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 We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • AP

    Nina Simone's Face

    The upcoming biopic about the singer proves that the world still isn’t ready to tell her story.

  • Marvel / The Atlantic

    The Return of the Black Panther

    A behind-the-scenes look at the revival of Marvel’s first black-superhero series—and an exclusive preview of the first issue

  • Against Endorsements

    This morning I went on Democracy Now to discuss my critique of “class-first” policy as a way of ameliorating the effects of racism. In the midst of that discussion I made the point that one can maintain a critique of a candidate—in this case Bernie Sanders—and still feel that that candidate is deserving of your vote. Amy Goodman, being an excellent journalist, did exactly what she should have done—she asked if I were going to vote for Senator Sanders.

    I, with some trepidation, answered in the affirmative. I did so because I’ve spent my career trying to get people to answer uncomfortable questions. Indeed, the entire reason I was on the show was to try to push liberals into directly addressing an uncomfortable issue that threatens their coalition. It seemed wrong, somehow, to ask others to step into their uncomfortable space and not do so myself. So I answered.

    My answer has been characterized, in various places, as an “endorsement,” a characterization that I’d object to. Despite my very obvious political biases, I’ve never felt it was really my job to get people to agree with me. My first duty, as a writer, is to myself. In that sense I simply hope to ask all the questions that keep me up at night. My second duty is to my readers. In that sense, I hope to make readers understand why those questions are critical. I don’t so much hope that any reader “agrees” with me, as I hope to haunt them, to trouble their sense of how things actually are.

    It’s really no different with Senator Sanders. The idea that anyone would cast a vote because of how I am casting my vote makes my skin crawl. It misses the point of everything I’ve been trying to do in my time at The Atlantic. The point is to get people to question, not to recruit them into a religion. Citizens are not sheep. They do not need shepherds, and even if they did I would be poorly qualified. I have thought quite deeply about the problem of racism in American society. I have thought somewhat deeply about inequality and the social safety net. I have though only modestly about foreign policy and the environment. And I haven’t thought much at all about net neutrality. I voted for the first time in 2008, following years of skepticism about electoral politics. Whatever. The point is that this is not the record of someone who should be telling other citizens how to vote.

    I know what I know, and not much more. And one thing I learned while The Horde was active was to never confuse the perch I enjoy here, one that is as much a matter of chance as anything else, with broad knowledge. So I am no position to offer an “endorsement” to Sanders—one he did not seek, and does not need.

    It is important to say this not just as a writer, but as a black writer. Too often individuals are appointed to speak for black people. I don’t want any part of it. Black voters deserve to be addressed in all of their beautiful and wonderful complications, not through the lens of unelected “thought-leaders.” I was asked a question. I tried to answer it honestly. And that’s really all I have.

  • Wikimedia

    The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness

    Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.

  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

    The Case for Considering Reparations

    A country that could actively contemplate atoning for plunder would be a very different nation than one we live in now.

  • Library of Congress

    Hillary Clinton Goes Back to the Dunning School

    How do you diagnose the problem of racism in America without understanding its actual history?

  • Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

    Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination

    What is doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things.

  • The People Vs. T'Challa

    (Brian Stelfreeze)

    Above we have a sketch of T’Challa dabbin’ on dem folks courtesy of Brian Stelfreeze. Obviously, I can’t really take much credit for this sketch. Brian has this great ability, not just to interpret script direction, but to actually add on and make something new and beautiful.

    With that said I’d like to talk some about T’Challa’s major challenge in this first season of Black Panther. (Here’s hoping there will be more.) When I accepted the task of writing the new Black Panther comic, I was faced with an obvious question—Who is this guy?  There was the obvious and the known—T’Challa is the ruler of the mythical African nation of Wakanda. But to write, I needed to develop a grounded theory of T’Challa’s great loves, small annoyances and everything in between. The grounding came from past depictions of T’Challa by writers like Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Jonathan Hickman.

