Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates the blogger vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates the memoirist

This coming September, if all goes well (which in this instance means if I can get the funding together), we’ll provide the new crop of 25 or so first-year black male college students I work with free copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Beautiful Struggle (2008). If things go really well, I’ll see to it that any student at SIUE who requests to read along with us gets the book free of charge as well.

Beyond the fact that I regularly teach African American literature, I expect to be especially prepared to introduce the fellas in our program to The Beautiful Struggle, because I have a team of black studies folks helping me think through approaches to sharing Coates’s book with the incoming group of collegiate black men. (Check out Symmetry’s comments, for instance, concerning just the first chapter of the book).

Over the years, our program has developed a fairly solid summer reading activity focusing on Frederick Douglass’s narrative for incoming students. I’ll see how long it takes the participants from the summer reading group who will read The Beautiful Struggle to figure out that both Douglass and Coates are from Maryland, among other interesting links that they share.

I also know the 18-year-old black men whom I work with well enough to know that they’ll love the fact that Coates uses curse words in his book. For the first time ever, I’ll have dudes begging to be the one to read certain passages aloud.

So I’m optimistic about how things will go exposing the guys to The Beautiful Struggle and Coates, the memoirist.

The bigger challenge that I foresee, though, relates to how I might go about introducing the young brothers as well as the students in my African American literature courses to Ta-Nehisi Coates, the blogger.

Interestingly, I’ve spent far more time reading and thinking about Coates’s blog entries than I have his memoir. I was there close to the beginning over two and a half years ago when Coates moved from here to here, that is, a little-known personal blog site to the more widely known venue of The Atlantic.

In comparison to his blog, Coates’s memoir is neat, compact, and fairly stable. What goes down with Coates’s blog ain’t always tidy; the big ideas are never fixed but instead something revised and re-arranged depending on new evidence, changes in national events and news, etc. Coates’s blog, to be clear, includes at the very least 1.) Coates,  2.) “hordes” of intelligent, engaging commenters, 3.) guest bloggers

Coates’s blog is often beautifully menacing. Case in point: last April when some folks in Virginia were into their whole Confederate History Month (CHM), Coates launched a series of entries of epic proportions (ß--yep, I said it) confronting the idea that a state was choosing “to honor  those who fought to preserve, and extend, white supremacy.”

On April 7, when Coates first weighed in on the subject, he went “I don't really have much to say.” But more than 20 entries later, involving a robust discussions in the comments sections along the way, Coates opened a May 3 entry by writing “As a final entry on CHM, I want to suggest one last thing that should never be forgotten--the Confederate cause not only gave us the white supremacist who killed Lincoln, it also gave us the  most infamous domestic terrorists group in this country's history--the Ku Klux Klan.” He closed that entry by saying “Never forget that any of this happened. Never fear talking to the willfully ignorant about their history. Soon enough, they'll be begging you to stop.”

Let me tell you: TNC the memoirist don’t want to see TNC the blogger.

And really, I’m not knocking the book here. The Beautiful Struggle is really, seriously, really good. But the blogger and “lost battalion” of commenters who write at theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates/  are a beast.
What I’m saying about TNC the memoirist vs. TNC the blogger is really more importantly about a larger discussion that I think folks in my field could and perhaps should be having about African American literature or better yet black writing. And maybe it’s a discussion for folks in literature in general.

Thinking about the relative ease that I could present Coates’s memoir (or any book) to students versus my various uncertainties and inexperience presenting Coates’s blog (or any blog) in classroom settings has me considering some of the limits of packaged narratives (I’m talking traditional book form *and* books on Kindles, iPads, etc), especially when we’re confronted with the strong presence of an alternative to the writer we’re studying.

In a way, I view Coates’s The Beautiful Struggle as a record of how he thought about the world at a particular time. I view his blog as a recording of his ongoing thinking.

Yeah, a writer’s thought vs. a writer’s thinking. That’s it. Is that it?

