I’ve been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for several years. I’ve enjoyed the blog, and his books (The Beautiful Struggle, Between the world and me, and We were eight years in power). They’re all well worth reading.
One of the things I particularly enjoy about TNC is the way he approaches writing on line. I haven’t seen any hot-takes of his that I can remember, and I think he is genuinely engaged in intellectual give-and-take – in learning more, and in particular acknowledging the gaps in his own knowledge, and being willing to learn visibly, to be seen to be learning, which takes some humility to really do.
I saw the piece that Cornel West wrote in The Guardian, which subsequently blew up online. My two cents on that debate aren’t really worth two cents, for a range of reasons. So these are just my own notes, part of my own thinking it through; in the spirit of TNC, I suppose – thinking it through, but acknowledging there’s a lot I don’t know in this area. You should read other people on this, who are better informed and better placed to speak on the issue. There’s a lot out there – I found this tweet string an interesting place to start.
One of the things I’ve found, in reading part of TNC’s work, is that he acknowledges explicitly that there are areas he doesn’t tend to write on, because it’s not his turf. International relations. Broader politics. Which is refreshingly honest, but at times a part of me has wanted him to make that leap – to apply the gift he has of researching, synthesising, and writing beautifully, to bring it all together in writing about power, gender, race and economics.
I’ve read a few critiques of Coates’ writing since the furore occasioned by West’s piece, and the one that stuck out at me was a piece by Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think I agree that there is an ‘analytical lacuna’ in Coates’ writing (although I wouldn’t describe it as ‘conspicuous’).
Part of the beauty of Coates’ writing, is that he is committed to the idea of writing, of ‘art’ as a radically honest vision of the real world around us, as he says in We were eight years in power:
It [art] had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire not to be enrolled in its lie, not to be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.
Mishra writes that ‘… Coates is indifferent to the links between race and international political economy …’ (he writes it in a larger sentence, but I don’t think I misrepresent it by quoting that fragment). I don’t know that I would agree that Coates is indifferent. I would imagine that he is deeply moved, and having read some of his writing, I would argue that you can see a shift over time in his thinking on gender, as his understanding becomes more nuanced (to pick only one power relationship of many). But I would say that if Coates wanted to write about it, I would love reading something by him about how gender, race, and economic disparities of power interlock and are inter-structured.
As Mishra acknowledges, Coates sees himself as someone learning, growing in understanding, and concludes:
Coates’s project of unflinching self-education and polemic has never seemed more urgent, and it has only just begun.
I would agree, that I think I would love to see Coates write about broader economic processes, and how they link to other power dynamics – to give us his version of a people’s history. Having said that, I don’t think he’s under any obligation to do so – if he wants to write solely about racial politics in America, I think he’s entitled to do so.
I also think it’s fair to say that there’s a set of connected issues, that relate to questions about justice, power and truth, that are at the heart of Coates’ writing project. I think it’s also true that if he doesn’t address them, he isn’t giving the full picture to some of his own questions. But, it’s his writing – he’s the one with the MacArther grant. He can write about whatever he wants to write about.