U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Scribe of the Post-Soul Age

Between the World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son, is a meditation on African American life in America in 2015. And that needs to be remembered, especially when others compare Coates to, say, James Baldwin. Before I continue it is crucial to point this out: there will never be another James Baldwin. We do not need another Baldwin. Coates has never presented himself as another Baldwin. Instead, what modern society needs is someone who will speak to the issues of our time. That isn’t to say the words of Baldwin are irrelevant to debates in 2015—on the contrary, any truly good and powerful writing will speak across generations, across national, ethnic, and racial boundaries. But when we compare Coates to Baldwin, whether for good or ill, we risk missing the unique elements of Coates’ book, blog posts, and lengthy Atlantic Monthly essays born out of his experience growing up in Baltimore during the Reagan years, attending Howard University during the 1990s, and rising through the ranks of journalism as the War on Terror raged.

As a historian, I am struck by how Coates invokes history throughout his work. Between the World and Me should be seen, at least partially, as an intellectual autobiography. Considering that Coates’ blog space on The Atlantic Monthly’s website has been a chronicle of his journey through history, reading, and encountering new books, we should not be surprised. But Between the World and Me as an intellectual autobiography speaks to both the importance of people and place in the construction—and reconstruction—of any person’s intellectual background. When paired with The Beautiful Struggle, Coates’ first book and a memoir about his life in Baltimore, readers vicariously experience an African American man’s intellectual quest shaped by the War on Drugs and the debates over multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Coates’ time at Howard University looms large here.

Coates’ description of Howard University as a gateway to knowledge about the African diaspora is an important part of Between the World and Me. Up until this point, Coates saw himself as an ardent black nationalist, shaped by the racial tensions of the 1980s. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers,” wrote Coates in describing his worldview before attending Howard in the early 1990s.[1] The upsurge in support for Malcolm X iconography in the late 1980s and early 1990s, culminating with the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival - Day 5release of the 1992 film Malcolm X, is seen through the eyes of Coates as a young man in a crime-riddled, racially segregated East Coast city. If you’ve read Andrew Hartman’s “The Color Line” chapter in A War for the Soul of America or perused David Chappell’s Waking from the Dream to understand the development of Civil Rights Movement memory from 1968 until the early 1990s, you might recognize the strains of early 1990s culture wars coming through in Coates’ memory of the period. The academic world at Howard University that Coates describes in fawning detail was, in many ways, a redoubt for African American academics embroiled in the Culture Wars.

Coates remembers reading the Saul Bellow quote “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” and Ralph Wiley responding, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus”; and he recalls becoming a mainstay at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University’s premier research institution, exploring a new intellectual world: “I would arrive in the morning and request, three slips at a time, the works of every writer I had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown.”[2] These names cover the spectrum of African American (indeed, black international) intellectual thought in the twentieth century.

Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: Between the World and Me is an excellent window into life in Baltimore at the height of the War on Drugs. When we make comparisons between Coates and Baldwin, we risk obscuring the vast differences in the backgrounds of the two men. Baldwin himself commented on the world that Coates was born into: “The poverty of my childhood differed from poverty today in that the TV set was not sitting in front of our faces, forcing us to make unbearable comparisons between the room we were sitting in and the rooms we were watching; neither were we endlessly being told what to wear and drink and buy.”[3] Baldwin’s writing after The Fire Next Time speaks as much to this world as it does to the halcyon days of the Civil Rights Movement. Considering his haunting passages in the essays contained in No Name in the Street, or his work in places like The Nation during the 1970s and 1980s, lamenting America’s failure to continue the changes agitated for by civil rights demonstrators. And in many ways, Baldwin12Baldwin’s later writing links to Coates, who is writing in an era coming to terms with both the successes and failures of the 1960s movement. This overlap, and not whether or not Coates is the “next Baldwin,” should fascinate more readers. Comparing the two writers is understandable, but it should only be done to better understand one writer or the other—not to compare them the way ESPN personalities argue about Kobe Bryant versus Michael Jordan.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an important writer to grapple with in our “post-soul,” or post-civil rights and black power, era of African American politics (seen in Eddie S. Glaude’s In a Shade of Blue and Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago, and born out of Nelson George’s book Post-Soul Nation on African Americans and the 1980s). It will be interesting to see where Coates goes next in his work, and how his critique of American society will change in a post-President Obama landscape. In short, Ta-Nehisi Coates is not the James Baldwin of our time. And he does not need to be. He should simply be the Ta-Nehisi Coates of our era. Historians, now and in the future, would be well-advised to consider his work from that point of view.

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), p. 36.

[2] Coates, 46.

[3] James Baldwin. “Dark Days,” in Baldwin: Collected Essays. (New York: The Library of America, 1998) Originally published in Esquire, October 1980.

