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.

  • When Richard Holbrooke Met Malcolm X

    Here's a good piece of lost history: In the 1960s Malcolm X enjoyed visiting and lecturing on college campuses.

    Here's a good piece of lost history from All Things Considered. In 1961 Malcolm X came to Brown University at the invitation of the student newspaper, edited by a then 19-year old Richard Holbrooke, and spoke to the campus audience. Ostensibly, Malcolm was supposed to debate a representative of the NAACP, which had spent the previous year pressuring other schools into not allowing Malcolm a platform. At the last minute, the NAACP rep declined to show. 

    That was probably smart. By then, Malcolm had established a reputation as fierce debater. But just to be sure The Nation had stacked the deck by purchasing 250 tickets for members of the Nation of Islam. And so Malcolm held forth alone, and then afterward retired to the student lounge to field questions. Brown student Malcolm Burnley recently found a copy of the speech, which had been lost to time. while researching a project.

    I think it's easy to forget how much Malcolm X actually enjoyed these campus visits, not simply as someone spreading Nation dogma, but as a person who had never enjoyed the constant mental stimulation of a college campus. There are many rewards along the autodidact's road -- but those who hail from a certain socio-economic background often find themselves without fellow travelers and respected interlocutors. My Pops often says that one of the best things about the Black Panthers was that it was the first time in his life he'd been surrounded by thinking, literate, politically-minded young people.

  • A History of Violence

    The Times did a good piece this weekend on the families of murderers and how they so often live in the shame of their loved ones.

    The Times did a good piece this weekend on the families of murderers and how they so often live in the shame of their loved ones. I thought the video, below, which looks at the family of convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner, was most affecting at showing how easy it is to cross the line into criminality once violence and abuse becomes part of a family's culture. 

    By the end of the video, you see the children grappling with their own issues around violence, and their own encounters with the police, and the haunting sense that there is, perhaps, something in their blood.

  • Morning Coffee

    Wu-Tang and the world of word-craft

    In some of my own writing I'm always thinking about how the sound of certain words--meaning aside--leave us with feelings, impressions and evocations.  That is to say how the shape of words make us feel a certain away, regardless of literal definition. 

    Longtime readers will recognize that this thread of the sub-literal, the sonic, is one I've been after for awhile. My most recent thoughts come from my nascent French studies. I don't want to make any broad, sweeping declarations about which is the more beautiful language. I'm not qualified, and hope never to be in that business anyway. But there is something to learning how to say the same thing in different way--sometimes softer, sometimes harsher. Et Alors feels different than "So what." It's a similar feeling, but played with a different drum.

    I'd like to do some serious research on Wu-Tang Clan with this thought in mind. I've been thinking, as always, about Raekwon whose ear for the shape of words, is, to my mind, second to none:

    Hit the cell phone, regulate with well known tone 
    A Wally kingpin, who also slam and strike edition 
    Whattup, Corleone, smoke the bone, Tone phone me 
    Whattup he tried to slang there? Address him with chrome only...
    Switchin Benzes, ten carat nigga with gold lenses 
    Frontin like he's sittin on a lump, he sittin on junk 
    You wanna pull a heist, draw guns in robberies?
    You wanna rock rep, step in yellow Wallabies?

    Beyond research, I'd love to take 20, or so, Wu-Tang verses and break them out into poems. I actually believe--with some thought about structure--they could work on the page. They basically need to be translated, not for literal meaning, but for feeling on the page.

    Literal meaning is overrated.

  • Komen Round-Up

    I haven't blogged about Komen this week, but colleagues have been doing work and I wanted to make sure everyone checked out.

    Goldblog has done some nice reporting here, here, and here

    Megan offers here thoughts here and here.

    And Nicholas Jackson chimes in here.