    I also had to create some sort of working theory about Wakanda, and to the extent to which I came to one it is this:  Wakanda is a contradiction. It is the most advanced nation on Earth, existing under one of the most primitive forms of governance on Earth. In the present telling, Wakanda’s technological superiority goes back centuries. Presumably it’s population is extremely well educated, and yet that population willingly accedes to rule by blood. T’Challa descends from an unbroken line of kings, all who’ve taken up the mantle of the Black Panther. But if you’ve ever studied monarchy, it becomes immediately apparent that the aptitude, or even the desire, to govern isn’t genetic.

    Leaving aside the problems of reconciling absolute monarchy with ultra-modernism, there are the actual events in Wakanda which have happened under previous writers. In recent years Wakandans have endured a coup courtesy of the villainous Achebe, another courtesy Dr. Doom, the murder of two of T’Challa top lieutenants, a cataclysmic flood courtesy of Prince Namor, the subsequent dissolution of a royal marriage, and finally decimation and conquest at the hands of Thanos’ Black Order. Wakanda had always prided itself on having never been conquered. This is no longer true. What, then, is the country if it is as vulnerable as all others? And what happens to a state when its absolute monarch can no longer fulfill the base requirement of any government—securing the safety of their people?

    I tend to think war.

    (Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin.)

  • Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

    Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?

    The Vermont senator’s political imagination is active against plutocracy, but why is it so limited against white supremacy?

  • Mark Makela / Reuters

    Bill Cosby and His Enablers

    Even victims of discrimination can look away from—and thereby enable—other forms of violence.

  • Paul Beaty / AP

    The Paranoid Style of American Policing

    When officers take the lives of those they are sworn to protect and serve, they undermine their own legitimacy.

  • Star Wars and the Critical Benefit of Low Expectations

    My old colleague Ross Douthat is mystified that Star Wars: The Forces Awakens has wowed nearly every single critic its come up against:

    This film has a 95 percent “Fresh” rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. 95 percent. (That’s higher than the audience rating, right now, which is only 92 percent. The wisdom of crowds!) If you want to be kind to the movie, I think it deserves, at best, the 65-70 percent earned by the last two “Hunger Games” movies — and frankly those were a lot more original and interesting than anything in “The Force Awakens.”

    But no: 95 percent. Not from audiences; from critics.

    Over at Vox, David Roberts is right in sync with the idea that The Force Awakens is getting an easy ride. I think this assessment doesn’t spend enough time considering three very important phrases. Those phrases are: Episode I, Episode II and Episode III.

    However one feels about The Force Awakens, it is—in fact—a film. The aims of the heroes are coherent and accessible. The acting is good. (I really liked Ridley and Boyega.) And the pacing is well-managed. I’m an old man, so I thought the film was too loud. And I thought the film overplayed certain things, that it should have underplayed—the critical scene where Kylo Ren solidifies his place with the Dark Side (for now, at least) is interminable.

    But The Force Awakens is a film—something that the last three offerings from Lucas were not.  Indeed, I walked out of the movie theater amazed that I now actually thought less of the prequels, then when I walked in. Everything—save special effects—is wrong the last three iterations of Star Wars. The plotting is indecipherable. The dialogue is painful. Otherwise good actors struggle under Lucas’s direction.  Also, Jar-Jar Binks. (What? Ain’t no more.) That this horribleness was strapped to an incredible hype machine only made matters worse.

    Now it’s true that Abrams didn’t invent much and that he borrowed quite a bit. But he understood what was good about the Star Wars universe, and what was not. He took that expertise and made something that critics, and fans, have been waiting on for over thirty years—a decent Star Wars film, and arguably the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

  • Wakanda and the Black Imagination

    Alex Ross

    It’s obviously not the case, but T’Challa—the Black Panther and mythical ruler of Wakanda—has always struck as the product of the black nationalist dream, a walking revocation of white supremacist myth. T’Challa isn’t just a superhero in the physical sense, he is one of the smartest people in the world, ruling the most advanced civilization on the planet. Wakanda’s status as ever-independent seems to eerily parallel Ethiopia’s history as well as its place in the broader black imagination. Maybe it’s only me, but I can’t read Jason Aaron’s superb “See Wakanda And Die” and not think of Adowa.

