Following a very public and personal attack on him by Harvard University professor Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates has deleted his Twitter account, which had more than 1 million followers. West’s scorching screed, excoriating Coates as a “neoliberal” who fetishizes white supremacy, reads the way you’d expect from a man whose big plan since the 1960s has been to occupy the student government building.
But before digging into his hyperbolic word salad, it’s worth considering a tremor from Columbia University professor and black centrist John McWhorter earlier this month that preceded this earthquake in the black intelligentsia. I’ll quote his remarks at length:
I deal with a lot of intellectual whites, I work on a campus full of them. And it’s become a kind of shibboleth of being of that class that you are supposed to do your genuflection to Coates…I would definitely say at least once a week I have to deal with this. Some very earnest white person who is assuming that I think of that person’s writing as scripture, or frankly, as brilliantly reasoned. And I feel personally insulted, because to me, they are letting pass- I hate saying this about something or somebody, but I guess I have to, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow- They are letting pass as genius, something which they never would if it was not a black person doing it, and I think, is that how they’re judging me? Are they telling me that I’m so wonderful because they think that it’s a good thing because I’m brown? It makes me sick.
A few important points here feed directly into West’s criticism of Coates. First and foremost is the way in which mainly white intellectuals have cast Coates as the greatest thinker of his generation. More importantly, whites’ genuflection to Coates has become a way for them to signal that they get it, that they are racially cool.
West contends that Coates’ pessimistic and neoliberal view of America’s racial woes is too short on policy and collective action, and too full of Morrissey-esque gloom for gloom’s sake. It’s a gloom his white readership can share in and in so doing be let off the hook.
This is, at least in part, a fair criticism, but it badly misses the point of Coates’ work. Coates has never been a policy wonk or a political organizer. He’s not a Harvard Yard Marxist revolutionary like West. Coates is, more than anything else, a fine writer.
One need look no further than his seminal piece in favor of reparations to see that Coates is a storyteller, not an architect of public policy or collective action. In that article he is upfront that he has no specific system for reparations in mind. Rather, he writes in chilling detail about crimes the United States has committed against its black citizens.
It’s Not Coates’ Fault People Have Seized Upon Him
Coates is often compared to James Baldwin, and in many ways it is a fitting comparison. Both succeed is in laying bare not just what it means, but how it feels to be black in America. This is important, and worthy of adulation, if not the sainthood recently canonized upon Coates. He’s a good writer, and frankly, that should be enough.
Unlike West, who squarely blames Coates for self-promotion on the backs of suffering black folks, McWhorter takes a more generous view. He says of Coates, “I don’t think he’s done anything wrong, my indictment is against the people who are elevating him out of what can only be called bigotry.” This is important; Coates never asked to be nor claimed to be the source of America’s racial salvation.
In a recent appearance on “The Colbert Show,” Coates stunned his jovial, progressive host by refusing to say he had hope for the racial situation in America. One could almost feel the color drain from the faces of white liberals all over the country, muttering to themselves, “But Ta Nehisi, you’re our only hope.”
But he isn’t and he’s never been. This gets us to the real reasons West is attacking this prominent, relatively young black voice. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb has suggested there is an element of professional jealousy at work here, and that may be true. West has always seen himself as the rightful heir to the radical civil rights movement and surely resents losing that place. But it’s deeper than that. Like so much of the conversation about race in America, West is focused on the legacy of one man: Barack Obama.
West Hates Obama for Disproving Endemic Racism
West’s disdain for Obama is rooted in the fact that his election as president of the United States was absolutely anathema to the way West believed blacks would achieve political power. The very fact of a black president undermined West’s fundamental beliefs about the racist nature of American society. In response, West had little choice but to mock Obama as a neoliberal in blackface, a position that Coates, who might be described as the court scribe of the Obama administration, rejected.
One quote from West’s article stands out, as West attacks Coates for comparing Obama to Malcolm X as the only man alive who, in the words of Ossie Davis’ eulogy of X, can be described as “our living, black manhood” and “our own black shining prince.” West writes, “This gross misunderstanding of who Malcolm X was – the greatest prophetic voice against the American Empire – and who Barack Obama is – the first black head of the American Empire – speaks volumes about Coates’ neoliberal view of the world.”
This is precisely where West, the frustrated Ivy League revolutionary, misunderstands Coates. For West, the repository of black manhood must be a fellow traveller, an opponent of American power. But Coates is not first and foremost a political or ideological writer. Again, he is a storyteller. While West sees a young black boy’s heart swelling with pride at Obama’s power, poise, and intellect as a betrayal to his Marxist cause, Coates rightfully understands a deeper cultural and societal phenomenon at work, one that tells that child he is worthy of value and love.
Obama’s Failures Also Deserve Blame
What Coates views as a betrayal is not Obama’s refusal to govern like Che Guevara, but white America’s decision to replace him with Donald Trump. He is not alone in this. For many prominent black writers the election of Trump, who ran the closest thing to a white identity politics campaign that we have seen in a generation, has been jarring and dispiriting. No writer has captured better than Coates what a slap in face many black Americans felt when Trump took over Obama’s job.
Reading Coates over the past year, one feels a sense of despondency and anger, as if he has been awakened from a beautiful dream only to find himself back in a cold, ugly room with no coffee. Sitting across from him, staring with dagger eyes, is West, eager to say “I told you so.” I greatly admire Coates, and I’m pulling for him, that he can once again find the hope that Obama seemed to spark in him. But some of that is on Obama.
My own hope was that in his post-presidency Obama could become the voice we dearly need to navigate the deep and troubled waters of our racial past and present. In significant ways, President Trump makes that possibility difficult and less likely. The president’s racial rhetoric would make any overtures from Obama appear as attacks on Trump, in a way that would not be true under a president Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.
Coates is not here to save us. That is work for men with higher ambitions than finding the word or sentence that is just so. Yes, he cashes the checks, but it’s not his fault that white liberals have anointed him as the voice of his generation. So long as he continues, as Baldwin did before him, to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscious of his race, that is enough.
Just as so many young black men will follow Obama’s star into policy and public service, many will find in Coates a worthy wordsmith to emulate long after West and his Marxist agenda are lost to the dustbin of history.