How Ta-Nehisi Coates Got That Way
One advantage to this blogging platform is that I can write things and schedule them to post later. For example, I’m writing this in the middle of the night, though you won’t see it until sometime on Tuesday. I’m awake because I spent a huge chunk of Monday sleeping. I’m back deep in the mono slough, and was so sick on Monday that I slept until almost noon, right through the alarm, and slept for hours on Monday afternoon too. Consequently, it’s 3am here, and I’m awake. It seems like this might be a good time for a speculative post.
I wrote yesterday with anger at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest essay, which is stylistically overwrought and, to my mind, racist. Believe it or not, what gets to me is not so much Coates’s inability to understand the world through any prism other than race. What bothers me — and boy, does it bother me — is the surrender of white liberal intellectuals like Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg to this stuff. It is very common among contemporary liberals, and it’s poison. But you know how I feel about that.
In this post, I want to think out loud about how and why it is that Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer and thinker of such sensitivity and promise, gave himself over to racialized despair. Some might say that’s because it makes him a lot of money, and it has brought him immense prestige in liberal circles. But that is unfair. Coates thought and wrote like this before he was rich and famous. I think his wealth and his fame, coming as they have because his racialized despair is very much of our cultural moment, will make it much harder for him to break out of it. Still, it was his before there was money and fame in it, and however blind his race theory makes him to the complexities of American life and American politics, it’s not fair to call him cynical.
Longtime readers of Coates know that he went through what he calls a “Blue Period,” one that has seemingly become permanent. Coates was always melancholic, but he was searching, and his writing during his searching were often captivating. Personally, I became a fan when he started to embrace the French language, and then went to Paris. His writing about encountering this alien culture, and how it changed a kid from the margins of American life, rang true to me. West Baltimore is not like rural West Feliciana Parish, but we were both men from the sticks (so to speak) who found an important part of ourselves by falling in love with France. How did that happen? Why did that happen? I learned something about myself by reading TNC’s public diary.
The secret origins of “the blue period”–if that’s what we’re calling it–lay in the video embedded above. In it, historian Nell Irvin Painter discusses her book A History Of White People and calmly, and methodically, breaks my heart:
On the other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I think we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment of economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich people and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous differences. We have a great inequality of wealth and income. This group of people who are scraping by, there will be a lot of them, but they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to reinforce racial ideas. So on the upper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will be people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will probably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well.
You can see from my posting at the time I was sort of horrified by Painter’s argument. It didn’t really mesh with my worldview at the time. At that point I was a progressive in every sense of the word. I believed that you could sketch a narrative of progress in this country from enslavement to civil rights. It seemed logical, to me, that this progress would end–some day–with the complete vanquishing of white supremacy.
I probably first came across Painter as a young child. My Dad had a ridiculous collection of black books and I’d just swim through them. I certainly knew about her during by my late teenage years at Howard. By then I understood her to be one of the great historians of our era. I also came to understand at Howard that historians are heartbreakers. I have often referred to my history professors destroying all my Afrocentric fantasies, and then telling me that I must, somehow, pick up the pieces and argue for my humanity. The Nubians, for whom I was named, weren’t going to cut it. At least not alone. I thought about that for awhile–history and humanity. The history I had been taught had been crafted by humans for political aims. And if these black people truly were human, than it meant that other people likely would also do the same. Even my countrymen.
Years after Howard, I sat with Painter on a panel at the United Nations. Her poise was ridiculous. There was something modest and grand about how she carried herself. I thought it was the aura of a person in full awareness of their big brain and all that it could do. Once I got over my fear of speaking in her presence, I found her to be one of the sharpest people I’d ever engaged. Her assessment of white supremacy cut to the core of me. I had always considered a vaguely-defined “hope” to be a prerequisite for writing. What kind of intellectual confronts a problem and concludes, “Beats the hell out me.”
I had, by then at least, gotten past the idea that history was a pep rally, that if France had walls, Zimbabwe must have walls too. I also knew that Nell Painter knew a good deal more about America than me. If she thought racism would always be with us, then I had better take that notion seriously.
