Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and the forthcoming book We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War

    29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops in formation near Beaufort, South Carolina, 1864 Library of Congress

    On Monday, the retired four-star general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asserted that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This was an incredibly stupid thing to say. Worse, it built on a long tradition of endorsing stupidity in hopes of making Americans stupid about their own history. Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along.

    For the past 50 years, some of this country’s most celebrated historians have taken up the task of making Americans less stupid about the Civil War. These historians have been more effective than generally realized. It’s worth remembering that General Kelly’s remarks, which were greeted with mass howls of protests, reflected the way much of this country’s stupid-ass intellectual class once understood the Civil War. I do not contend that this improved history has solved everything. But it is a ray of light cutting through the gloom of stupid. You should run to that light. Embrace it. Bathe in it. Become it.

    Okay, maybe that’s too far. Let’s start with just being less stupid.

    One quick note: In making this list I’ve tried to think very hard about readability, and to offer books you might actually complete. There are a number of books that I dearly love and have found indispensable that are not on this list. (Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America immediately comes to mind.) I mean no slight to any of those volumes. But this is about being less stupid. We’ll get to those other ones when we talk about how to be smart.

    1) Battle Cry Of Freedom: Arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography, James McPherson’s synthesis of the Civil War is a stunning achievement. Brisk in pace. A big-ass book that reads like a much slimmer one. The first few hundred pages offer a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people. Read this book. You will immediately be less stupid than some of the most powerful people in the West Wing.

    2) Grant: Another classic in the Ron Chernow oeuvre. Again, eminently readable but thick with import. It does not shy away from Grant’s personal flaws, but shows him to be a man constantly struggling to live up to his own standard of personal and moral courage. It corrects nearly a half-century of stupidity inflicted upon America by the Dunning school of historians, which preferred a portrait of Grant as a bumbling, corrupt butcher of men. Finally, it reframes the Civil War away from the overrated Virginia campaigns and shows us that when the West was won, so was the war. Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge. Stupid doesn’t stand a chance.

    3) Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee: Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of Lee, through Lee’s own words, helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee—chiefly that he was, somehow, “anti-slavery.” It dispenses with the boatload of stupid out there which hails the military genius of Lee while ignoring the world that all of that genius was actually trying to build.

    4.) Out of the House of Bondage: A slim volume that dispenses with the notion that there was a such thing as “good,” “domestic,” or “matronly” slavery. The historian Thavolia Glymph focuses on the relationships between black enslaved women and the white women who took them as property. She picks apart the stupid idea that white mistresses were somehow less violent and less exploitative than their male peers. Glymph has no need of Scarlett O’Haras. “Used the rod” is the quote that still sticks with me. An important point here—stupid ideas about ladyhood and the soft feminine hand meant nothing when measured against the fact of a slave society. Slavery was the monster that made monsters of its masters. Compromising with it was morally bankrupt—and stupid.

    5.) The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: The final of three autobiographies written by the famed abolitionist, and my personal favorite. Epic and sweeping in scope. The chapter depicting the bounty of food on which the enslavers feasted while the enslaved nearly starved is just devastating.

    So that should get you to unstupid—but don’t stop there. Read Du Bois. Read Grant’s own memoirs. Read Harriet Jacobs. Read Eric Foner. Read Bruce Levine. It’s not that hard, you know. You’ve got nothing to lose, save your own stupid.

  • AP

    Civil-Rights Protests Have Never Been Popular

    Activists can’t persuade their contemporaries—they’re aiming at the next generation.

  • ‘It’s Impossible to Imagine Trump Without the Force of Whiteness'

    Ta-Nehisi Coates explores how the 2016 election was a reaction to Obama’s presidency.

  • Jesse Draxler; Photo: David Hume Kennerly / Getty

    The First White President

    The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.

  • Getty Images

    The Lost Cause Rides Again

    HBO’s Confederate takes as its premise an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day: What if the Confederacy wasn’t wholly defeated?

  • Netflix

    How Insightful Is Dear White People?

    Four Atlantic staffers discuss the Netflix show’s portrayal of a group of black students at a mostly white elite university.

  • Barack Obama Is Okay With the Criticism

    The former president explains what it’s like to be both a person and a symbol.

