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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, [1] 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 [2], 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.

And then he hit the wall. In 2014, in response to a post by Andrew Sullivan lamenting the dark turn [3] he had taken, TNC explained why [4]. Excerpts:

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 [5] 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.

He concludes:

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 [6]?

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.  [7] 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 Sacrilege [8]is 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. [9] 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.

Steinmetz-Jenkins continues:

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. [10]

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. [9] 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 [11], 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 [12] is about.)

Finally, I would like to read TNC’s reflection on Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,” [13] 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.

UPDATE: I just re-read my review of TNC’s big book, Between The World And Me [14]. It is above all else a religious tome. Seriously, click here for the whole review. [14] Excerpt:

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, [15] 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.


114 Comments (Open | Close)

114 Comments To "How Ta-Nehisi Coates Got That Way"

#1 Comment By ludo On May 10, 2018 @ 7:38 am

Come to think of it, it seems that Coates may have gotten his flair for rhetorical non sequiturs from the neoliberal historian and propagandist Timothy Snyder, whom the former is on record as stating he has read and been influenced by: ´Another kind of peril lies in the prose produced by this theory: “Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse,” Snyder tells us. “The natural successor of the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity, but there are alternatives that must be found before the shroud drops. If we accept eternity, we sacrifice individuality, and will no longer see possibility. Eternity is another idea that says that there are no ideas.” Snyder is especially fond of inversions (“Perhaps we are slipping from one sense of time to another because we do not see how history makes us, and how we make history”; “Must any attempt at novelty be met with the cliché of force and the force of cliché?”) and sentences that consist entirely of rhythmic abstractions that convey very little (“As we emerge from inevitability and contend with eternity, a history of disintegration can be a guide to repair”). One of his favorite images in the book is the abyss: so empty and so frightening. This gives us “Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo,” but also “Under the mistaken impression that they had a history as a nation-state, the British…voted themselves into an abyss where Russia awaited.”Truly the abyss swallows up all meaning.´


So perhaps Foucault´s surrealist-paradoxicalist style on Coates was effected by way of Snyder´s. In any case, and like the relatively similar case of the Dominican-American fiction writer Junot Diaz as well, the point seems to be to avoid as much possible all mention of underlying and fundamental economic hegemony precisely through the rhetorical and sophistical legerdemain of the irresponsibility, impassibility, and hence impossibility of presently liberally/progressively speaking beyond race, ethnicity, gender, and sex. Since to speak of class, especially of the working class, is in itself, albeit indirectly, to effectively commit the extremely dangerous (as history supposedly attests) human rights prejudice/trasgression of attacking that community, among many, known as the capitalist class, within which exist other even smaller but equally respect-deserving communities, i.e. the exceedingly often (as the historian Piketty attests) hereditary-rentist (read: parasitic) plutocratic and quasi-oligarchic classes.

#2 Comment By JonF On May 10, 2018 @ 9:47 am

Re: The people are of the same stock

Depending on what one means by “stock”, even that is not really true. There are some fairly significant genetic differences among African populations, even omitting the Berber and Egyptian peoples who live along the Mediterranean coast. Lumping them all together into one supposed “race” is as silly as lumping everyone in Asia into one Asiatic race and ignoring the fact that the Han Chinese differ from the Indochinese to the South, and both are very different from the peoples of India, or Central Asia and the Middle East.

Re: See also JonF’s comment on trade and importing food — although his chronology may be a bit off. The pyramids were built by very early Egyptian dynasties.

True, but Greece’s primeval forests were ancient history already by the dawn of the Bronze Age. Neolithic agriculture was horrible on ecosystems. China, India, Egypt and the Middle East had the great advantage of major rivers which leaving fresh soil behind every time they flooded, and even so ecologically degradation was a problem in those civilizations too, just not a fatal one. The Mediterranean coast of Europe mostly lacked such river systems. Hence the very first civilization in the region– the Minoan– was a maritime trading culture, something new to the world at the time. Ditto the somewhat later Etruscans in Italy. And of course it helped that the Mediterranean is a relatively shallow and placid sea (no real tides, and no massive cyclonic storms) with lots of excellent natural harbors.

#3 Comment By Elijah On May 10, 2018 @ 10:06 am

“Goodness and moral are descriptives of behaviors that lead to life, that is to human flourishing, rather than to death, that is human depravity and destruction…[they] ultimately turn on our understanding of what it is to be fully human.”

I appreciate the reasonable tone here, but that “understanding” is the rub.

Christians may have different views on how suffering is to be perceived, but none would deny the reality of suffering.

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 10, 2018 @ 10:26 am

We’ve had fifty years of civil rights laws (and lawsuits), integrated schools, affirmative action, special education, federal program this, federal program that.