The work gets dark and people think I must be dark. But they don’t know and they can’t see what’s right in front of them–I was born dark.
I never expected a single thing I wrote to change anything. Writing rarely does. I never expect to make any white person see anything. And if they do, I hope they go read more. But really it’s beside the point.
My aims are fairly limited: I expect to hug my kid, and tell him I love him. I expect to hug my wife, and tell her I will always support her. I expect to make my Momma proud (“Be a good race-man,” she used to say.) And I expect to honor my Dad. I expect to drink some good rum. And I expect to know more tomorrow than I know today. And I expect to talk to the youth about taking control of their own education. And I expect to be a good writer.
And that really is it. It’s all I can ask. It’s all I can control. Isn’t this old?
Reading that, it became clear that what happened to him is that he confronted the immensity of the suffering that white Americans inflicted on black Americans, and it was like staring into the Palantir. It fried him.
I’m not trying to be silly here. I don’t know what it would mean to me to be a black man confronting the enormity of the evil done to black folk, and to try to maintain hope in the face of that. Let me be more precise: I don’t know that I could do that if I were an atheist, like Ta-Nehisi Coates is. In fact, I’m fairly sure that I couldn’t. More on this in a moment.
Reading this tonight, I tried a little experiment in empathy. Is there anything that happened to me that can give me even a little feeling for what this experience was like for TNC? The closest thing I could think of was the four or five years I spent writing about the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, before I lost my Catholic faith.
The details of that experience are very familiar to longtime readers of mine, so I won’t bore you with them again. But I need to point out a couple of things.
First, TNC described his prelapsarian self as holding this view:
It seemed logical, to me, that this progress would end–some day–with the complete vanquishing of white supremacy.
He set himself up to be disillusioned because he expected of liberalism something it couldn’t deliver. (“To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” — Flannery O’Connor). He really seems to have thought that we were moving inexorably to the elimination of that particular evil in this world. And we are! It is absurd to claim that an American black man in 2018 is no better off than an American black man in 1948 (where in much of this country he was subject to lynching), or an American black man in 1848, under slavery. It is impossible to take the claim of no moral progress against white supremacy seriously. In 2008, a black man won the US presidency with 43 percent of the white vote. The idea that white supremacy’s grip on America is as strong as ever is as absurd as claiming that racism is over, because we elected a black president.
My point is, TNC sounds like was once a sentimental liberal who hadn’t yet grappled with the depth and complexity of the evil wrought by white supremacy.
I get that. I was a sentimental conservative Catholic who had no idea what kind of evil I was about to walk into when I started writing about the scandal (in 2001, before it broke big nationwide). Father Tom Doyle, the brave Catholic priest who made his reputation by testifying in court for victims, warned me at the outset that I was headed to a place darker than I could imagine. He wasn’t trying to discourage me at all, but rather caution me to prepare for the worst. I thought I had. I was very, very wrong.
But then, I don’t know what I could have done to make me ready to stare into that particular Palantir and not fry my mind. In time I came to resent, and at times despise, my fellow conservative Catholics who tried to dismiss or denature the scandal with phrases like, “Yes, the American bishops haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory, but …”. The Catholic writer Lee Podles’s book Sacrilegeis as close as I’ve ever seen anybody come to recreating and concentrating that extremely painful disillusionment. I couldn’t get past the first few chapters, because it was like reading the Necronomicon. Don’t get me wrong: Podles is a faithful orthodox Catholic, but he told the unvarnished truth, uncovered from his investigation, and from poring over case files. These things really happened. It’s straight hellfire.
The result for me was to be left unable to remain a Catholic. Imagine sticking your hands into an open flame, holding them there for ten seconds, then trying to pick up a Bible with it. The broader effect was to leave me incapable of fully trusting religious authority figures. I don’t even try to do so, not one bit more than I absolutely have to for the sake of practicing my faith. Having seen the extremely perverse lies they can tell to protect their own perceived interests, including the lies they tell themselves, I can’t be party to it. This is not a confession of moral and spiritual strength, but rather one of moral and spiritual weakness.