    Finally, off-site, Think Progress finds the old Bush spin-machine behind an apolitcal mask.
  • Rabbi Crowns Eddie Long King: Intercontinental Champ

    A video made to offend basically every conceivable stratum of this country -- blacks, Jews, Christians, atheists

    The right reverend invites a rabbi of questionable merit to his church, and has himself proclaimed a King:

    A rabbi and Christian scholar questioned Long and Messer, the man who led Long's crowning ceremony. Messer said during the ceremony that the Torah was a "priceless" 312-year-old scroll that had been recovered from the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He said he wanted to honor Long "on behalf of Jewish people, and the land of Israel." Rabbi Hillel Norry of Congregation Shearith Israel in Georgia said the ceremony was "ridiculous." 

    There's no Jewish coronation ceremony where someone is wrapped in a Torah and made a king, he said. "We just don't do that. We treat it with deference," Norry said of the Torah. "It's a shawl, not a crown. Don't treat it that way." 

    Norry said Messer doesn't appear to be an ordained rabbi in the Jewish faith. He also doubts that the Torah that Long was wrapped in is actually 312 years old, and had somehow escaped detection in a concentration camp. 

     "The Torah is the size of a person. It's not like you can hide one," he said.
    This video basically was made to offend every conceivable stratum of this country--blacks, Jews, Christians, atheists--basically everyone. It actually ends with Long lifted aloft on his "throne" by four ushers, while clutching, what appears to be, a championship belt.

    As Professor Blair Kelley said last night on Twitter -- I knew it was wrong from the moment he said "foreskin."
  • Chris Christie and the Nation-State Project


    I'm late on this, but given this blog's focus on history, I'd like to use Chris Christie's remarks to pursue a broader question:

    Christie last week vowed to veto a gay marriage bill if it came to his desk but said proponents have the option to put the matter on the ballot. He added, "People would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South."

    I think this comes from an unfortunate sense that Civil Rights movement was merely about being able to be served a cup of coffee next to white folks. I don't minimize the sit-ins. They had great power--but their power is greater still when you understand that they were a component of a broader strategy to destroy a system of white supremacy. Key to the assault, obviously, was securing the right to vote

    Let me make this as visceral as possible: Many of the actual people who were beaten and killed "in the streets"--Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, for instance--were  attempting to secure the very right which Christie, bizarrely, believes they should have exercised. It's almost as if he doesn't know what the Civil Rights movement actually was. 

    On a broader level, I go back and forth on whether I should be disturbed by the ignorance so many of us display of our own history. I don't mean this in terms of mere dates and rote facts, but in terms of the texture of the thing. (See yesterday's De Tocqueville thread.) In the defense of Americans, can any nation, en masse, come to a deep understanding of itself which eschews mythology? Are the Russians any better in how they see themselves? The French? The Dutch? The Ghanaians? The Kenyans? The Japanese? The paucity of my travels are rather embarrassing, and so I am not fit to answer.

    In his (excellent) book The Substance Of Hope, my friend Jelani Cobb says that "nations are narratives." The point being we tell ourselves a story to make ourselves possible. The story unites us. And I wonder if the problem of African-American History is that it so coldly and cruelly counters the American narrative. I have spent the past two decades thinking about that history and it's ultimately made me more of a believer in the American project, not less of one. But that's a relatively recent development and one at least partially tied to what happened in 2008.

    But with that said, I don't think it's too much to ask those who would consider seeking national office to to be more learned. I don't think it's too much to ask our leaders to understand why Andrew Goodman was lynched.
  • Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

    I came across this brilliant quote while thumbing through Democracy In America:

    It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the public good. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants; by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate; by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it. 

    When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.

    But on going over it a bit more, it became clear that this was in the footnotes and the quote actually belonged to Alexander Hamilton. Nevertheless, the quote serves the point I wanted to make. 

    We live in a time when "democracy" has a totemic power. We take it for granted that government by the people is always best and that if you give the people the franchise good things always happen. In many ways I find that tragic because in having to actually defend your beliefs, I think you gain a deeper appreciation for them. Spending a few weeks last summer reading George Fitzhugh honestly and forthrightly argue for slavery really deepened my understanding of freedom.

