle would be used, and pointed to incidents he said have saved police officers' lives. "When you see some Palestinian terrorist causing problems in Jerusalem, what do you usually see next? You see a tank with a cannon show up outside the guy's house, and the tank blows the house to smithereens. When a Lenco Bearcat shows up at a crime scene where a suicidal killer is holding hostages, it doesn't show up with a cannon. It shows up with a negotiator. Our trucks save lives. They save police lives. And I can't help but think that the people who are trying to stop this just don't think police officers' lives are worth saving."

    Basically. If you don't buy turn your police force into an army, the terrorists win.

  • Writer Saying Things on Camera

    Here I am talking with Maria Hinojosa for her show One on One. The best thing about this interview is everything you can't see. Maria has the coolest production staff I've ever encountered. I even managed to get a baby-sitter out of the deal.

    Anyway, here I am. Talking. Again.

  • The Cowboy and the Welfare State

    The myth of self-reliance, the idea that we can support ourselves without assistance, is powerful.

    I finally finished Binyamin Applebaum's (that name sounds familiar) and Robert Gebeloff's epic piece profiling an area of Minnesota where people inveigh against the welfare state, despite being inextricably tied to it:

    The government helps Matt Falk and his wife care for their disabled 14-year-old daughter. It pays for extra assistance at school and for trained attendants to stay with her at home while they work. It pays much of the cost of her regular visits to the hospital. 

    Mr. Falk, 42, would like the government to do less. 

    "She doesn't need some of the stuff that we're doing for her," said Mr. Falk, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in North Branch. "I don't think it's a bad thing if society can afford it, but given the situation that our society is facing, we just have to say that we can't offer as much resources at school or that we need to pay a higher premium" for her medical care... 

    He said that his family appreciated the government's help and that living with less would be painful for them and many other families. But he said the government could not continue to operate on borrowed money. 

    "They're going to have to reduce benefits," he said. "We're going to have to accept it, and we're going to have to suffer."

    This kind of thinking reminds me of home. I went to school with a significant number of people who were on some sort of government assistance. The projects were the most obvious, and I suspect that some portion of the violence which characterized them came from the need to control something. The others -- food stamps and welfare, for instance -- weren't generally talked about, for fear of mockery. Indeed, the first retort any black kid of my era learned was "That's why your momma on food-stamps." The other, of course, was "That's why your momma's an African Bush boogie." Not pretty. 

    What you see in both of these insults -- one socio-economic, one racial -- is a kind of self-loathing, a sense of shame. I think of the great Just Ice calling welfare "embarrassing and downright indignant" and a seed of "low self-esteem." I think about Big Daddy Kane describing a woman on welfare as, "the heavyset one with about ten children." I don't have the polling available, but my recollection is that despite the racial aspects of welfare reform, it enjoyed considerable support  in the black community.

    The fact is that black people are Americans, and among all Americans -- and perhaps all humans -- the myth of self-reliance, for better or worse, is powerful. Has it always been this way? Are there some effects from public assistance becoming increasingly racialized? Is it some combination of both? An old self-image mutating with the racial politics of the day?

    I'm not sure. But what I strongly suspect is the sort of shame you see in Mr. Falk's is neither crazy, nor ignorant, nor shocking, once you think about it. We all want to be cowboys. More, we sometimes want leaders who push toward that imagined self, as opposed to our statistical self. 

    As I have always said, this not a matter of voting "against your interest." Your stated interest is in being a cowboy. The way to engage that person is not to condescend to them and assume they just have less information than you. It's to try to get them to game out where cowboy logic leads.

    At the end of Applebaum piece there's a disabled man who identifies as a "conservative" who beautifully demonstrates how that work looks. I won't excerpt it. I hope you guys read the whole thing. It's worth it.


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