October 9th, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates is tired. Really, really tired, and the mantles dropped on his shoulders by the likes of Toni Morrison, The New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation are not making his life easier. The man just wants to write, damn it!

After publishing yet another insightful essay in The Atlantic and a third book which has demanded his presence on what must seem to his jet-lagged brain and endless succession of news and talk shows, I expect that Coates will go to ground—perhaps in his next Paris—for a few months to recharge. America has a long list of real—Henry David Thoreau, Jerome David Salinger (interesting middle names)—and fictional—Terrence Mann and William Forrester—reclusive writers. I don’t think Coates is of that ilk, but he is reflective, devoting great time and energy to getting his writing as right as humanly possible.

For example, Coates begins Donald Trump Is the First White President this way:

It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.

Than consider his lede in We should have seen Trump coming for The Guardian:

I have often wondered how I missed the coming tragedy. It is not so much that I should have predicted that Americans would elect Donald Trump. It’s just that I shouldn’t have put it past us. It was tough to keep track of the currents of politics and pageantry swirling at once. All my life I had seen myself, and my people, backed into a corner. Had I been wrong? Watching the crowds at county fairs cheer for Michelle Obama in 2008, or flipping through the enchanting photo spreads of the glamorous incoming administration, it was easy to believe that I had been.

And it was more than symbolic. Barack Obama’s victory meant not just a black president but also that Democrats, the party supported by most black people, enjoyed majorities in Congress. Prominent intellectuals were predicting that modern conservatism – a movement steeped in white resentment—was at its end and that a demographic wave of Asians, Latinos and blacks would sink the Republican party.

I came to Coates through his blog. I don’t recall how I first found him, but he first showed up on my blogroll in 2007. My first post about him came in October 2008. In We Were Eight Years In Power, Coates writes about those blog years:

The blog had an open feel to it, but not too open. I moderated the commenters and banned people. I had to. I wanted to maximize the number of commenters who could tell me things, and for that I had to build something beyond the profane cynicism that inevitably overruns my unregulated space. Between all the posts about Ravkim and Spider-Man, I would write about my attempts to conquer Leviathan or my reconsiderations of Howard Zinn, and the commenters would offer their responses. We would engage, sometimes argue, and I would learn. Grad students would show up under anonymous handles, offering contexts, objections and clarifications. A kind of seminar evolved in which scholars dead and present—Beryl Satter, Rebecca Scott, Primo Levi, John Locke—became my virtual professors. The process began to feed itself—commenters would recommend other book, and I would those and we would engage again. The great Ishmael Reed says that writing is fighting, and I believe him. The blog was a gym, my commenters were my trainers. And the books were film reels offering up new angles, new combinations, and ultimately, new possibilities [Emphasis mine, JH]. It was not perfect. I think I could have been more charitable. I think, from time to time, I assumed malicious motives behind worthy objections. But these days, with the blog gone and thus my old community gone [Nah, we still here, JH], with the gym now shuttered and boarded up, I feel myself in constant danger—even as I write this—of allowing the power of my punch, the speed of my limbs, to lapse.

Coates honesty there as a writer should be seen, read by all writers. Perhaps that is why Coates goes out, why he doesn’t succumb to the lure of writing from an undisclosed location. The Obama years presented him with a great opportunity. I think the Trump years, few may they be, present an even greater one.


  1. I hope that he doesn’t spread himself too thin by taking on new tasks, as I believe I’ve heard, including graphic novels and movies.

    His voice is needed now politically.

  2. Jeff Hess says:


    You and me both. He is an amazing writer and a once-in-a-generation voice.


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