So: I can see a parallel between my experience and TNC’s. We both held naive faiths in particular institutions and myths — mine in Roman Catholicism and the institutional Catholic Church, and his in Progress, and the institutions of liberal democracy. We both got waylaid by history and the evil that men do, and emerged chastened, even broken.
He has spent the rest of his career writing extremely downbeat, deterministic, fatalistic essays about the unique iniquity of white supremacy, and how it can never be defeated. He has given himself over, in my reading, to a view of humanity that is entirely circumscribed by race. And not just by race, but by a strict reading of racial dynamics in which whites are most themselves when they are evil, and in which blacks, even when they behave in evil ways, do so because one way or the other, they have been made that way by whites.
This is a popular thing to believe nowadays. You can get a MacArthur genius grant for peddling that kind of despair, and win the National Book Award. Still, it’s authentic with Coates.
As a thought experiment, I’m wondering what would have happened to me had I followed his intellectual path from my own disillusioning experience. It’s hard to see a clear parallel, though I suppose it might have been to write books and essays on the evil of organized religion, and how all religion is a scam through which the powerful exploit the weak, or something.
Instead, though I left the Catholic Church, and though I have kept a clear distance from institutional Orthodoxy (I learned from a lapse early in my Orthodox years that I should stay away from church politics), I have not despaired of Christianity. Indeed I have been chastened — severely chastened — by what I learned, but I have also been chastened by my intellectual pride, and my naive idealism. The scandal pretty much beat the religious triumphalism out of me, and it left me with a deep awareness of my weakness for believing certain narratives. I’ve thought a lot over the years about Catholics who saw what I did, who didn’t minimize or dismiss its seriousness, but who kept the faith. Though I’m definitely not returning to the Catholic Church, I think what they have is an important disposition for all Christians to cultivate. I’ve tried to do it within myself.
What helped me was understanding that the same Church, and same tradition, that cultivated within it the evils of the child sex abuse scandal (as well as a long litany of crimes over the centuries) also produced St. Benedict and Dante Alighieri, both of whom came into my broken life bearing grace and good news that healed and gave me hope. The black experience in America has been one of suffering immense evil, but out of that experience came art of astounding beauty and feeling, and prophetic vision. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Martin Luther King Jr. — could any of them have emerged from the kind of despair that has engulfed TNC?
I don’t think anybody can claim that those men minimized or dismissed white supremacy and its wickedness. Somehow, they saw through it, to a deeper reality. They had hope — not optimism, but hope.
Hope is not the belief that things will undoubtedly get better (e.g., “the complete vanquishing of white supremacy”). Hope is the conviction that suffering is not in vain, that it can be, in some sense, redemptive, that justice will one day be done, and that someday, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an atheist, as you may know. I’m thinking right now about the conversation I had with a French atheist professor last autumn in Paris, in which we both agreed on how wretched the state of the world is now. Where do you find hope? I asked.
“I have no hope,” he said.
I told him that I do have hope, though not optimism, and that my hope comes from my faith in Jesus Christ. I hastened to explain that I wasn’t offering cheap religious sentimentality, and that I found that kind of sentimentality a form of despair. No, Christian hope is something different, I explained.
He listened politely, then said, “That is good for you Americans, but here in France, we believe that this world is all there is. When you die, that’s the end.”
If that’s what you believe — and that’s what TNC believes — then you are condemned to despair. Last year, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins tied TNC’s pessimism on race to his atheism. He quotes Coates as saying that he believes the universe is amoral, and that he believes that without God, there can be no hope of collective redemption. Life is about nothing more than the powerful exploiting the powerless. Absent God, they have no reason to behave with self-sacrificing compassion. Steinmetz-Jenkins writes:
What specifically makes black atheism black, according to Coates, is the recognition that white people, like all peoples, are inclined towards self-interest and therefore appeals to moral conscience or universal laws about racial injustice are bound to have little effect.
