Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Date: 2021
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,691 words

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About this Person
Born: September 30, 1975 in Baltimore, Maryland, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Updated:Apr. 13, 2021
 
PERSONAL INFORMATION:

First name is pronounced "tah-nuh-hah-see;" born September 30, 1975; son of William Paul Coates and Cheryl Waters; married Kenyatta Matthews; children: Samori Maceo-Paul (son). Education: Attended Howard University. Memberships: Phi Beta Kappa. Addresses: Home: New York, NY.

 
CAREER:

Writer, memoirist, comic book writer, educator, and journalist. Village Voice, former staff writer; Time magazine, former staff writer; Washington City Paper, former journalist; Atlantic, senior editor and national correspondent. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), MLK visiting professor for writing, 2012-14; City University of New York, journalist-in-residence, 2014; New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, distinguished writer in residence, 2017; Best Limited Series, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, 2018, for Black Panther: World of Wakanda.

 
AWARDS:

Hillman Prize for opinion and analysis journalism, 2012; National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism, 2013, for "Fear of a Black President;" George Polk Award for Commentary, 2014; Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Prize for writing to advance social justice, 2015; MacArthur "Genius" Award, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2015; American Library in Paris Visiting Fellowship, 2015; Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and National Book Award, both 2015, both for Between the World and Me; PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, 2016; Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, 2021, for The Water Dancer.

 
WORKS:

WRITINGS:

  • The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (memoir), Spiegel & Grau (New York, NY), 2008.
  • Between the World and Me (nonfiction), Spiegel & Grau (New York, NY), 2015.
  • We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, One World (New York, NY), 2017.
  • (With Alitha E. Martinez) Black Panther: World of Wakanda, Marvel (New York, NY), 2017.
  • The Water Dancer, One World (London, England), 2019.
  • Nation Under Our Feet, Spotlight (Minneapolis, MN), 2020.

Contributor to books, including I Married My Mother-in-Law and Other Tales of In-Laws We Can't Live With and Can't Live Without, Riverhead (New York, NY), 2006.Contributor to newspapers and magazines, including the Village Voice, Washington Post, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Washington Monthly. Writer of the Black Panther series, Marvel Comics, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze, and Black Panther and the Crew.

 

Sidelights

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer, essayist, and freelance journalist with publishing credits in prominent magazines such as the Atlantic and the New York Times Magazine. He has served as a staff writer at Time magazine and at the Village Voice. In a Bookslut article, interviewer Paul Morton told how Coates explained on his blog that his exotic first name is an Egyptian appellation for the ancient country of Nubia, today part of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Coates commented that at the time of his birth, African and Arabic names were just beginning to become popular with African American parents. "My Dad had to be different, though," Morton reported Coates as saying on his Atlantic blog. "Couldn't just give me a run of the mill African name. I had to be a nation."

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Coates grew up navigating not only the standard obstacles facing a youngster maturing to adulthood but also the violence-prone streets and burgeoning crack cocaine epidemic in his deteriorating neighborhood. To Coates's benefit, however, he grew up under the tutelage of a stern but deeply caring father. In The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, Coates recounts his youth and adolescence and the profound effect his father had on him as he grew and sought out his own identity. He provides an affectionate but true-to-life portrait of his father, Paul, a political radical and inveterate womanizer whose presence and influence on Coates rose to a nearly mythic level.

Paul Coates was a physically powerful man, a Vietnam veteran and a former member of the radical political group the Black Panthers. He also was an intellectual concerned with learning and expanding African American history and culture. To this end, he operated a small publishing and bookselling enterprise out of the basement of his house. Paul Coates was a "man who resuscitated old books by black scholars, historians, thinkers, long out of print," noted Lynell George in the Los Angeles Times. "These books would become the backbone of his Black Classic Press--a publishing concern dedicated to literature that explained or shaped the black diaspora," George continued. "They were evidence to stand up to the detractors, they were the people, the young Coates observed, 'who recorded history when the world said we had none.'"

