Maybe “Culture Belongs to Everyone,” as they say at New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park shows, but the works of Atlantic essayist and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates appear to exist in another realm altogether. In the weeks since the publication of Between the World and Me, Coates’s letter to his teenage son about the perils and promise of being black and male in America, critics have struggled to find adjectives to match his achievements. Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post summed up recent discussions of who counted as America’s foremost “public intellectual” by concluding: “Coates has won that title for himself, and it isn’t even close.” New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott tweeted: “ ‘Must read’ doesn’t even come close. This from @tanehisicoates is essential, like water or air.”
The book’s devotees ask not just whether we can “come close” to fathoming its genius but whether we, and especially the whites among us, have the moral standing even to aspire to. The novelist Michael Chabon begs pardon:
I know that this book is addressed to the author’s son, and by obvious analogy to all boys and young men of color as they pass, inexorably, into harm’s way. I hope that I will be forgiven, then, for feeling that Ta-Nehisi Coates was speaking to me, too, one father to another, teaching me that real courage is the courage to be vulnerable.
The Times columnist David Brooks was clearly troubled by a passage in which Coates recalls watching the World Trade Center towers burn on September 11, 2001, and remembers having seen “no difference” between a policeman who had shot one of his college classmates and those police and firemen then being incinerated in the buildings. (“They were not human to me.”) But Brooks managed to catch himself before he committed an act of lèse-majesté: “I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it,” he wrote, “to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?”
Other white public intellectuals were ready to offer guidance. Wrote Toronto National Post columnist Emily Keeler: “It’s despicable for Brooks to position the destruction of people’s lives as some kind of learning opportunity for white people. . . . Coates isn’t writing to or for us, fellow white people.” But Keeler could not help taking a little peek at the book herself, and now, she writes, she “wouldn’t give up the chance to bear witness to that bracing act of love, and perhaps, to feel changed by it, for the world.”
Plunder and reparation
For decades, several books every publishing season have promised an “authentic” account of the experience of being black in America. But the 39-year-old Coates, a Baltimore native, has struck it very big. We learn from New York magazine that he even shows up late for meetings with the president. Coates claims as his model a classic of the black autobiographical genre, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). It is not immediately clear, though, what distinguishes Coates’s effort from the heap of less distinguished books written in Baldwin’s wake. To figure this out one must look at “The Case for Reparations,” a 16,000-word essay Coates wrote for the Atlantic last year, which won him a wide Internet following. The article makes no explicit “case” that someone should pay today’s blacks for the mistreatment of yesterday’s. The case gets made by implication, through a thumbnail history of American slavery, the racial prejudice that underlay it, and the inequality and injustice that survived it.