But it is a chaotic amoral universe that also explains why Coates is committed to a deeply held view that white supremacy is built into the very DNA of this United States and therefore will not “perhaps ever” be defeated.
Coates arrived at this pessimistic view by reading European historians Tony Judt and Timothy Synder, who promote a tradition of liberal moderation opposed to the great political ideologies of the 20th century, specifically Marxism:
I don’t have any gospel of my own. [Tony Judt’s] Postwar, and the early pages of [Timothy Synder’s Bloodlands], have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
Coates’s belief that white supremacy is fundamentally woven into the fabric of the United States is built on a larger metaphysical assumption that without the existence of God the entire world bends towards injustice. He points to the egregious history of racial injustice in this country, and the atrocities committed by the Nazis and Soviets, through the books of Judt and Snyder, to prove his point.
The real problem for Coates, then, might ultimately not be white supremacy, but rather the non-existence of God. It is the non-existence of God, according to his argument, that rules out the possibility of any collective redemption not just in the United States, but the world writ large.
Strangely, Coates echoes the atheistic outlook of libertarians like Ayn Rand who denied the possibility of collective redemption since people were fundamentally driven by self-interest.
Yet despite all the horrors he locates in history, atheism entails no necessary ethics or politics. In fact, as Coates is more than aware, atheism and the absence of a moral arc is, for many, what makes collective hope and national redemption possible. Religion is often by its very nature exclusionary. Atheism can, for some, allow for a real coming together.
If Coates has accused his leftist critics of stressing class over race an equal argument can be made that he prioritizes a rather conservative atheistic philosophy over both. A theology of global chaos and not white supremacy accounts for his pessimistic political outlook.
Read the whole thing. I think this is an accurate diagnosis of Coates’s worldview. But I think Coates has the more accurate philosophical reading than Steinmetz-Jenkins’s wan take in his penultimate paragraph.
All of which is to say: Ta-Nehisi Coates needs Jesus. Coates is closer to the Kingdom than he understands, though, because he grasps that without Christ, there is chaos. I think one reason he drives me crazy (and Andrew Sullivan drives me crazy) is that we are a lot alike, weirdly enough. If I had not been able to hold on to my Christian faith in any form after that trial by fire, I might be as bleak and as angry at Coates. There but for the grace of God go I. I mean that. One thing that angers me about Coates’s view is that if it is true, then there is nothing to stop despairing whites from buying into the same racial determinism. Ross Douthat’s line can’t be said often enough: if you don’t like the Religious Right, just wait till you see the Post-Religious Right.
I would love for Coates to encounter this David Bentley Hart essay, and reflect on it in an essay. Especially this passage:
The only cult that can truly thrive in the aftermath of Christianity is a sordid service of the self, of the impulses of the will, of the nothingness that is all that the withdrawal of Christianity leaves behind. The only futures open to post-Christian culture are conscious nihilism, with its inevitable devotion to death, or the narcotic banality of the Last Men, which may be little better than death. Surveying the desert of modernity, we would be, I think, morally derelict not to acknowledge that Nietzsche was right in holding Christianity responsible for the catastrophe around us (even if he misunderstood why); we should confess that the failure of Christian culture to live up to its victory over the old gods has allowed the dark power that once hid behind them to step forward in propria persona. And we should certainly dread whatever rough beast it is that is being bred in our ever coarser, crueler, more inarticulate, more vacuous popular culture; because, cloaked in its anodyne insipience, lies a world increasingly devoid of merit, wit, kindness, imagination, or charity.