The elder Coates, however, possessed very human flaws along with his lofty ideals and professional integrity. It was well known that he had an eye for the ladies, and fathered seven children with four different women over a fifteen-year span. He was known to carry a gun in response to the violence and social decay in the world around him. He was sometimes a harsh disciplinarian who beat his children with a belt. Yet he was also a deeply caring parent who took an active role in raising his children, a dad who wanted to instill important lessons in his offspring and equip them to not only survive but to thrive when they were outside his influence. For the bookish, comic-book obsessed, young Ta-Nehisi Coates, his father was the living symbol of all a black man could become. "My dad was my personal hero. I didn't need much more than my dad. And he introduced me to people who became my heroes. My dad was my strong black male role model. He was Hercules. He was Zeus. He was mythical," Ta-Nehisi told Morton. Now a father himself, Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers that his father didn't just talk but also acted on his beliefs, showing the way through action, not words. Now the younger Coates applies those well-learned lessons to raising his own young son.

In this memoir, Coates "wields words with a rare grace that gives his story an uncommon power," remarked a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Written in a beat style, influenced by hip-hop and Dungeons and Dragons, Ta-Nehisi Coates's voice is difficult and comic, punctuated by well-earned moments of heartbreak," Morton observed. The Kirkus Reviews writer found The Beautiful Struggle to be "one of the saddest descriptions of the crack epidemic ever put to page." Booklist commentator Vanessa Bush called the book "a beautifully written, loving portrait of a strong father bringing his sons to manhood."

In 2015, Coates published the nonfiction title Between the World and Me. The book, written in the form of a letter to his teenage son, is a scathing indictment of what Coates sees as the endemic racism of the United States. The publication of the book was itself a phenomenon: Publication was pushed up so that it followed closely on the heels of a number of highly publicized incidents with racial implications, most notably the shooting death of Michael Brown, an African American, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and the murder of nine African American parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, church by a crazed gunman on June 17, 2015. The book caused an immediate sensation, and with the author in demand for interviews, it was widely read, talked about, and debated. The book prompted Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison to comment: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates."

The core of Coates's argument is that white America has been pilfering the bodies of African Americans throughout the nation's history; a theme that runs through the book is his belief that black bodies were and continue to be the property of white America. Highlighting recent lethal encounters between black Americans and the police, he sees little hope that there will be meaningful change soon, certainly not within the lifetime of his son. Racially charged incidents, such as the one that took place in South Carolina, or the death of one Samuel DuBose, an African American, at the hands of a white police officer for the University of Cincinnati, point to a future of continuing mistrust, misery, and hopelessness. For Coates, the white American majority is made up of what he calls the Dreamers, that is, those who embrace a sentimental mythology about living the American Dream. This dream, according to Coates, is unattainable for blacks. He also takes issue with the notion of American exceptionalism, arguing that a nation cannot lay claim to a moral superiority that it has consistently failed to meet with regard to its black population.

The critical response to Between the World and Me tended to divide along political lines, with those who might already have been inclined to accept Coates's message lavishly praising the book, those more skeptical arguing that it falls short. In a review for UWire Text, Brittany Miller called the book "powerful, moving, and thought provoking." Miller went on to remark: "It is an eye-opening and heartbreaking publication that makes readers recall the history of our country and its people. It's a criticism of not only the culture of our nation, but those in it. Coates explains through such intensity how the world is now, dominated by white supremacy as he warns his son of the world he will encounter." Another reviewer for UWire Text observed that Coates is "not being contemptuous, but rather brandishing a brutal candor that aims to evince the vast disparity in what the forces of American history, the American state and the American legacy mean for him and what they mean for most citizens." Chris Hartman, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, found the book to be "a highly provocative, thoughtfully presented, and beautifully written narrative concerning [Coates's] own misgivings about the ongoing racial struggle in America." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book a "moving, potent testament," while Anjali Enjeti, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, called it "riveting" and characterized it as "a fiery soliloquy dissecting the tradition of the erasure of African-Americans." For Adrian Lee, writing in Canada's Maclean's magazine, the book "exposes the hypocrisy of America's ongoing faith in its exceptionalism, despite its foundations fuelled by the bodies of slaves." Assessing the book for Library Journal, Thomas J. Davis wrote: "This powerful little book may well serve as a primer for black parents, particularly those with sons. However, it is also a provocative read for anyone interested in a candid perspective on the headlines and the history of being black in America."

