I think that the first time I heard of Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates was on an episode of Democracy Now. He was interviewed about Bernie Sanders’ stance on reparations and they mentioned a piece he wrote for The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.” I found this discussion extremely substantive and surprisingly compelling. Becoming a responsible and active citizen apparently took leaving the country. After being questioned in the interview and a brief pause, he admitted that he would be voting for Mr. Sanders and cited the idea of complexity. The idea of complexity of thought and reason was amorphous to me prior to Paul Farmer discussing it in Mountains Beyond Mountains (written by Tracey Kidder). Mr. Coates did not call it complexity, but he reminded me that we can criticize the candidates we like just as much as those we do not, and still vote for them. He later wrote a piece called “Against Endorsements” which also pushed me to think about what exactly an endorsement is and means.
Since these first few interviews, I have come to take note of his work in many places. I have been reading past works in The Atlantic, and just read my first book by him Between The World and Me. His writing is to the point, structurally sound, and still has a rhythm and poetry about it. Even when I disagree with his position, I always feel his point is logical and valid. I am glad to have found his work, and I live with the joy of being able to work backwards and forwards through his work. Like a great band in the the middle of their career, I get to go back through the body of work that led him to this point.
What It Is:
A book written to his son that explains who he is, why he is, where he came from, and what the world is to and for him. In beautiful prose he discusses his coming of age and challenges during his upbringing, time in college, struggle to become a writer, marriage, fatherhood, and the challenges imposed by American society.
Why It Matters:
Well, it won the Nation Book Award. More importantly, I think this book elucidates most of the more compelling failures of our society to justly treat people whom have always been marginalized in our society. With a little work, you can see the complex interrelations of forces at work to subjugate, subvert, and steal too many lives in our society.
What stood out to me:
I read this book shortly after reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs, so it was hard not to compare the lives of these two men. The most poignant thing was that Jeff Hobbs was trying to make sense of the life and death of Robert Peace and he just does not get it. He worked very hard and wrote a nice book, but he could not get it and I could not get it. Ta-Nehisi Coates is an interesting parallel, but it is not my place to compare their lives in public. However, I felt like I understood Mr. Coates experiences, triumphs, struggles, and fears as well I think I could hope to.
My Favorite Moment:
I have been reading a lot of social justice books, and sometimes I think I lose site of the pride, joy, and happiness of the people I am reading about. Sometimes, this is because I am reading statistics and about groups instead of about individual people. Perhaps it was because my childhood friend Patrick just visited and it was nice to be around someone who really knows me, but there is a moment that stopped me in the book. It felt remarkably unremarkable.
I bumped into a young black man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.” And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world. And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds—the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us (Pg119, Loc1272, 2015).
I think I know the feeling he is talking about, and I do not know it at the same time. For me that rapport is between me and a few people from my tiny town in Illinois - but the struggle we felt ends up looking pretty small.
A Final Thought:
Although a must read and a relatively quick read, I do not want to leave you with the impression that it is a light read.
Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline" (Pg150, Loc1579, 2015).