But then, we can’t stop there, because the comment section for Coates’s blog is full of thinking too. TNC might be the lead soloist, but the overall thinking of his blog, I think he’d even agree, sounds the way it does because of the wonderful accompaniments of folks like Andy Hall, socioprof, jbouie, sara_l_r, Darth Thulhu, CitizenE, K_Commenter, David White,  Alabama_Girl, Between Two Worlds, Persia, TheRaven, and Cynic--just a very small sampling of the many active and thoughtful commenters.

Oh well, so it’s a lot to consider, and it really is a big challenge, and I should add, a big and enjoyable challenge to figure out what it means to make a blog like Coates’s a part of the reading list for an African American literature or black studies course.  

You know, the novelist Colson Whitehead recently joked about that his mother prefers "Twitter Colson" over "Writer-Guy Colson." For a few years now, I’ve heard debates about Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks (comic strip) vs. Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks (cartoon), and then, I’ve come across younger students who were unaware of the comic strip and older folks unaware of the cartoon.

The good news is that I think we might be able to come up with some useful ideas concerning the differences between single writer’s different modes and mediums for representing their thoughts and thinking. And well the other news is that we might be in store for something of a conversation. Like Coates thinking and conversating about the Civil War.    


TheRaven said...


On behalf of the Golden Horde, want to say thanks for the shout-out. Funnily enough, I refer to Coates as "the Professor", because his blog is like never-ending graduate school. Since you're leading a writing class, a note to your students: Coates isn't the world's best typist but he's an excellent example of a genuine writer. It ain't enough to summon the words, you've got to be able to invent prose on-demand, according to a schedule you don't control.

H. Rambsy said...

Well, thank you. I've had a good time following along and trying to keep up.

And yeah, double-yeah, no triple-yeah on your point about having the something to invent prose on demand in the face of an uncontrollable schedule.

Darth Thulhu said...

Thank you for the bright spot of my day. My store was unexpectedly put on the chopping block today, as the media retail corporation I work for entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced it was shedding far more of its stores than initially believed. After calling and informing my staff and preparing to transfer those who can be transferred to surviving stores, I undertook my afternoon mental ritual: lunch and surfing to Coatesia.

Reading the comments in the open thread was, as always, a pleasure, but seeing a link to this piece was absolutely a ray of light in a dark landscape. You capture so much of what I love about the land Coates has created.

The community sings its thoughts and dances its ruminations. The wondrous, loving breadth of everyone staggers the mind if reflected upon, and brings to mind that the group name for a horde / hoard of riches is an embarrassment.

Coatesia humbly contains a press flack for Condoleeza Rice and Barbara Bush, a reporter for Al Jazeera English in DC, stay at home moms, grandmotherly retirees, construction workers, grad students, professors, retail managers, the unemployed, poets, djs, former ballerinas, and whoever (or whatever) Cynic is (the President? the best black professor in the country? SkyNet?).

It has some of the most intellectually honest conservatives you will ever see in an Internet comment section. It has epic levels of Dungeons and Dragons and Star Trek nerdery. It has more running gags than can easily be listed or conveyed (by the way, I'm not a homophoic racist, but Andrew Jackson was a dick).

Thank you for sharing with others what makes Coatesia such a refuge and joy.

sara_l_r said...

bro, I am honestly just a spazzy college grad who's read way too many feminist blogs, but thanks so much for the shout-out!

also, everyone else rocks too =P =P

H. Rambsy said...

@ Darth Thulhu. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Sorry to hear about the struggles with the job and all the folks you're responsible for.

It does mean a lot to me, though, that the entry I wrote came into your world at a time to provide some comfort.

The descriptions you provided of the horde (ahhh...the hoard) were really enlightening for me. Well, that, and your writing (how you convey the words & ideas) and the expansiveness of "the land Coates has created" is really something.

H. Rambsy said...

@ sara_l_r you're "just a..." Whatever. I've followed the Coates comments section long enough to recognize you're anything but "just a..." Remove your voice from the comments section over the last year or more, and that section is a different perhaps slightly lesser place.

So yeah, I'm not buying your "just a" description. Ha.

Seriously though, thanks for dropping by.