These are, I admit, extreme formulations. But, while I may delight in provocation, I do not wish on this point to be misunderstood. When recently I made these very remarks from a speaker’s podium, two theologians (neither of whom I would consider a champion of modernity) raised objections. From one quarter, I was chided for forgetting the selflessness of which modern persons are capable. September 11, 2001, I was reminded, demonstrated the truth of this, surely; and those of us who teach undergraduates must be aware that, for all the cultural privations they suffer, they are often decent and admirable. From the other quarter I was cautioned that so starkly stated an alternative as “Christianity or nihilism” amounted to a denial of the goodness of natural wisdom and virtue, and seemed to suggest that gratia non perficit, sed destruit naturam. As fair as such remarks may be, however, they are not apposite to my argument.
In regard to the first objection, I would wish to reply by making clear that I do not intend to suggest that, because modernity has lost the organic integrity of Christianity’s moral grammar, every person living in modern society must therefore become heartless, violent, or unprincipled. My observations are directed at the dominant language and ethos of a culture, not at the souls of individuals. Many among us retain some loyalty to ancient principles, most of us are in some degree premodern, and there are always and everywhere to be found examples of natural virtue, innate nobility, congenital charity, and so on, for the light of God is ubiquitous and the image of God is impressed upon our nature. The issue for me is whether, within the moral grammar of modernity, any of these good souls could give an account of his or her virtue.
I wish, that is, to make a point not conspicuously different from Alasdair MacIntyre’s in the first chapter of his After Virtue : in the wake of a morality of the Good, ethics has become a kind of incoherent bricolage. As far as I can tell, homo nihilisticus may often be in several notable respects a far more amiable rogue than homo religiosus, exhibiting a far smaller propensity for breaking the crockery, destroying sacred statuary, or slaying the nearest available infidel. But, love, let us be true to one another: even when all of this is granted, it would be a willful and culpable blindness for us to refuse to recognize how aesthetically arid, culturally worthless, and spiritually depraved our society has become. That this is not hyperbole a dispassionate appraisal of the artifacts of popular culture—of the imaginative coarseness and cruelty informing them—will quickly confirm. For me, it is enough to consider that, in America alone, more than forty million babies have been aborted since the Supreme Court invented the “right” that allows for this, and that there are many for whom this is viewed not even as a tragic “necessity,” but as a triumph of moral truth. When the Carthaginians were prevailed upon to cease sacrificing their babies, at least the place vacated by Baal reminded them that they should seek the divine above themselves; we offer up our babies to “my” freedom of choice, to “me.” No society’s moral vision has ever, surely, been more degenerate than that.
And to the second objection, I would begin by noting that my remarks here do not concern the entirety of human experience, nature, or culture; they concern one particular location in time and space: late Western modernity. Nor have I anything to say about cultures or peoples who have not suffered the history of faith and disenchantment we have, or who do not share our particular relation to European antiquity or the heritage of ancient Christendom. “Nihilism” is simply a name for post-Christian sensibility and conviction (and not even an especially opprobrious one). Moreover, the alternative between Christianity and nihilism is never, in actual practice, a kind of Kierkegaardian either/or posed between two absolute antinomies, incapable of alloy or medium; it is an antagonism that occurs along a continuum, whose extremes are rarely perfectly expressed in any single life (else the world were all saints and satanists).
Most importantly, though, my observations do not concern nature at all, which is inextinguishable and which, at some level, always longs for God; they concern culture, which has the power to purge itself of the natural in some considerable degree. Indeed, much of the discourse of late modernity—speculative, critical, moral, and political—consists precisely in an attempt to deny the authority, or even the reality, of any general order of nature or natures. Nature is good, I readily affirm, and is itself the first gift of grace. But that is rather the point at issue: for modernity is unnatural, is indeed anti-nature, or even anti-Christ (and so goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom it may devour).
Which is why I repeat that our age is not one in danger of reverting to paganism (would that we were so fortunate). If we turn from Christ today, we turn only towards the god of absolute will, and embrace him under either his most monstrous or his most vapid aspect. A somewhat more ennobling retreat to the old gods is not possible for us; we can find no shelter there, nor can we sink away gently into those old illusions and tragic consolations that Christ has exposed as falsehoods. To love or be nourished by the gods, we would have to fear them; but the ruin of their glory is so complete that they have been reduced—like everything else—to commodities.