    De Tocqueville loves America and is very pro-democracy. But he is writing in an era that isn't and thus is forced to go through all the twists and turns of justifying America to a (I'm assuming) skeptical audience.

    He is forced to do this on the most minute of levels. Here he is, for instance, tackling the question of whether the Constitution erred in allowing the re-election of a president. But to do so he has to fully air the critique, honestly and without weighting the argument:

    Intrigue and corruption are the natural defects of elective government; but when the head of the State can be re-elected these evils rise to a great height, and compromise the very existence of the country. When a simple candidate seeks to rise by intrigue, his manoeuvres must necessarily be limited to a narrow sphere; but when the chief magistrate enters the lists, he borrows the strength of the government for his own purposes. 

    In the former case the feeble resources of an individual are in action; in the latter, the State itself, with all its immense influence, is busied in the work of corruption and cabal. The private citizen, who employs the most immoral practices to acquire power, can only act in a manner indirectly prejudicial to the public prosperity. But if the representative of the executive descends into the combat, the cares of government dwindle into second-rate importance, and the success of his election is his first concern. 

    All laws and all the negotiations he undertakes are to him nothing more than electioneering schemes; places become the reward of services rendered, not to the nation, but to its chief; and the influence of the government, if not injurious to the country, is at least no longer beneficial to the community for which it was created.

    I keep reading this wondering where De Tocqueville was when decided to invade Iraq. The book is--at once--a strong defense of democracy and a case against "nation-building." But more than that it is the kind of civics class I wish I'd been treated to as young man. We had to memorize the branches of government, and that was fine. But the theories behind those branches, not merely checks and balances, and the history out of which they came were not touched on. I had no international context. 

    It would be nice to have kids understand that a functioning democracy isn't particularly "natural" or easy.

    We've kinda got a theme going today...
  • The Invincible Nobility of the Middle Class

    I really don't want to jump on Mitt Romney every time he phrases something inartfully. Talking in front of people is hard. The chance to phrase something wrong comes with every sentence. It is, of course, a good idea when seeking public office to be better at saying what you mean than most civilians. But I'm more interested in the deeper connotations that you hear both from Romney, most Republicans and most Democrats that somehow equates virtue, and I would argue even patriotism, with being "middle class."

    I enjoyed the President's google hangout, the other day, but it was striking how hard he--and his interlocutors--stressed the fact that they were "playing by the rules," "hard-working." and "middle class." As someone with a parent, and siblings, and friends, who were raised in public housing or, at different points, on some sort of other government assistance, I find this framing interesting. My grandmother raised three daughters in Gilmore Homes. You would not have found (rest her soul) a more hard-working, playing by the rules person in any class. My grandmother was the American that so many hard-working/rules-playing citizens believe themselves to be.

    But the implication of a middle-class patriotism holds that the poor do not work hard, and do not play by the rules. Their poverty is a moral stain. It's rather sad to see ostensible progressives reinforcing this message. Perhaps in the case of Obama it's matter of democracy and market. Perhaps he's talking to the people who are most likely to vote.

    Still, for his next google hang-out, it really would be nice if he had someone from the projects or the impoverished regions of Appalachia who "worked hard," I understand that he has to go with the market. But it'd be nice to see him influencing as well as serving the market.

    I'm sorry, but I don't have such expectations for Mitt Romney.
  • Whither the Occupation

    Occupy put the wealth gap on the national radar, but it's doubtful the movement will accomplish anything else

    In the New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg is skeptical about the future of Occupy:

    Nevertheless, as Occupy Wall Street enters its fifth month, dislodged from most of the public spaces it had staked out around the country last fall, the movement seems weakened, its future uncertain. It sometimes appears to be driven by a series of tactics designed to maintain its public presence with no discernible strategy or goal--a kind of muddled, loose-themed ubiquity. The movement has proven adept at provoking media attention, but one may wonder what it amounts to, apart from its ability to reaffirm its status as a kind of protest brand name. Some core organizers are painfully aware of the situation. 