Which indeed tells us that all of this is either ineffectual or insufficient. I favor keeping the civil rights laws. “Integrated schools” has some merit, but way back we lost sight of the fact that what Rev. Oliver Brown wanted was for his daughter to attend a neighborhood school a few blocks from home, rather than having to walk a mile through an active industrial zone with two busy railroad lines to catch a bus to a “colored school” several miles away.

There is some ground-breaking work being done at UW-Milwaukee on the impact of trauma. If someone is raised around a lot of violence, it produces reflexes and aptitudes that are a real impediment to holding a job, or acquiring the real substance of an education. We also know from the emerging science of epigenetics that famine or other experiences of great-grandparents can still manifest several generations later. And, its a matter of record that many black families who tried to build their own businesses or farms had their life work summarily taken away by a “white” mob incensed that “n*****s” had risen so high, which engenders, sometimes for generations, the notions “why bother, they’ll just take it away from you,” and “No matter what degree you get, you’ll still be just another n*****r.”

(I wouldn’t bother to use asterisks for a word I hear anytime I take public transportation around Milwaukee, but the algorithms would suppress the comment.)

Much of this trauma is in fact the legacy of literal (not figurative or fanciful) white supremacy. But it wouldn’t exorcise the conditions people face today to dig up the bones of Oliver Eastman and ceremonially burn them at the stake. Its going to take some painstaking work by trained and patient professionals over several years, one on one. And while we’re at it, yes, I’m all for toning down the cries of “racism,” when the individuals involved do indeed need to change their entire understanding of themselves and the world. And no, its not the fault of “white people,” in any collective sense.

I live on the north side of Milwaukee. I spent a few years at a Boys and Girls Club, I coach a chess team in the zip code that is a classic reference for the worst inner city area, I’m familiar with a lot of pathology, and also the way children, and adults, can respond when there is something that offers a bit of hope.

No, I don’t buy the theories of racial inferiority. I could even accept as a reasonable hypothesis that the aggregate scores are slightly shifted, and that this might persist even after every trauma is cured. But, the shifts are statistically small, and Murray freely admitted there were black geniuses and white morons. All he really showed is that people with significant disadvantages have less favorable results.

Now, let’s talk about Nell Irvin Painter again. I took another look at Southern History Across the Color Line the other day, and Coates badly needs to consider this passage from her introduction:

“First, white historians made up a lily-white southern history that included no blacks, or only those blacks who loved serving whites, loved being enslaved or at least benefited from the institution, and who missed slavery after if was gone. Then, in the wake of the civil rights revolution, black historians and our allies tried to redress the imbalance by publishing the history of blacks as though white people existed only as faceless oppressors.”

Now, we need to look for a balance, based not on wishful thinking or an artificial parity, but on a comprehensive overview, with considerable granularity, of life as it was actually lived.

#5 Comment By M_Young On May 10, 2018 @ 11:51 am

“I prefer Steve Sailer’s take on how Ta-Nehisi Coates got that way, which is (basically) that Coates was a rare black Dungeons and Dragons loving dork as a kid and thus is uniquely able to occupy the talismanic Black Writer niche and simultaneously connect in his writing with huge numbers of earnest midwit white liberals.”

And likewise, Coates nerdiness made him a target in his environment. Indeed I believe he has written on this.

#6 Comment By Harve On May 10, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

Maybe because it will never be over.


Also consider that as soon as the supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act, Republicans in several states enacted laws designed to suppress minority voting. In Wisconsin this made the difference in 2016.

#7 Comment By Raskolnik On May 10, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

“Africa never achieved civilization because the rivers are too far from the ocean”

Sure, man. Sure.

#8 Comment By ludo On May 10, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

Also it seemingly appears, according to Coates, that white supremacy itself is a kind of ¨perverse¨ (naturally, it´s supremacist after all) sexual identity, or, at least, a quasi-one: ´White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint. Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “c*cks.” The word, derived from c*ckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur c*ck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them. So it was with marauding Klansmen organized against alleged rapes and other outrages.´

First of all, what ignorant rabble is the ¨brilliant¨ Coates writing to from his perch at the ´Atlantic´ that requires him to explain to them that ¨c*ck¨ is the colloquial abbreviation of ¨c*ckold,¨ is it possible that he himself didn´t know this ¨odd¨ fact, and consequently assumes the same level of ignorance on the part of his ´Atlantic´ readers, an ignorance which he assiduously corrects by offering the definition?