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  1. The way Coates’ work continues to evolve is fascinating, I have slowly become a fan, though always with a critical eye. I find particularly interesting his transformation from the black nationalist young adult to the seemingly more self reflective figure of today. I sometimes have had problems pinpointing Coates’ politics within the left spectrum, and I think he very consciously articulates that image, a key distinction from Baldwin. And some contemporary black critics have called him out on what they see as a social and political discourse that doesn’t push the envelope enough, that in a way he is a continuation of the celebrity intellectual, West and co., criticized by the likes of Adolph Reed. A recent review suggested that he was suffering from a narcisstic obsession with his authorial voice! Evidently, his thought does not situate itself as revolutionary, yet in that constant rumination of the self I see a much necessary discursive form, especially for so called radicalisms in the US left.

    • You make some great points here, as always. And I have no doubt that he’ll continue to play with ideas in his writing, which is what I find so fascinating about Coates. Remember, he used to be on the record opposing reparations before he changed his mind.

      I am actually curious, speaking of Adolph Reed, if he’ll respond to Coates’ book at all. I wish Reed was better known.

  2. Excellent. And I loved the point about how comparing Baldwin an Coates comes across like the Jordan vs. Kobe bloviating on ESPN. It’s exactly like First Take in form and in level of discourse.

    • Thanks! And agreed. It seems to permeate our society–who is the Jordan/Baldwin/Joe Montana/etc. of our era.

    • You would be surprised. It’s certainly one of the more maddening comparisons, but it happens.

  3. great piece. i’ve read coates since he first started at the atlantic and his politics has shifted radically to the left. he once described himself early on as a left-libertarian. he believed in everything liberals said but was not convinced white people/country at large would do anyting to rectify the situation, so he concentrated more on black self help etc, where as the traditional liberal is more concerned with inditing and pushing mainstream/white america at large to do right, the early coates wasnt with that.

    he has changed though.

    one thing i find fascinating is the politics of the black intellegestia. cornel west came out blasting coates recently and its amazing how these guys fight to protect their turf, no different than rappers etc.

    • Good observation about Coates, and as for black intellectuals you’re right. Between this and the earlier conflict between West and Dyson, it’s not been the best year to be a “black intellectual.”

  4. Robert, thanks for this excellent piece. I am interested in the idea of the “post-soul intellectual”–what are the core features, would you say, of this new formation?

    • I’d argue that a “post-soul intellectual” is one who is focused on African American politics, culture, and intellectual thought that was born out of the post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power eras. They see issues of race, ethnicity, and gender through a prism of the War on Drugs, deindustrialization, and liberalism’s retreat within the Democratic Party. Also, it’s worth noting that this generation is aware of the benefits that come with desegregated colleges, corporations, etc., but argues that they are also seriously limited by structural racism.

  5. Nice post Robert. I’m wondering if the Baldwin comparison might be useful at some level other than collapsing Coates into Baldwin by a simple act of identification. What Toni Morrison and others might be trying to say about Coates is not that he’s just the same as Baldwin, but that, like Baldwin, he uses the resources of an African-American vernacular and an expanded self-reflective autobiography in pursuit of a specifically literary goal, but a goal that invokes a broad moral vision and understanding of race in America. Unlike many contemporary African-American intellectuals, Coates identifies first and foremost as a writer, as someone obsessed with language and its expressive possibilities. In interviews, when asked for policy solutions or active steps of organization, he defers to his status as a writer, as someone who sees and expresses his vision, rather than as an activist. His great essay on Reparations, for instance, is an argument for a vision of a reconstructed world made right, but it defers talking about policy specifics or implementations–it is a questioning, an opening up of a way of seeing. I think it’s this sense of being a writer–rather than a philosopher, a social critic, or a social scientist–that makes Coates comparable to Baldwin. In Baldwin’s writings, the literary resources are frequently religious and grow out of the background of his abandoned Christian upbringing; in Coates, the resources are the popular culture of his youth–of Hip Hop–and of his readings in the black intellectual and literary world of the 1960s and beyond (post-soul, as you call it). But they both harness those resources–and combine a kind of intellectual humility with a righteous anger–in service of an imaginative and transformative voice. The literary essay, the autobiographical reflection, are their effective forms. I think you’re right to point out the different historical conditions and situations of the two writers, and to push back against the attempt to find a categorical niche into which to put a writer like Coates. But at the same time, I think those who invoke Baldwin as a model for Coates do so as a form of illuminating praise, and not as a straightjacket or a way to diminish Coates, his accomplishments, and his moral vision.

    • I think you make some great points here. In particular, Coates’ argument that he is “just a writer” is illustrative of his desire to be free to make the kinds of arguments that policy wonks and politicians cannot make.

      This is the best way we can compare Baldwin and Coates–not saying who is the better writer, but asking, “How do they use their writing to critique a society that they both acknowledge they are a part of?” In this, we all benefit. But too much of the comparing in the media seems to miss that argument–I think, however, as time goes by, we will get more of that.

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