Ta-Neshi Coates is widely regarded as America’s best and brightest social critic (and I share the sentiment). If writers wield power through their employment and arrangement of words, Coates flexed his muscles in the 2014 essay in The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations” which moved the debate in an entirely new direction. It certainly opened to the possibility of a legitimate claim for reparations which avoided the non-starter argument of slavery as the justification.
Coates is having his moment in the spotlight as he makes the rounds of television, magazine, web interviews to promote his new book, Between the World and Me. Already the book has been lauded by liberals, crapped on by critics and its author praised by one of America’s literary lions.
“I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Toni Morrison in a note to Ta-Neshi Coates’ agent.
That annoting did not sit well with one Cornel West who took to his Facebook page to retort:
In Defense of James Baldwin – Why Toni Morrison (a literary genius) is Wrong about Ta-Nehisi Coates. Baldwin was a great writer of profound courage who spoke truth to power. Coates is a clever wordsmith with journalistic talent who avoids any critique of the Black president in power. Baldwin’s painful self-examination led to collective action and a focus on social movements. He reveled in the examples of Medgar, Martin, Malcolm, Fannie Lou Hamer and Angela Davis. Coates’s fear-driven self-absorption leads to individual escape and flight to safety – he is cowardly silent on the marvelous new militancy in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Oakland, Cleveland and other places. Coates can grow and mature, but without an analysis of capitalist wealth inequality, gender domination, homophobic degradation, Imperial occupation (all concrete forms of plunder) and collective fightback (not just personal struggle) Coates will remain a mere darling of White and Black Neo-liberals, paralyzed by their Obama worship and hence a distraction from the necessary courage and vision we need in our catastrophic times. How I wish the prophetic work of serious intellectuals like Robin DG Kelley, Imani Perry, Gerald Horne, Eddie Glaude commanded the attention the corporate media gives Coates. But in our age of superficial spectacle, even the great Morrison is seduced by the linguistic glitz and political silences of Coates as we all hunger for the literary genius and political engagement of Baldwin. As in jazz, we must teach our youth that immature imitation is suicide and premature elevation is death. Brother Coates continue to lift your gifted voice to your precious son and all of us, just beware of the white noise and become connected to the people’s movements!
There are many ways to take that. I take that to mean Cornel West thinks Toni Morrison and Ta-Neshi Coates are full of shit.
But so is West if he (a) thinks James Baldwin needs defending and (b) he’s the guy to do the defending.
Michael Eric Dyson, the former West ally turned bitter enemy went public with his break in a New Republic piece, dumped derision on West’s kneecapping of Coates in an interview “It shows the vast ineptitude of Professor West’s scholarship. The point I made in my piece is that he doesn’t keep up, he doesn’t read the freshest, newest, most insightful scholarship, nor does he write about it in any serious fashion or teach it in his curriculum, and it shows here.”
Dyson described Coates as a “greatly gifted writer” who forms “sentences and thoughts that sing on the page and stick to the mind.”
“Every charge he made against Ta-Nehisi is patently false,” Dyson added. “Shall I introduce you to his essay on reparations? It has every bit of the analysis that West was hankering for,”
Dyson rallied to Morrison’s defense. “And so now that makes her look like a dupe and a boob when she is a literary genius who possesses a Nobel Prize in literature,” he said. “I think her pedigree of assessment is far more convincing than Cornel West’s.”
Coates may have incurred West’s undying wrath in 2011 in an essay entitled, where he wrote:
In the matter at hand, there is no real difference between the tribalism offered by [Dinesh] D’Souza and his ilk, and the tribalism offered by West and his defenders. There is no real difference between Tea Partiers who insist that NAACP are the actual racists, and those who believe Obama is a “black mascot” damning the influence of identity politics. There is no real difference between those who push their agenda by implying that Obama isn’t really American, and those who push their agenda by implying that Obama isn’t really black.
Both are afflicted with a species of blindness, and intellectual sloth. Understanding and debating actual policy is hard. Enumerating perceived slights and name-calling, and dubbing it a black agenda, is not.
It may have taken him four years to return fire, but West never forgets an insult and never forgives the insulter.
West has become a small, petty, vulgar, envious and shriveled little man. His ego is second only to the equally vulgar Donald J. Trump. I now consider him a failed intellectual who has invalidated his earlier status as one of the leading voices in Black Thought.
West has nearly abrogated any claim to being a serious thinker to be taken seriously. His pathological hatred of Barack Obama coupled with his envy and spitefulness for anyone like Coates who disagrees with or eclipses him is sad beyond words. He’s become a really smart rapper with no flow who enjoys playing the Dozens with big words.
West is a crank living off his rep and is clearly on the down escalator of his career as Coates passes him on the way up.