Secondly, Coates assumes that Bannon clearly, perhaps even necessarily, had a literally racially pornographic attack in mind against an opponent when he pronounced those words, why so? Who has the actual racially pornographic mind in that example, Bannon who allegedly called Kushner a ¨c*ck¨ tout court, or Coates? After all, it is Coates who unreflectingly assumes that Bannon had to have had a pornographic invective in mind when he used the term, even though that particular colloquialism has been so diluted by overuse and overextension that in certain contexts it can mean little more than ¨henpecked,¨ ¨wimp,¨ ¨weakling.¨

Thirdly, Coates himself in the aforesaid example appears to be the one who is actually engaging in the crudest, most flagrant sort psycho-sexual racial stereotyping when he ascribes to Bannon–without providing an iota of factual support–a transparently, automatically obvious desire to use the term ¨c*ck¨ in a vilely racistly sexual, indeed, racistly pornographic manner.

In the best scenario, this example suggests that Coates is so unsubtle, because so chronically uninformed, in his ¨analysis¨ of American society that he is in the process of transforming himself through his ¨art¨ into little more than a secondary caricature built upon his blindly misinformed and hence exceedingly caricatural reading and interpretation of past but, most especially, present American reality.

In effect, he has made himself into a new iteration of old and unfortunate black stereotypes precisely through his blindly irresponsible and unaccountable–in short, gross–stereotyping of so-called ¨whites¨ in America, by which effect he misses the forest of capitalism for the trees of his particularly crude, reductive, literalist, automatic, reflexive, unidimensional, in short, increasingly fetishistic (sexual and otherwise) form of ontological experimentation of American reality: he has become trapped in an ontology, a psycho-perceptual reality wherein the ¨pornography¨ of ¨white supremacy¨ is apparently hauntingly foremost in his mind intellectually at all times. He has become, as it were, the stereotype of the ¨pervert¨ who sees, even seeks, sexual innuendo and suggestion/stimulation everywhere, in the form of the comely, the ugly, the of age, the underage, the old, those of the opposite sex and those of his own, the human and non-human, the animate and inanimate, the private, the public, the profane, and the holy, etc., in short, Coates seems on the verge of being inducted by his own obsessive blindness into the ¨white supremacist¨ hell of his own benightedly simplistic imagination.

In that regard, might it not be said that his own haunting by monomaniacal obsessions, which perforce reduce reality to the grossest yet most simplistic of perturbations, mirror those, mutatis mutandis, of Michael Jackson and Kanye West? And yet that, at the same time, those monomaniacal obsessions are themselves a determining coping mechanism before the frightening complexity of human reality, and its countless as yet unseen horizons of possibility?

(apologies if a double post, had trouble posting for some reason)

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 11, 2018 @ 12:25 am

Also consider that as soon as the supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act, Republicans in several states enacted laws designed to suppress minority voting. In Wisconsin this made the difference in 2016.

Wishful thinking. There were journalists running all over Wisconsin to find out what gave Trump his razor-thin lock on the state’s electoral votes. The difference between 2012 and 2016 was voters who twice voted for Barack Obama but couldn’t stomach Hillary Clinton and would rather take a chance on Donald Trump. Most black voters in Wisconsin live in districts where electoral commissions make every effort to find any legal way to get a person a ballot. I’ve worked at three different polling sites in Milwaukee. There was no statistically significant suppression. There was simply a lack of stomach for Hillary Clinton. Most of those swing voters are, not surprisingly, heartily sick of Trump, for obvious reasons, which is showing up in Republican losses in special legislative elections.

(Raskolnik… when you have some facts to offer, by all means get back to us.)

#10 Comment By Kevin OBrien On May 11, 2018 @ 2:42 am

I’m sorry you are suffering again from your sickness, Rod, but this sleepless night produced one of your best posts ever.

#11 Comment By AC Metcalf On May 12, 2018 @ 5:56 pm

Of the several statements you made in this article that “popped out” at me, one that especially caught my attention was, “The result for me was to be left unable to remain a Catholic.” I took that to mean you could then choose something else (Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.,) that might bring you relief. Given that the foundational treatment of Blacks by Whites is based on the color of their skin, can you suggest a relative way for TNC to get relief from his symptoms?

#12 Comment By stephen cooper On May 12, 2018 @ 10:01 pm

Rod, I have some good advice for poor Mr Coates: I have not read all the comments here, and there may be better comments above, so take this for what it is worth.

If you are not black – maybe you are Asian, or white, or Hispanic – but if you like even one black person enough to consider him or her a friend, whether you are “black” or not, you know that almost all black people in the USA of today wake up every morning happy that they are black. I have many black friends and they love the world they live in, just as everybody does, because it is full of people who care about them.