  • On Trump and the Election

    (Editor’s note: Reader questions are in bold, followed by Ta-Nehisi’s replies. The speech above was delivered the day after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.)

    With the election and current political climate, there’s a lot of very understandable gloom and trepidation right now. But is there anything happening in America now that makes you feel optimistic about our future as a society? Any bright spots you would like to see more focus on and draw peoples’ attention to?

    I don’t know. I don’t tend to look for reasons for optimism or pessimism. I think human societies tend to be problematic. And we are just conforming to the rule.

    Trump is very aggressively attacking the credibility of the media. How can the media and journalists best respond to his tactics?

    Not sure they can. Dunno if this is really up to them. Feels like something larger happening. Obviously you can do your job well. But I don’t think, say, The New York Times doing its job well is going to garner them cred among the people who believe Trump is a credible press critic.

    Do you believe in the meme that it was liberal intolerance for conservative views that generated the backlash personified by Trump? Or the related meme that liberals have ignored white heartland people?

    Nah. Trump was polling well back in 2012 in GOP primaries.

    How do you think protest movements are gonna evolve in the next few years to counter the alt-right direction that national politics have taken?

    No idea. But they need to take appropriate measures against the very real possibility of government surveillance and harassment. We’ve done it before. Like, in the life-times of many Americans. No real reason to think it could not happen again.

    What lessons can today’s protest movements take from the civil rights movement, Black Panthers, etc.?

  • On Race Relations

    (Editor’s note: Reader questions are in bold, followed by Ta-Nehisi’s replies. In the video above, he discusses issues surrounding his cover story, “My President Was Black.”)

    After reading you for the last 5+ years or so, and becoming more aware of the racial strains that permeate the U.S. on so very many levels, and realizing that you are so much more aware of these things than I am (from experience and study), I wonder if you despair of Americans ever living together in truly racially peaceful and tranquil society, rather than being riven by racial division, strife, and conflict? Is a real peace—with something approaching fairness and justice—ever going to be on offer in America in your view?

    Nah. I don’t despair. The world is imperfect. Long view of history shows evil triumphing more often than we’d like to admit. That’s just how it is. I don’t despair too much about dying either. It’s just a fact of being human.

    How do you try and communicate that insight to children?

    I talk to them, just like I’m talking here. I’ve never tried to hide anything.

    As a black mother and an advocate for racial equality, I am concerned about your totality of belief that black people will never gain true equality in America. Don’t you think you should use your position in the media to forge alliances and proffer the reality that there are many blacks and whites that seamlessly bridge the gap between the races?

    Nah. I’m a writer. My job is to speak what that which I think is true. If that bridges the gap, that’s good. If it doesn’t, that’s too bad.

    As a Gen-X pundit of repute, what’s the most frustrating gap you see between Boomer and Millennial (and younger, now) activism? Is there something you’d wish both could grasp, but somehow they cannot?

  • On Music and Books

    (Editor’s note: Reader questions are in bold, followed by Ta-Nehisi’s replies.)

    I’ve been listening to Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound album on repeat for a couple days now and it blew my mind when I looked at the credits and realized it was you at talking at the end of “Love Ya.” How did that even happen?

    They asked to sample. I said, sure. It’s a cool album.

    What music have you been grooving to recently?

    Rihanna. Frank Ocean. Kilo Kish. Old Jay-Z.

    What sort of history books, if any, are you reading these days? I loved your discussion of Bloodlands.

    Very slowly making my way through Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction.

    Have you been following Jamelle Bouie’s reading of it at Slate?

    Nah. Gotta stay in my own head.

    I know you’re not much of a football fan these days, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts on (what seems to be) the steadily growing pushback against taxpayer-subsidized stadiums in major cities around the country (including, as of this week, San Diego). Will we see an end to these sorts of deals anytime soon? Should we?

    I actually am back watching. Got pulled back in. Was looking for some part of me that was lost. More on that soon.

    How has your living in France modified your point of view about race and culture, or has it?

    Left me thinking a lot more about the international implications of the twin legacies of colonialism and enslavement. I’m not prepared to say anything definitive. But there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. Things like looking at the reaction of white Southerners to the Civil War, and the reaction of les pieds noirs to the Algerian War.

    Just questions right now, honestly. Nothing certain.

    How’s your French, at this point? Have you tried it out shouting at an American tourist or two?

    Ça avance. Mais la langues étranger sont toujours difficile. Particularmente pour les adults. J'ai une prof privée. Nous rencontrons une fois ou deux fois chaque semaine. Donc, je vais continuer. J'adore français.

    Désolé pour mes faults.

    “Les langues”! C’est pluriel. Bonne continuation!

    Salut!

  • ‘I Miss Blogging, Terribly’

    (Editor’s note: These questions from Atlantic readers—in bold—and replies from Ta-Nehisi were compiled from an “Ask Me Anything” he did with the TAD group on 1/12. In the podcast above, starting at the 114:30 mark, Ta-Nehisi speaks at length about the bygone era of blogging and his writing today. Money quote: “Blogging was real-time, ongoing learning process. That went away. … I didn’t write too much [during the 2016 election] because I didn’t want to take this oracular role. There was no space to try to figure it out. There was no space to think about it.”)

    I have been dying to ask about the new book. Is it by any chance the historical fiction one you’d started oh so long ago? I always thought you had captured some lightning with that one.

    Hi Sandy. Yes. Signed a two book deal. First, is essays. Second is that historical fiction.

    You tweeted earlier this year that you’re focused on book-writing. How much has your process changed as you’ve gotten more attention and a wider audience? How different is your day-to-day process now from the days of The Atlantic blogging and the original Horde?

    Changed a lot. More people looking. Probably more than I’m comfortable with. Much less room to think out loud. So, thinking is much more of a private thing these days. The landscape isn’t really set up for the public act of asking questions.

    It’s cool though. There was a time when I asked questions privately—before I got to The Atlantic. Basically have to go back to that. Maybe that’s as it should be.

    Do you miss blogging? [Atlantic colleague and former Dish editor] Chris B. was lamenting the fall of blogging as a platform for thinking and learning in public and I always found that to be my favorite kind of process to read.

    Yes. Terribly.

    You seem both surprised and a little discomforted by how much attention you got following BTWAM [Between the World and Me] and, obviously, a lot of it was hostile. I remember reading about your Park Slope house purchase and your comments on the whole response to that. How do you manage that? I'm legit just curious about it as someone who feels, y'know, affection for you from your work but also invested in your work and what it adds to the discourse.

    The house was actually in Lefferts-Garden, where I’d rented when my wife, my son and I first moved to New York. Was attached to that neighborhood. Got the house. Neighborhood blog plastered my face up. Realtor talked. And suddenly it wasn’t home anymore. It was performance.

    When you know that people know who you are, you are always working—and not the work you want to do. You are sort of performing, because you know they are looking, or at least glancing at you. Would hate to walk out thinking about that.

    There is something else: People never stop to think about you as an actual person with a family in these situations. I’ve said this publicly now, so it’s no point hiding it. My wife has long had women’s health issues at the core of her mission, specifically reproductive rights. She’s actually in med-school now, and the plan was always for her to be active on that front. When you want to go into that work, and your address is plastered all of the internet, with pictures and floorpans of your house, well … When I talked about “not feeling safe,” it wasn’t just for me.

  • ‘Superhero Comics Are Largely a Response to Trauma’

    Marvel

    (Editor’s note: These questions from Atlantic readers—in bold—and replies from Ta-Nehisi were compiled from an “Ask Me Anything” he did with the TAD group on 1/12.)

    As someone who’s largely a DC [Comics] reader, Black Panther is effectively my first real introduction to the character. What immediately jumped out at me was the dialogue. It feels a bit different from most comic books (in a good way!), and I look forward to seeing what happens in it down the road. Is there any other comic book you’d love to write? Or do you think Black Panther might be it for you?

    I expect to be on Black Panther, or BP-related things, for a while.

    How would you like to see the Black Panther series (and world) grow and change? Any inclusion of other, missing characters? What would they be?

    Want it to get bigger. Much, much bigger.

    When discussing writing Black Panther, you’ve talked about the need to disregard fan opinion on some level to work toward the goal of creating work that will hold up five or 10 years from now. As the stories you’re writing have progressed, has the fan reception of your work changed that outlook for you or confirmed it?

    Still believe it. I don’t want artists making work that they think I want to see. I want them to pull from their heart, and if I love it, I love it. If I don’t, oh well.

    Where does feminism intersect with your work? Does it at all?

    Right now, it’s most prominently in my comic books. I don’t want to blow the story, but basically one of the main threads is a revolution launched against the main character. The facts of sexual plunder, a society ignoring that plunder, and the fact of resistance to it, basically runs through every issue.

    And that is how it’s manifest in its least subtle ways. I think in a lot of other ways, it’s much more subtle, but there. Snuck in an Audre Lorde citation in the last issue.

    I don’t expect everyone to read comic books, so if folks aren’t seeing this, it’s cool. But it is there. Here’s a good summary of the early stuff and the most obvious aspects of it.

    Any specific female writers that you’re engaging with right now? (I so vividly remember the days you were reading Southern Confederate female writers.) Who are the female voices that, I dunno, really speak to you and influence the work you’re doing on the comics? I know that Roxane Gay was tapped to work on the prequels.

  • Ian Allen

    ‘Surprised Like Everybody Else’: Obama on the Election of Donald Trump

    The fourth in a series of conversations between the president and Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • Ian Allen

    'It’s What We Do More Than What We Say': Obama on Race, Identity, and the Way Forward

    The third in a series of conversations between the president and Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • Ian Allen

    ‘Better Is Good’: Obama on Reparations, Civil Rights, and the Art of the Possible

    The second in a series of interviews between Ta-Nehisi Coates and the president

  • Ian Allen

    'The Filter ... Is Powerful': Obama on Race, Media, and What It Took to Win

    The first in a series of interviews between Ta-Nehisi Coates and the president

  • The Making of a Black President

    In a short animation, Barack Obama speaks with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his road to the White House.

  • Ian Allen

    My President Was Black

    A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next

  • On the Right to Know Everything

    Here’s an interesting piece from Hamilton Nolan arguing for a rather expansive journalistic mission. The cause is the recent unmasking of celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante. As most of her fans know, “Elena Ferrante” is (or was) a pseudonym. Nolan believes that the revelation of Ferrante’s real name and identity, against her wishes, is at the core of what journalism is ultimately about:

    The very general proposition of journalism is this: The public has a right to know true things that are important to the public. It is the job of journalists to supply the public with these true things. This broad idea applies in practice not just to the goings-on of government, but to crime, and business, and science, and sports, and the actions of all sorts of people who are famous and/or notorious, either temporarily or permanently.

    There’s a lot here that’s left vague in Nolan’s proposition, beginning with the imagined entity Nolan claims to be advocating for—the public. Nolan neither defines who this “public” is, nor proposes a means for assessing what it takes as  important versus what it takes as trivial. How do we know, for instance, that “the public” really thought it was important for journalists to expose the facts of her life?

    And yet on behalf of this vague entity, Nolan claims expansive powers—the public has the right to know anything it deems “important.” Essentially fame is the forfeiture of basic human and individual privileges in favor of an ill-defined public interest. It’s worth taking this logic to its conclusions. If “the public” wishes to know the identity of a whistle-blower who helped down a corrupt national official, then journalists should reveal it. If the public wishes to know the identity of the woman who accused Nate Parker of rape, then journalists should publish it. If “the public” decides, for instance, that it’s “important” to see the tape that a stalker took of Erin Andrews in her hotel room, then evidently journalists should offer this up too. Nolan offered no exemption for famous children either, so presumably all of their doings are also part of the pot of public knowledge.

    It is certainly true that Ferrante’s identity is “newsworthy”—which is to say some demonstrable and significant number of people would like to know who she is. But “newsworthy,” a term that could be applied to everything from Watergate to sex tapes, lacks the moral force of claiming to act on behalf of the presumed rights of the public. “Newsworthy” describes how journalism works. But it doesn’t engage the complicated, constant ethical dilemmas which journalists face over what to report and what not to report. Nolan claims to be engaging that question, but what he’s actually doing is avoiding the hard work which it entails.

    Admittedly, I’m biased. But I get nervous when I see journalists blithely and casually invoke the right of the public to know, without any attempt to define those terms, their limitations, and their history.

  • Brian Snyder / Reuters

    How Breitbart Conquered the Media

    Political reporters were taken aback by Hillary Clinton’s charge that half of Trump’s supporters are prejudiced. Few bothered to investigate the claim itself.