I Object to what Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Probably Writing

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me book blurb on Amazon, and I strongly disagree with what I think he might be saying. Coates’ book is a stirring and challenging account of black life in America, addressed to his son, who happens to be black. Reading it from cover to flipping it over and reading the back cover, I feel very uncomfortable with its message and whatever way he’s expressing it.

Coates has a long history of controversial writing going back a year. This is the same author who wrote an article about the black family in an age of mass incarceration, according to that article’s title. He also made a case for reparations for slavery. Reparations! Can you believe that? The impracticality of such a scheme is mind-boggling. How are we to decide who gets them? Does a black person who’s only been in this country since 1919, and who hasn’t been sharecropping for 75 years, deserve money? Does someone who looks white but is actually part-Norwegian get any? Do white people in general get anything? That would be awesome.

Coates’ writing about the foundational conception of race in American history, and the way that American institutions control and marginalize black bodies, is profoundly disturbing idea that we all should avoid thinking about. I was pleased to see that the editors of the Atlantic magazine, where Coates has published some provocative ideas, closed the comment section on his articles. If there’s anything that helps the nation confront its history of racism and intolerance, it’s deliberately preventing racists from expressing their opinions in public, well-documented, freely visible sources. I know I don’t want to be drawn into a conversation about it.

The bigger point I’m trying to make is that I read somewhere that Coates thinks firefighters and police are part of the system of institutional control over black lives. How can that be? There must be hundreds of black firefighters around the country, maybe more. Some of our best police officers are black and racist. What’s more, Oprah is rich! And Obama is President! Won’t anything satisfy him? Is there no prominent position we can let a few black people succeed in that will change his mind?

Perhaps I am being too harsh. After all, the cover of Between the World and Me is pretty generic. And he’ll soon be writing a series about the comic-book hero Black Panther, which shows that he has a sense of fun and is easily confused about who the Blank Panthers were, like the rest of us. Indeed, if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s that Coates is a master stylist. He puts words together in sentences, and they read real nice. It’s simply unfortunate that every word he uses is one I wouldn’t have chosen. The cumulative effect of his writing is tenderly composed works which irritate and soothe you, like when you scratch yourself. Compare that to, say, Frederick Douglass, whose work I’m quite familiar with. Douglass was a great stylist as well, but he communicated a message that was uplifting, because it was written at a time when things were really very, very bad. Have you read about what used to happen in our country? I would advise against it.

In sum, I’ll just say that I hope that Coates learns to temper his inflammatory rhetoric and appalling recitation of things that happened. If he does, I’ll look forward to reading his books using Amazon’s “look inside” feature. It can be pretty useful.

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