I would also like to see TNC grapple with the universal human capacity for evil — and specifically, that black people, being no more or no less human than the rest of us, have that capacity for cruelty and inhumanity within themselves as well. What then? What happens when you are free of the malign influence of white people, and find that your own people are just as capable of behaving viciously and selfishly? Maybe then he would see that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Maybe then he would see, as Dante Alighieri did in his own fall and exile, and unjust treatment at the hands of Church and State, his own role in bring about his estrangement. Without the gift of faith, which I did not deserve, I would be trapped in my own narrative of injustice and determinism. Faith was given to me, but I had to want to be delivered from the trap I was in. (This, by the way, is what my book How Dante Can Save Your Life is about.)
Finally, I would like to read TNC’s reflection on Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,” which describes the fall from naive innocence, and one’s recovery:
‘O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s heart is crooked. So is mine. So is yours. So is everybody’s. This story is not going to end with humanity completely vanquishing white supremacy, black supremacy, or any evil at all. Our hearts are too crooked for that. But we have it on good authority that the story ends — no thanks to us — with the defeat of evil and its poisoned fruit, death. It already has, for those with eyes to see and hearts willing to receive the good news.
And with that, goodnight.
This is what I mean when I say Between The World And Me is a religious book. And in TNC’s cosmos, the line between good and evil is drawn between white and black. All moral failures by blacks are ultimately the fault of whites. The savage violence of the mean streets of West Baltimore? Whites made those street thugs do it. Black men who abandon their children?
I felt then that these men — these ‘fathers’ — were the greatest of cowards. But I also felt that the galaxy was playing with loaded dice, which ensured an excess of cowards in our ranks.
They are cowards, but how, says TNC, can they be expected to help it, given that the universe is stacked against them? The United States, in his view, is not a New Jerusalem, but an infernal facsimile:
‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination an exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.
About the black cop who gunned down an innocent young black man: “The killer was the direct expression of all his country’s beliefs.” America wanted that young man to die, because that is America’s purpose: killing blacks. He really believes this.
You might think that I’m overstating the case when I tell you that TNC has written a song of innocence absolving black Americans from any fault for their condition, and blaming it all on whites. He has taken a partial truth — that while none of us are guilty of the sins of others, we are unavoidably involved in them — and exalted it to a cosmological principle. The killing by an undercover cop of Prince Jones, a young black man he had only slightly known at Howard, comes across as one of the acts that embodies and justifies TNC’s hatred of America. (Never mind that Jones died at the hands of a black cop, who worked for a black-led police department; it’s all the fault of the white man). This passage about 9/11 is where TNC lost me forever:
I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.
They were not human to me. He ought to be deeply ashamed of this opinion, but he doesn’t say this in self-reproach. When I read this, I thought of one of the FDNY funerals I attended, the one for Vernon Cherry, who served in my local firehouse in Brooklyn, and was one of 12 black first responders to die at the Twin Towers. I went to his funeral, and the funeral of two other firefighters from our neighborhood. I sobbed along with the families of these brave men, and along with their friends, and neighbors like me, who did not know each other, and did not know Vernon Cherry and his colleagues, but who were profoundly moved by their courage and their sacrifices. I stood outside a Catholic church in Brooklyn Heights and watched the widow and young children of one of the firefighters leave the funeral, and walk sadly down the block, to get into their minivan and drive off to the rest of their life, without a husband and a father.
These are the people who are not human to Ta-Nehisi Coates, because they wore uniforms, or loved the men who died in their uniforms when the Twin Towers collapsed on them. Was Vernon Cherry not human? Were the black men, the white men, the Hispanic men, who gave their lives trying to save strangers that day not human, because Ta-Nehisi Coates has a big problem with authority?
Had TNC confessed to having had this feeling, but later repenting of it, that would have been one thing. As far as I can tell from reading his book, he believes his malicious feeling justifies itself. This is an evil belief.