In the little universe of “media”, white people are told again and again about how bad the white people of days gone by often were, and almost none of the media bigwigs bother to say every other race was full of bad people who had their good times but who were bad people, but nevertheless, any white person who has even once in their life had a friend who was not white knows this – nobody, of any race, wakes up in the morning thinking that their race has been all that more cruel than any other race. I know poor Mr Coates has made a couple million dollars out of insisting otherwise, but everybody, even poor Mr Coates if he wants to be honest with himself, knows this:

blacks enslaved blacks for hundreds of generations in Africa without feeling a single moment of effectual repentance. You can look it up.

whites enslaved blacks for a while in the USA and within a couple generations of that they were so upset about it that a few million of them tried to kill a few million others of them, resulting in many dead white people, hundreds of thousands of them dead in defense of black people. That was effectual repentance: if you would not have died on the fields of battle with those white people, you cannot argue with that. Poor little Mr Coates does not know if he would have been so brave. I like to think he would have been. I like to think the best about my fellow humans.

And it is indescribably evil to mock those brave black firefighters who gave their lives for others, back in the day. Well we all have said evil things in our day, with a few exceptions. But for the love of God, those men charged up the stairs in a skyscraper that they knew would soon collapse, because they had love in their heart for people they did not know! Thank God for people like that.

Thanks for reading.

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 13, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

History is a bit more nuanced than Stephen Cooper puts it, although his comment is a step in the right direction, because history is also more nuanced than Coates seems to have imagined.

Slavery has been a common feature of most human cultures since the dawn of history. Africa was certainly no exception. It is also true that tapping Africa for slaves to establish and work plantations in the western hemisphere was a good business primarily because Africa had slaves for sale. There was no “effectual repentance” because Africa received philosophies that were, incidentally, anti-slavery, at the point of a bayonette, with plenty of oppression that had a different structure imposed as well.

Very few union soldiers in the civil war died in defense of black people. It was in fact commonplace to insist “I will fight to preserve the union but I will not fight to free Negroes.” President Lincoln offered a very apt response: ‘which we have done everything necessary to preserve the union, and I ask you to continue fighting, that would be the time to tell me you will not fight to free Negroes.’ It IS true that the civil war was all about slavery. It would not have happened but for the determination of those who engineered the confederate rebellion to preserve “the institution of Negro slavery.” And, as Lincoln learned and recognized in the course of the war, it was impossible to preserve the union without destroying slavery. But plenty of union soldiers went home after ending slavery with deep-seated hatred of Negroes still intact.

That doesn’t mean we don’t honor their service. Nor does it diminish that the outcome of the war was to abolish slavery. But trying to assign gratitude is a thornier task.

#14 Comment By Aaron Cates On August 3, 2018 @ 11:48 am

Here’s the thing dude, and I ask this as a southern white guy – are you black? Did you grow up black in America? If not, you don’t know and can never know what that’s like, so you can’t fairly judge a black person’s feelings on race. It’s really that simple.

This attitude that TNC is “obsessed with race” is a lame argument. White people made it about race. White people set up a system where black people aren’t equal because of their skin color. Black people aren’t responsible for that. You don’t get to tell a disadvantaged group of people to stop focusing on the thing that makes them disadvantaged, especially when you belong to the group of people who benefit from their disadvantage. That’s ludicrous.

The conservative white guy argument about race is always “well, race wouldn’t be an issue anymore if black people would just let it go. I think everyone’s equal, so if you think I’m privileged just because of my skin color, then YOU’RE the racist.” But here’s the thing: as white people we ARE inherently privileged in America thanks to our skin color. It’s not some Black Panther propaganda – it’s a fact.

So why is it so hard when a black dude says something you don’t like to say “you know what – I don’t know what this guy goes through. He seems upset, I’m just gonna shut up and listen to him”? Why is it so hard to do that? Why does there always have to be some white-guy-knows-best self-defense? I think it’s because somewhere deep down inside, you can’t stand the thought of a black guy having the last word. You just can’t let that happen. But you know, he’s the racist one.

[NFR: He is racist. Why does there often have to be some black-guy-thinks-he-doesn’t-have-to-be-held-to-the-same-moral-standards-as-all-people-because-his-people-suffered-terribly? That’s the way to corruption. I have a (white) friend who had an abusive childhood, and because of that, thinks that she has the right to treat everyone else however she wants to, and excuses herself from following normal standards, because of her childhood. We who know her have learned not to challenge her, because she has made her victimhood the standard by which she judges reality. She thinks that we’re all on her side, but the truth is — and some of us have talked about it — is that we know that no conversation with her can be “real” because she judges everything based on who she thinks is on her side, and who isn’t. It all comes back to the traumatic wound. If we disagree with her on *anything*, then we are siding with her abusive father, and denying (in her mind) the reality of her abuse. It’s crazy, and it has driven a lot of friends away. I don’t see her much anymore, because those conversations are not real, but rather about proving to her that we are “good people” by agreeing with her. Don’t agree with her about even small things? That just shows how heartless you are. It’s exhausting. Don’t be that way about race. — RD]