    "When I step out of the Occupy bubble, I discover that people have no coherent idea of who we are. They think we're a bunch of angry kids," Katie Davison told me. Amin Husain, a graduate of Columbia Law School who worked eighteen hours a day in corporate financing and property law before quitting to devote himself to the movement full time, expressed frustration at the fact that people were having trouble "grasping what we stand for..."

    Of course this takes us back to the original critique--a lack of focus and goals:

    Jackie DiSalvo, Occupy Wall Street's labor expert, felt that after the encampment in Zuccotti Park was uprooted "a set of demands was needed, to define the movement to itself, to bind it together." One demand DiSalvo would like to see is for a WPA-like jobs project funded by taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. "But I know it would never pass the General Assembly," she said, referring to the informal body comprised of anyone who showed up that made decisions in Zuccotti Park. She also hoped that OWS would run candidates in 2012, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But again, she admitted, "OWS would never endorse them." 

    In October, a "Demands Group" did spring up among the protesters. When members of the group went public with a few suggestions, the General Assembly attempted to vote them out of existence and by some accounts succeeded. Today, a version of the group exists with 410 members who, according to the movement's website, are "developing the concept of demands" (italics mine). Instead of debating actual demands, they are asking how a group "can create a process where their wants & needs can be communicated."

    Greenberg did succeed in one effort to get some an on the record goal:

    When I asked Amin and Katie what Occupy Wall Street's ultimate goal was, they said, "A government accountable to the people, freed up from corporate influence." It seemed that this pointed to a simple, single demand, something that many in the movement had been seeking since September: a campaign finance law that would ban private contributions and restrict candidates to the use of public money. Several detailed proposals for such a law already existed, including one from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig that, though imperfect, would attack, in Lessig's words, "the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first." 

    As I spoke, I could sense the impatience of my listeners. I wasn't getting the point. Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street's principles. Katie maintained that Occupy Wall Street didn't yet have "a broad enough base" to make such a demand with any reasonable expectation that it could be met. And Amin said, "It doesn't matter what particular laws you pass. We're not about laws."

    I think that's the crux of the problem. There's an argument that the process of federal legislation, at this point, is crippled by deep systemic problems. The filibuster is an obvious example. It's also worth pointing out that there is a space for activism beyond electoral politics.

    But laws exist for a very good reason. They are--roughly put--a compact between citizens and the state detailing the guidelines for governance. Laws--and their alteration or abolishment--are the means by which we change the compact. The alternative, to my mind, is revolution.

    At the end of the piece Greenberg notes that the leadership is seeking to emulate the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. I hope no one told him that directly. If they did, Occupy reflects a poor understanding of that movement's lessons. The Civil Rights movement neither eschewed the hard work of mapping out concrete goals, nor shied away from changing laws.

    The sit-ins were an attempt to desegregate public and private facilities. Segregation was made possible by law. The Civil Rights movement sought the overthrow of those laws and the establishment of new ones. The Voting Rights Act delivered the South out of quasi-feudalism into democracy. People who were alive then will gladly testify that this was a real and historically significant accomplishment.

    To my mind, Occupy's greatest contribution was placing the wealth gap on the radar. But the Civil Rights movement didn't merely seek to put segregation "on the radar."  It sought to end it. To merely highlight the problem, and then to refuse to engage  would have been everything the Civil Rights movement wasn't. It would have been cynical.

    Cynicism wasn't an actual option for John Lewis. I don't know if the same can be said for Occupy. But then they lost me at Trinity.
  • American Socialism

    How valid is the socialist NFL argument?

    Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg brings us an animated argument for football as socialism. She also links to Allen Barra's argument to the contrary, which I find unconvincing. Which isn't to say I couldn't be convinced. I don't really know a lot about baseball's economics beyond the rudiments. I have a feeling I'm about to get an education.

    As an aside, I strongly urge you to visit the blog of any American with a "Von" in their name. So aristocraty...

    Bill Maher - Irritable Bowl Syndrome from Fraser Davidson on Vimeo.


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