“Our grievance then is not that we are not painted as angels of light or as goody-goody Sunday-school developments; but we do claim that a man whose acquaintanceship is so slight that he cannot even discern diversities of individuality, has no right or authority to hawk ‘the only true and authentic’ pictures of a race of human beings.” Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South (1892)Some of the same commentators who praise Ta-Nehisi Coates's work for addressing racism ultimately and likely unknowingly contribute to a traditional practice in the histories of white supremacy whereby one black person is elevated above the all others. Early on, when you'd hear the old-timers bemoan this "one-at-a-time" approach, you assumed they were overreacting. Now you know better.
It is less important that Coates is "the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States," as one white commentator noted and others have regularly repeated, and instead, it matters more that he is actively corresponding to rich creative and critical domains produced by generations of black writers well over more than 150 years. Sure, Coates is one of my favorite writers, but why stretch and say he's the "single best writer" given the wide range of writings on race and racism and black people? What gives people "whose acquaintanceship is so slight" with African Americans and black writing the authority to state who is "the single best" and what is "essential"?
For what it's worth, Coates continually tries to resist the pronouncements among commentators that his work is better or above all the rest. He actively acknowledges sources, inspirations, and his extensive support systems, which may not have been available to others. Yet his acknowledgements only go so far. Commentators still insist that in any given realm, a single black person must be praised and celebrated above all the other presumably
Remember Joe Biden's comment from 2007 on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama? Biden said that Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." I think Biden's a good guy. But his comment revealed some troubling, short-sighted biases. In fact, he was primarily trying to communicate something about Obama to and for white people.
I've been tracking the coverage of Coates's book, and it's fascinating that some reviewers are inclined to identify themselves as white in the context of their reviews and how they presume that are reviewing the books primarily for white audiences.
In Slate, Jack Hamilton writes that:
Between the World and Me is, in important ways, a book written toward white Americans, and I say this as one of them. White Americans may need to read this book more urgently and carefully than anyone, and their own sons and daughters need to read it as well.During an interview with Coates, journalist, Isaac Chotiner asks, "What should I, say—an educated white guy who thinks there is too much racism—do to make change?" In the opening of his review of Coates's book, Ryan Holiday acknowledge his "biases" by informing readers that "my father was a police officer," and "Also, I am white." How might the nature of reviews change if white reviewers identified themselves as white in the course of reviewing books authored by white people?
When The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott tweeted that Coates's book is "essential, like water or air," I wondered about the extents to which he was presuming that the book was essential for white readers like him. Or, to think about this from a different perspective, what if reviewers assumed that black people already read and accepted the existence of racism? And what if, for decades and decades, those black people had been writing and reading books about racial injustice and talking to their parents, children, and families about the destruction of their bodies in the face of white supremacy? I don't think knowing those things would lead us to appreciate Coates's work less; instead, it would place more pressure on those of us reviewing his work to highlight his special contributions to larger, ongoing discourses without necessarily dismissing various other contributors.
I've taught African American literature for 12 years now. When my students and I cover 5, or 10, or 20 compositions by black writers, we are rarely interested in seeking out the best. Rather, the greatest reward has been our recognition that we almost have more reading to do. I enjoyed Between the World and Me, and I'm pleased to have the opportunity to re-read it with a group of my students this coming fall. Just as important, I'm also looking forward to reading more from Coates and more from many others who write on these subjects.
• Between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates
• Coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates and "Between the World and Me"
• Pre-publication activities: Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates