Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a former national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, We Were Eight Years in Power, and The Water Dancer.
  • 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.

  • Photo collage by Jeff Elkins*

    What O. J. Simpson Means to Me

    His great accomplishment was to be indicted for a crime and then receive the kind of treatment typically reserved for rich white guys.

  • Brian Snyder / Reuters

    Hillary Clinton Was Politically Incorrect, but She Wasn't Wrong About Trump's Supporters

    Clinton said half of Donald Trump’s supporters were prejudiced. If anything, her numbers are too low.

  • Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

    The Near Certainty of Anti-Police Violence

    By ignoring illegitimate policing, America has also failed to address the danger this illegitimacy poses to those who must do the policing.

  • The Mighty and Adored

    Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Stelfreeze…

    When I took on Black Panther last year, one Wakandan institution that really interested me was the Dora Milajae—the all-female troop of bodyguards to the King and potential wives. My misgivings about them and their portrayal are a matter of record. But you can’t just walk into a comic book and disregard everything you have misgivings about without really violating the soul of the book itself. You can however look at those things from another perspective.

    What we really tried to do is depict the Dora Milajae—as much as possible—from their own perspective, and not from T’Challa’s. When writing and drawing them, we tried not to think so much about what T’Challa sees—or what the average male comic fan wants to see—but to imagine what the characters, themselves, would see. We really wanted them to have their own interior lives and motives, independent of T’Challa.

    Costuming is so important in comics and while Brian hit early on with a cool Midnight Angel costume, we didn’t really think as much about the broader order of the Dora Milajae. But last week Brian sent in a fantastic cover sketch that forced us to start thinking harder about it. Basically the cover featured the Doras in their old school uniforms and we both wanted something that better reflected their own self-regard, their own form and function as warriors. I had no idea what this might look like. I sent some vague notes about “something that mirrors the Midnight Angels—but maybe lighter.” I wanted to be as if the Midnight Angels are wearing plate-mail, I imagine the Doras in some sort of chain-mail. If the Midnight Angels were paladins, then the Doras were our rangers.

    The image above—which I think is just incredible—is Brian’s breathtaking response. There are all sorts of opportunities for weaponry and defense in these suits that we will be employing. I have to say that working with both Brian and Black Panter’s colorist, Laura Martin, has just been incredible. It’s never been the case for me, as a storyteller, that I had two people who could take a notion I had in my head, run with it, remix it, clarify it, color it and then make it their own.

    It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.

  • Wakanda and the Black Aesthetic

    Black Panther #3 drops today and I thought I’d say something about the poetry that both opens and closes the book. The poem we used is Henry  Dumas’ “Rootsong.”  I first encountered this piece during one of my many study sessions with the poet Joel Dias-Porter. This would have been somewhere around 1995 or 1996. Joel is a tremendous poet in his own right, but at that point (and perhaps even today) he was mentoring a whole crop of young writers—Terrence Hayes, Yona Harvey, Jelani Cobb—who happened to be in the DC area. Terms like “study session” and “mentor” make all of this sound more formal than it was. Usually it was a crew of us at a restaurant or a cafe discussing anything from sports to politics to poetry. At one of these sessions, Joel whipped out a collection of Dumas’ work and turned to the poem “Rootsong.” What stunned me about the poem is how it used black myth to construct a narrative of the diaspora before and after colonialism and enslavement:

    Once when I was tree
    flesh came and worshiped at my roots.
    My ancestors slept in my outstretched
    limbs and listened to flesh
    praying and entreating on his knees.

    There is an Edenic, utopian quality to Dumas’ depiction of precolonial Africa. “Rootsong” always struck me as romance—not so different from the kind of romance than you’d see in Marvel’s Thor. Poetry is a natural cousin to comic books. Comic book writing, like poetry, requires a ruthless efficiency with words. The art is the hero and if I may say so myself, the art in Black Panther #3—particularly in the pages using “Rootsong”—is heroic.

    Dumas was killed at the age of 34 by New York city transit cop. But his legacy endures through the strivings of the poet Eugene Redmond and the great Toni Morrison. It was Redmond who posthumously edited Dumas’ poems into a book. It was Morrison, then an editor at Random House, who ultimately published them. At the time she wrote of Dumas:

    In 1968, a young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station. A transit cop shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.

    That Dumas wrote the words, that Morrison and Redmond made it possible to read those words, that I was exposed to those words during my tenure at the Mecca, and that those influenced my own words points to the deep and enduring power of tradition and lineage. Indeed as an atheist, tradition and lineage are the closes thing I have to any notion  of afterlife. The work outlives us, and the work exerts power long after we are gone.

    I hope you feel that power in Black Panther #3.

  • 'A Species of Labor We Do Not Want'

    One of the early triumphs of Black Reconstruction In America is the way its author, W.E.B. Du Bois, is able to offer a cogent class analysis of the antebellum economy, without flattening the difference between different types of “degraded” labor. In Du Bois’s time, and even occasionally in our time, intellectuals would often claim that slave labor was ultimately no worse than free labor. “One-half of them prefer hiring their servants for life, and the other half by the hour,” claimed Thomas Carlyle.  More to the point, while workers in the North enjoyed no guaranteed support and thus were “free to starve,” in the South the enslaver assumed responsibility for clothing and feeding the enslaved. The enslaved were awarded shelter, rudimentary health care, and cared for in old age. In many respects (so the argument went) the black slave was advantaged over the white “wage slave.” This argument found traction among slavery’s apologists and even some left radicals in the 1830s.*

    When labor activist George Henry Evans explained to abolitionist Gerrit Smith his opposition to emancipation, he noted:

    I was formerly, like yourself, sir, a very warm advocate of the abolition of slavery. This was before I saw that there was white slavery. Since I saw this, I have materially changed my views as to the means of abolishing Negro slavery. I now see, clearly, I think, that to give the landless black the privilege of changing masters now possessed by the landless white would hardly be a benefit to him in exchange for his surety of support in sickness and old age, although he is in a favorable climate. If the Southern form of slavery existed at the North, I should say the black would be a great loser by such a change

    Du Bois was having none of it:

    ...there was in 1863 a real meaning to slavery different from that we may apply to the laborer today. It was in part psychological, the enforced personal feeling of inferiority, the calling of another Master; the standing with hat in hand. It was the helplessness. It was the defenselessness of family life. It was the submergence below the arbitrary will of any sort of individual. It was without doubt worse in these vital respects than that which exists today in Europe or America.

    Above all it was the fact of being vended like oxen that separated the condition of the enslaved from the oppressed worker—“No matter how degraded the factory hand,” writes Du Bois. “He is not real estate.”

    And yet having teased out the difference, Du Bois does not lose sight of the ways the slave society injured the prospects of poor non-slaveholding whites in the South. The slave system depressed wages and ensured unemployment—why pay a white person to do a job that an enslaved black person is bound to do for free?Enslaved blacks worked in nearly every capacity in the South, from field-hand to artisan leaving white labor to “compete” with enslaved blacks for jobs and wages. But there was no competition on account of slavery. The only real restraint was the supply of enslaved blacks, and slaveholders tried to alter even that by pushing to re-open the slave trade. “If we cannot supply the demand for slave labor,” asserted the governor of South Carolina in 1856. “Then we must expect to be supplied with a species of labor we do not want.” That would be poor whites.

    Big slaveholders feared the white labor movement emerging much to the detriment of the slaveholder. From the Charleston Mercury in 1861:

  • M. Osterreicher / ESPN Films

    O.J. Simpson and the Counter-Revolution of 1968

    Thoughts on the first episode of ESPN’s five-part documentary

  • 'But This Latter Person, I Am Not Trying To Convince'

    One of the best parts of the old blogging system, here, was the ability to talk about what I was reading at the time. I think I’m going to try to bring some of that back.

    I’ve read a lot over the past year or so (though less than previous years) and there’s a lot I want to talk about: Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming (inspiring in its generational ambition), Laurent DuBois’s Avengers of the New World (history of the Haitian Revolution, an idea some 200 years ahead of its time), John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (conservative and romantic in every way that I love), Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow (so intense, and this story never lets you take a break—oddly reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road), William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution (great primer for anyone starting—as I was—with just the barest knowledge of the French Revolution.)

    But those are things I’ve already read, or, in the case of Black Widow, ongoing things which I’m in the process of reading. Right now my eye is trained on a book that my historian friends have been demanding I read for the past few years—W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction In America. I just started yesterday, and already I can see why the book has so many fans in the academy.

    Over the past 40 years or so, there’s been a movement among some American historians to put white supremacy at the center of their field of study. Much of my own work, and my current understanding of American history, pulls from these historians—Edmund Morgan, Beryl Satter, Ed Baptist, Thomas Sugrue, Arnold Hirsch, Eric Foner, Barbara and Karen Fields.

  • Bob Costas To Muhammad Ali—"Well Actually..."

    Bob Costas went on national television and made the kind of statement that typifies the ongoing dialogue around racism in this country:

    A lot of what Ali said was profound. Some of it was hyperbolic. When he said that Cassius Clay was a slave name that was ironic because the original Cassius Clay was a white abolitionist who was shot by a pro-slavery guy in Kentucky in the 1840s. Now that doesn’t mean that Ali didn’t have the right to do what he did and didn’t do it for good reasons. But, just to correct the historical record, Cassius Clay was an abolitionist.

    No he wasn’t. The anti-slavery movement in the antebellum period encompassed a wide-range of views—some of them white supremacist, some of them deeply humanist, some of them conservative and some of them radical. Abolitionism was the radical wing of the movement, favoring the immediate and total destruction of slavery. Clay thought that enslavement was a moral evil and bad for his native Kentucky, but, much like George Washington, Clay believed in the gradual freeing of the slaves.

    This is not mere categorical pedantry—Abraham Lincoln and Wendell Phillips aren’t interchangable. Part of why Clay wasn’t an abolitionist was that he was a slave-holder living in the South. At times Clay did the kind of things slave-holders tended to do—like sell people:

    On September, 1843, when his second son, Cassius, Jr., became ill, Emily, the boy's Negro nurse, was suspected of having poisoned him. Although the boy died, no action was taken against Emily until 1845 when another son became ill under similar circumstances. Thereupon Emily was charged with having administered "a deadly poison called arsenide, to wit five grains." Even a pro-slavery jury found the evidence inconclusive and Emily was acquitted. Then Clay aroused a storm of protest by selling Emily, her mother, and a brother under the express provision that they be shipped "down the river."*

    Even as Clay freed those people whom he personally held enslaved on his estate, he “retained in slavery a number of Negroes who were attached to the estate without being his personal property.” When you are black and your namesake is literally a slave-holder, there is nothing ironic about calling it a “slave name.”

    Now, I find Clay heroic. Clay did not ask to be a slave-holder. He was born into slave-holding and, at great financial loss to himself, freed those he personally held in bondage. This was not a small thing—collectively, enslaved people, represented the greatest asset in the country at that time. Clay, himself, took a $50,000 loss—in 1860 dollars—in order to live out his principles. He went even further—loudly denouncing slavery as evil, and thus constantly courting danger. This isn’t enough for Bob Costas. Clay can’t be a brave and complicated human. Clay has to be the wholly innocent, wholly righteous white guy in the black movie.

    But Muhammad Ali would not define himself through Clay’s legacy. Ali was more interested in the legacy of Emily, the enslaved woman whom Clay sold away. That was the entire point of Ali changing his name. Unfortunately none of that could save Ali from Bob Costas’s need to be all loud an the smug of chorus of “Well, actually...” that must dog us all into our very graves.

    *The Anti-Slavery Career of Cassius M. Clay.” Lowell H. Harrison. The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 59, No. 4 (October, 1961), pp. 295-317

  • Russell Lee / Library of Congress

    The Black Journalist and the Racial Mountain

    It’s not what the wider world says about black writers that should concern them, so much as what they say about themselves.

  • Carlo Allegri / Reuters

    Killing Dylann Roof

    A year after Obama saluted the families for their spirit of forgiveness, his administration seeks the death penalty for the Charleston shooter.

  • When The World Runs Out Of Room For Monsters

    I finished the first volume of Alan Moore’s  Swamp Thing earlier this week. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more compelling—or sadder—opening issue of a comic book.  This right here is all TNC-bait defined:

    Swamp Thing #20. Pencils: Denis Day. Colors: Tatjana Wood.

    In case this is hard to see, the words read as follows:

    Frame #1

    “I had to come, Arcane.”

    “I had to be sure.”

    Frame #2

    “Oh, I know I saw your ship falling and burning. I know I saw it..Drop like a wounded sun...exploding beyond the mountains. I know you that you couldn’t have survived.”

    “But I didn’t...hear the rattle in your windpipe. I didn’t see….the glaze crawl over your eyes. I didn’t see the body, Arcane...”

    Frame #3

    “...And I learned that if you don’t see the body...”

    “...then the rotten stuff...just keeps coming back.”

    For me, the best thing about writing comics is how it takes me back to everything I loved about writing poetry. The game of spacing and efficiency is so challenging and so important. Moore proves himself a master of both here—in three frames he gives you something of Swamp Thing’s compulsions and loneliness. There’s a progressive, forward energy in the first lines—“I had to come, Arcane”—that leaves us wondering what, specifically, could be so important that he had to come. And then the answer slowly dribbles out an air-ship “falling and burning” dropping “like a wounded sun...exploding beyond the mountains,” the angsty feeling, native to the marvelous world of comics, of thinking an antagonist dead but not hearing “the rattle in [their] windpipe,” not seeing “the glaze crawl over [their] eyes,” of never seeing “the body.”

  • Marvel Studios

    Picking Sides in Captain America: Civil War

    Four Atlantic writers discuss the newest installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

  • Jack Boucher / Library of Congress

    On Homecomings

    Everyone wants some place to retreat, to collapse, to be at home—but you can’t always go home again.

  • Building The World Of Wakanda

    A few weeks back, in advance of Black Panther #1, I did a conversation with the great Evan Narcisse over at Kotaku. When Evan called, I was in the midst of fooling around with some mapping software in hopes of putting together a geographical vision of Wakanda, the setting for my story.

    I’ve always liked maps. Maps were half the fun in any Dungeons and Dragons campaign. When I was a kid I spent hours pouring over my parents’ atlas of the country. Nevertheless, the results from this outing were … less than spectacular. I fiddled around with a few programs—Campaign Cartogapher, Fractal Mapper, and then finally Photoshop. Ideally I’d continue with Campaign Cartographer, but it, along with Fractal Mapper, are PC only and I do most of my work on a mac.

    That left me working in Photoshop (which I can no longer buy but have to license??) The map I made with Fractal Mapper is just risible. But here is a less risible version I made with Photoshop:

    Paintbrushes by Star Raven.

    This isn’t much of a map. But it has the basics down in terms of where Wakanda exists in the world and what’s around it. In my imagination, Wakanda is a small country in East Africa, just off the Western Coast of Lake Victoria. It is bordered by four other mythical countries in the Marvel canon—Mohanda to the North, Canaaan to the West, Azania to the Southwest, and Niganda to the Southeast. I can’t say too much, but Niganda exerts a subtle influence on events in Wakanda in both Season 1 and Season 2 (which I’ve started sketching out.)

  • The Feminists Of Wakanda

    Brian Stelfreeze; Laura Martin

    Here are a couple of interesting pieces written about the women characters in Black Panther #1. The role of women in this run is somewhat accidental. Many of the most important men T’Challa’s life are dead. His uncle S’Yan, who’d long advised him, was killed by Dr. Doom. Two of his other compatriots Zuri and W’Kabi were killed by the “totem-eater” Morlun. With such immediate death around T’Challa, as well as so many dead Wakandans at the hands of The Black Order and Namor, it seemed natural that his mother, Ramonda, would be especially close to him. The decision to examine the Dora Milajae, through the characters Ayo and Aneka, also came out of the past. The Doras are one of the most consistent elements in the Panther mythos over the past 15 years. I could not help but wonder how they might process all the turmoil in the country.

    With that said, there’s been an ongoing conversation about how women appear in comic books (and women who create comic books) for some time. With the advent of social media it’s gotten harder to ignore that debate. You don’t really have to be a admitted feminist to know what it means to be “fridged.” And whether you agree with it or not, a comic book fan has to be willfully blind to not be aware of the critique of how women’s bodies have been presented in the form.