The Genius of Stretching Boundaries

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s MacArthur Fellowship is a recognition of many things—but perhaps most of all, his refusal to accept arbitrary limits.


In November of 2009, more than five years before I joined The Atlantic, I got an unusual request. I’d been going back and forth for more than a year with an Atlantic blogger, down in his comments section. “Mind shooting me an e-mail?” he asked.

That’s how I came to know Ta-Nehisi Coates. He was working on an essay on Detroit at the time. He had guessed, correctly, that I was an academic. (I’m still not sure what gave me away—wooden prose, or excess verbosity?) And he was wondering if I could answer a few questions.

He’s never stopped asking questions. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to call him my friend, and, more recently, my colleague. And with the news that he’s been named a MacArthur Fellow, I can now call him something else—a genius.

But genius is a peculiar thing. The MacArthur Foundation says it gives the grants to those who display “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.” There is no question of Ta-Nehisi’s merit as a writer—his latest book proved an instant bestseller and sparked ongoing public debate. He made himself one of the blogosphere’s most distinctive voices. He’s stitched together a remarkable résumé as a journalist, punctuated by his stories for The Atlantic on Obama, reparations, and incarceration.

But perhaps his real genius lies in indulging his hunger for knowledge. At first, I chalked this up to remarkable humility. If there was a book he hadn’t read or a concept he hadn’t mastered, he simply said so—and then asked to have it explained. That’s rare in life, and rarer still among writers with public profiles, who more often assume a pose of studied omniscience.

In time, I came to understand it less as self-denial than as a kind of intellectual greed. He wanted to know. And if that meant rendering himself vulnerable, confessing ignorance, opening himself to abuse, listening more than talking, or even wading through his own blog’s comments section—well, it was not too high a price to pay for knowledge.

And he’s insisted that his readers be similarly open to considering insights, whatever their origins. He plucked the term at the center of his latest cover story from Dungeons & Dragons, titles posts with quotes from Megatron and Wu-Tang, and for his next act, will give us a year in the life of T’Challa.

As this mixing of high and low suggests, he has never listened when told what he cannot do. He paid no heed to critics crying that reparations are impossible and mass incarceration irreversible, or that comics and hip-hop shouldn’t be taken seriously. Once, told by some readers that “conversate” isn’t a word, he went and found the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Of course it’s a word,” the editor said. “The question is, is it acceptable.”

Stretching the boundaries of the acceptable—there’s a kind of genius in that.