    Comic book creators, like all story-tellers, get great mileage out of myth and history. But given the society we live in, some people’s myths are privileged over others. Some of that is changing, no doubt. In the more recent incarnations of T’Challa you can see Christopher Priest invoking the language of the Hausa or Reginald Hudlin employing the legacy of colonialism. These were shrewd artistic decisions, rooted in the fact that anyone writing Black Panther enjoys an immediate, if paradoxical, advantage: the black diaspora is terra incognita for much of the world. What does the broader world really know of Adowa? Of Nanny and Cudjoe? Of the Maji-Maji rebellion? Of Legba and Oshun?  Of Shine? Of High John The Conqueror? T’Challa’s writers have always enjoyed access to a rich and under-utilized pool of allusion and invocation.

  • Wikimedia

    Hope and the Historian

    Writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things are committing themselves to the ahistorical and the mythical.

  • Now Would Be a Good Time to Discuss the Ferguson Effect

    From Chicago the news, once again, is ugly:

    Amid a growing crisis over the Chicago Police Department’s use of force, the city late Monday released a video that shows officers in a Far South Side police lockup repeatedly using a Taser on a University of Chicago graduate and dragging him out of his cell in handcuffs.

    The release of the video was accompanied by a prepared statement from embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying that the treatment of Philip Coleman while he was in custody in December 2012 was unacceptable. Coleman died following a reaction to an antipsychotic drug, but an autopsy showed that Coleman had experienced severe trauma, including more than 50 bruises and scrapes on his body from the top of his head to his lower legs.

    Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel went on to say that he could “not see how the manner in which Mr. Coleman was physically treated could possibly be acceptable.”

  • Conceptualizing the Black Panther

    Black Panther concept art (Brian Stelfreeze)

    A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to be contracted to work on Marvel’s Black Panther. I didn’t want to say too much before I got started, but now, with a few scripts in, having gotten comfortable with my editors, and having been blown away by Brian Stelfreeze’s art (early sketches of which you see here), I’m feeling a little better. With that in mind, my hope is, from time to time, to update you guys on the process of making the thing.

    I guess I should start by saying I’ve never done this before. I expect that there will be stumbles and screw-ups on my part. My nightmare basically involves this turning into some sort of stunt or vanity project. I did not take this on to look pretty, or add a line to my CV. I took it on for the same reason I take on new stories—to grow intellectually and artistically. In this case it’s another genre—fictional, serial story-telling—one a good distance away from journalism, memoir, and essays.

    Still I find myself falling back on old principles. I’m a writer who really values organization. I value it even more when saddled with the relatively high probability of failure. In that regard, my basic approach has been as follows:

  • A Corruption Beyond Chicago's Top Cop

    As David notes, Garry McCarthy, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department is out. The bungled investigation of the killing of LaQuan McDonald made his position untenable:

    Immediately after the shooting last October, a Chicago police union spokesman said that McDonald had lunged at officers before he was killed. And in an official statement the next day, Chicago police said McDonald "refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and continued to approach the officers." The video, however, showed McDonald walking down the street, away from officers as Van Dyke opened fire.

    With that video airing on news telecasts across the country and online around the world, McCarthy and Emanuel's one-bad-apple narrative of Van Dyke's actions didn't square with Chicago's sordid police history that once again was back in the national spotlight. Serving as the backdrop: decades' worth of police torture and wrongful conviction cases, corruption and ineffectual oversight in shootings and other excessive force actions. Time and again, the department had quickly cleared officers of allegations, only to have civil litigation later reveal video and other evidence that painted a much darker picture of police misconduct.

    That last part is crucial. Conor has a good rundown on how deep the problems in the CPD run. You can add to that rundown the killing of Rekia Boyd, the maintenance of black sites, and a heritage of torture. So grand is the scale of Chicago’s police brutality that the city has, over the past 10 years, paid out a half-billion dollars in settlement money to victims:

    The half-billion spent on these cases could have built five state-of-the-art high schools and more than 30 libraries, repaved 500 miles of arterial streets, or paid off a big chunk of the pension bill.

    What this suggests is that while it’s good that McCarthy resigned, an accountability that ends with him is the minimum possible. Many people charged with the safety of Chicago’s citizens, from actual officers on the scene up to the mayor, were in position to know that this was murder. That it took a year to reach that determination is evidence of something beyond “one bad cop,” something even beyond “one bad superintendent.”