Not all reviewers were as fulsome in their praise. A contributor to the conservative National Review remarked: "Coates is undeniably a powerful and eloquent writer, and anyone who experienced the level of fear he experienced as a child would be shaped by that forever, but his rage seems impervious to the objective facts of America's changing racial landscape. This nation is hardly perfect, and racism stubbornly lingers, but African Americans live profoundly different lives from those of their ancestors who struggled under slavery and Jim Crow." Writing for Newsday, Cathy Young commented that "while Coates' bitter vision is compelling, treating it as the ultimate word of truth on racial issues is a bad idea." Young allows that "Coates' indictment is an important rebuke to those who would downplay the horrors in America's racial legacy," but she argues that "there are important parts of the story this indictment leaves out." Young explains: "In 21st century America, it is undeniable that societal forces contribute to poverty, crime and dysfunction in the black community. It is far less clear that these problems benefit the white majority, or that, as Coates argues, American society is rigged to perpetuate white supremacy. If nothing else, this is a dated view that ignores the multicultural and multiracial nature of today's United States, where Asians out earn whites." More severe on the book (which he refers to in shorthand as "BTWAM") was American Conservative's Rod Dreher, who granted that the book "is deeply sincere, and has passages of true beauty. At its best, the book conveys the feeling of growing up as a black boy in the inner city, with its constant fear of violence." Dreher went on, however, to raise some objections: "But there are some serious problems with the book and its radical claims, which are at the very least contestable. Yet BTWAM is a book that is crack to liberal whites. Times reviewer A.O. Scott called it 'essential, like water or air,' which I thought was silly fawning, but now that I've actually read the book, I find that remark quite revealing. BTWAM tells the reader that every bad thing that happens to black people in America is the fault of whites, that even when blacks victimize blacks, this has its roots in white racism." Dreher continued: "It tells the reader that whites cannot be redeemed, nor can the world itself, and the best thing any of us can do is to face life knowing that it's all a sham. If one is a white liberal reading this, one can derive both a masochistic thrill from the anti-white animus, but also feel comforted that the only thing [the author] really expects you to do is to share his despair, because nothing you or any of us do in the world matters at all."

In the end, the final word on Between the World and Me might have come from the New York Times contributor Michelle Alexander, who wrote: "Whether you agree or disagree, one of the great joys of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is being challenged in ways you didn't expect or imagine."

In We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Coates presents a collection of essays he wrote and published in the Atlantic. In addition, the book is "also a meditation on where he was in his life when he wrote each piece, and how he and the country changed during the Obama presidency," commented Robin Young in an interview with Coates on the WBUR Radio website.

The book is named for a speech made by Thomas Miller, a Reconstruction-era congressman and civil rights advocate who recognized the resurgence of secessionist attitude that was about to usher in the Jim Crow era, noted Andray Domise, writing in Maclean's. It reflects on the unexpected dimming of the hope that once was the high point of the Obama era. Certainly the overall theme is politically slanted, especially in Coates's sharply critical stance toward the Trump presidency. Coates has pointed out that the backlash following the Civil War and Reconstruction was similar to that now in evidence in the political climate following the Obama presidential era.

Topics of the essays in the collection include Obama's conservative liberalism, the role in the prison industry in reinstating a form of slavery for black Americans, Bill Cosby's target of blame for the black community's ills, and on Michelle Obama's position in the world in the time before she became first lady. Controversial essays, such as "The Case for Reparations" and"The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," are included, and in the words of a Publishers Weekly writer, show how such material "helped to establish Coates as one of the leading writers on race in America."

Coates contributes new material to the collection in the form of between-essay snippets in which he ruminates on subjects such as fatherhood, his academic and financial successes and failures, his growth as a writer, and his reputation as the intellectual successor to famed author James Baldwin.

"We Were Eight Years in Power is a brilliant reflection, and perhaps a hefty primer for the uninitiated," remarked Domise. The book has "emerged to add the luster of intellectual sobriety to what continues to be a roiling and acrimonious national discussion," observed Chris Hartman in the Christian Science Monitor. Coates's "conclusions are disquieting, his writing passionate, his tenor often angry" in his collection of "Emotionally charged, deftly crafted, and urgently relevant essays," stated a Kirkus Reviews contributor. In assessing the book, Booklist reviewer Vanessa Bush concluded that Coates is a "crucial voice in the public discussion of race and equality, and readers will be eager for his take on where we stand now and why."

FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

PERIODICALS

  • Booklist, April 15, 2008, Vanessa Bush, review of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, p. 21; September 17, 2017, Vanessa Bush, review of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, p. 12.
  • CBS This Morning, July 13, 2015, "Author Ta-Nehisi Coates Says He Is Terrified by the Number of Unarmed Black Men Who Have Died in the Hands of Police."
  • Christian Science Monitor, August 13, 2015, Chris Hartman, review of Between the World and Me; November 30, 2017, Chris Hartman, review of We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • Ebony, August, 2008, review of The Beautiful Struggle, p. 56.
  • Entertainment Weekly, May 16, 2008, Tom Sinclair, review of The Beautiful Struggle, p. 69.
  • Guardian (London, England), October 8, 2o17, David Smith, "Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Laureate of Black Lives."
  • Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2008, review of The Beautiful Struggle; July 1, 2015, review of Between the World and Me; August 15, 2017, review of We Were Eight Years in Power.
  • Library Journal, August 1, 2015, Thomas J. Davis, review of Between the World and Me, p. 106; June 15, 2017, review of We Were Eight Years in Power, p. 16a.
  • Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2008, Lynell George, "Lessons from Dad," review of The Beautiful Struggle, p. E-1.
  • Maclean's, July 27, 2015, Adrian Lee, "Letter to a Young Black Son," p. 68; November, 2017, Andray Domise, review of We Were Eight Years in Power, p. 124.
  • National Review, August 24, 2015, "Rarely Has a Book Been Greeted with More Rapturous Praise Than Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me," p. 12.
  • Newsday, August 5, 2015, Cathy Young, "Racial Anger Needs to Be Weighed against Progress."
  • New Statesman, October 6, 2017, Stephen Bush, review of We Were Eight Years in Power, p. 47.
  • Newsweek, May 19, 2008, Joshua Alston, "O Father, Where Art Thou?," review of The Beautiful Struggle, p. 45.
  • New York Magazine, July 13, 2015, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, "The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates: After the Dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Hopes of Barack Obama."
  • New York Times, July 18, 2015, Jennifer Schuessler, "A 'Visceral' Take on Being Black in America."
  • O, The Oprah Magazine, January, 2006, Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Promises of an Unwed Father: His Pregnant Girlfriend Came from a Long Line of Vanishing Dads," p. 95.
  • Publishers Weekly, July 27, 2015, review of audiobook version of Between the World and Me, p. 61; August 21, 2017, review of We Were Eight Years in Power, p. 101.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 2017, Otis R. Taylor, "Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates."
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 16, 2015, Anjali Enjeti, "Elegy for a Black Childhood: In a Letter to His 14-year-old Son, Ta-Nehisi Coates Rigorously Probes the Harsh Reality of African-American Life."
  • USA Today, June 11, 2008, Craig Wilson, "A Hard Road to Manhood," review of The Beautiful Struggle, p. 01D; October 5, 2017, Charisse Jones, review of We Were Eight Years in Power, p. 01D.
  • UWIRE Text, August 5, 2015, Brittany Miller, "Ta-Nehisi Coates Addresses Racial History and Violence in New Publication," p. 1; August 12, 2015, review of Between the World and Me, p. 1.

ONLINE

  • American Conservative, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/ (April 14, 2015), Rod Dreher, review of Between the World and Me.
  • The Atlantic, http://ta-nehisicoates.theatlantic.com/ (December 29, 2008), biography of Ta-Nahesi Coates.
  • Bookslut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (November 1, 2008), Paul Morton, "An Interview with Ta-Nehesi Coates."
  • Columbia Journalism Review, http://www.cjr.org/ (November1, 2014), Chris Ip, "Ta-Nehisi Coates Defines a New Race Beat."
  • Deadspin, http://www.deadspin.com/ (January 11, 2018), Dennis Young, "Deadspin Interview: Ta-Nehisi Coates."
  • Democracy Now, http://www.democracynow.org/ (August 15, 2017), Juan Gonzalez, transcript of interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/ (August 17, 2015), Michelle Alexander, review of Between the World and Me.
  • Random House, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (December 29, 2008), biography of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • Salon, http://www.salon.com/ (July 27, 2015), Greg M. Epstein, "Ta-Nehisi Coates Woke Me Up: Lessons on Race, Atheism and My White Privilege."
  • San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/ (August 5, 2015), Pamela Newkirk, review of Between the World and Me.
  • Slate, http://www.slate.com/ (September 7, 2015), Jack Hamilton, review of Between the World and Me.
  • WBUR Radio, http://www.wbur.org/ (February 8, 2018), Robin Young, Here and Now, "Ta-Nehisi Coates Looks Back at Eight Years of Writing in the Obama Era, transcript of radio interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates. *

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000187376