  • Chiraq and the 'Sex-Strike' Myth

    Spike Lee went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last Tuesday to discuss his movie Chiraq. In the course of doing this he made some rather unfortunate comments. Chiraq, a cinematic retelling of the classical play, “Lysistrata,” has already raised eyebrows for seemingly endorsing the notion that a “sex strike” could quell inner city violence. Lee has noted that the movie is satire. Perhaps so. But when it comes to the efficacy of sex-strikes, Lee seems dead serious:

    What’s happening on college campuses today, you know, what happened at the University of Missouri where the football players got together and said unless the president resigned they weren’t going to play, I think that a sex-strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment and date rape.  College campuses and universities, I think that’ll work.

    The audience then applauded this comment. I’m not sure why. Claiming that sex-strikes can stop rape  is premised on the idea that rapists are somehow concerned with the thoughts and opinions of their potential victims. There is very little evidence support this contention.

    Much like advising women to combat rape by wearing longer skirts, the sex-strike solution holds that there is something in the behavior of women that might alter the calculus of predators. This seems unlikely. Rape is plunder of the body. It relies on the individual power of the rapist and also on the tolerance of institutions which have a heritage of either endorsement or looking the other way.  The notion that individuals, themselves, should be expected to successfully combat not merely the power of individual rapists, but rape as heritage, which is to say  the predilections of courts, colleges, churches, fraternities, societies etc. is rather incredible.

    One might as well claim  that sharecroppers could have ended debt-peonage if only they’d refused to pick cotton. But the kleptocrats of Mississippi did not serve at the pleasure of sharecroppers. And rapists don’t ply their trade at the leisure of women. They ply their trade through great violence--a tactic shown to be quite effective against any manner of “strike,” no matter the genre.

    Even the more narrow claim that “sex-strikes” can somehow stem the violence in the inner cities is wrong. It is wrong morally, because it rests on the notion that women, as a class, are somehow responsible for the kind of socially engineered violence you find in cities like Chicago. But it is also manifestly false. Lee cited Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in his comments, asserting that she’d won a Nobel Peace Prize for using a sex-strike to end violence in Liberia. It’s certainly true that Gbowee received a Nobel Peace Prize and made incredible contributions in her country. It is also certainly false that sex strikes were the method by which she made those contributions. The sex strikes “had little or no practical effect,” Gbowee has written. “But it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention."

    That sex strikes are more effective at attracting media than curbing violence should not be surprising. Indeed these stories turn heads for reasons not wholly disconnected from our long heritage of rape.

  • Woodrow Wilson and the Problem of Civic Plunder

    Last week MSNBC host, and former Congressman, Joe Scarborough seemed shocked that Princeton students would object to having numerous buildings on their campus named after president, and bigot, Woodrow Wilson.

    I think there’s some room to debate over whether changing the names of buildings or taking down statues is an appropriate way to deal with institutions that have chosen to honor people like Wilson. The act of veneration says something about both the venerated and venerator. That Princeton once chose to plaster the name of an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan all over its campus should never be forgotten. I generally prefer some sort of contextualization, some way of making it absolutely clear who the honored figure was and why the institution honoring the figure chose to ignore it.

    But I also attended a university where the concerns were somewhat different. I don’t really know how it feels to be a student at predominantly white school and see Wilson’s name everywhere. I suspect it can’t help but to increase one’s feeling of alienation.

    Reasonable people can disagree about how to deal with the memorialization of Wilson. But they can not disagree, as Dylan Matthews points out, over who Woodrow Wilson actually was:

    Leaving aside the broader question of whether Wilson's name should be removed, let's be clear on one thing: Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, a racist pig. He was a racist by current standards, and he was a racist by the standards of the 1910s, a period widely acknowledged by historians as the "nadir" of post–Civil War race relations in the United States.

    As Matthews notes, Wilson was racist, not by the standards of our time, but by the standards of his own time. A defender of domestic terrorists, exhorter of the Lost Cause, Wilson actually resegregated the federal government. In regards to race, Wilson’s presidency does not represent more of the same, but an actual step backward.

    Let us not be abstract here.

  • Jeff Kubina / Flickr

    Hope and the Artist

    The virtues of enlightenment over feel-goodism