Sunday, March 20, 2011

Black Writing & Community: More on Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Golden Horde

The kind of writing and community that's developed on Ta-Nehisi Coates's site at The Atlantic provides us with one example of how blogs and blogging creates new possibilities in the histories and production of black writing. 

The presence of the Golden Horde (the general name for the community of regular commenters on Coates's blog) regularly affects what or how TNC discusses particular subjects.

Coates often responds to commenters' questions, and he often asks some of them to elaborate on points that they make. The nature and direction of discussion in the comments section in the posts sometimes leads Coates to return to and stay on a subject for a while and even expound on what was initially a minor or passing thought in a post.

Just last week, for example, Coates had mentioned as a minor point in a post that he did not necessarily buy into the idea of "white flight." Someone asked him about it in the comments section. He and the commenter exchanged ideas about it, and a day or so later, Coates ended up composing a longer post on just that idea--his reservations about the concept of white flight.

I imagine that Coates's awareness of the positions of his commenters gives him more to consider when he sits down to compose a blog entry (and perhaps other writings). I don't want to over-romanticize that situation, nor do I want to suggest that this community known as the Golden Horde and the general commenters on Coates's site are only positive. There are always these tensions and regular disagreements. 

Still, it's a relatively rare moment for a black writer or perhaps any writer to establish such vibrant and ongoing direct connections with their readers. And really, given their involvement in the discussions, members of the Horde are more like reader/writers or better yet contributors to the blog as opposed to a passive audience.   

So who is this Horde?

There are men and women on the site. As revealed in comments, people who comment are African American, white, and Asian American. People with a range of occupations are on the site; some are students; and some are unemployed. The commenters are from places across the country, including New York, Washington D.C., Detroit, places in Texas, Alabama, and California.  

Although the commenters actively respond to Coates's posts, the spectacular variety of their interests is most evident in the mid-day open threads. At noon Monday through Friday, even on days that he is away reporting and provide new blog entries, Coates will put up an "open" post and allow commenters to communicate with each other on various topics. The conversations cover too much ground to easily summarize. 

In response to an earlier entry that I wrote about Coates's blog here, Darth Thulhu, one of the regular and astute members of the Horde described the group in this way:
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?).
[Note: Cynic, who Darth Thulhu mentions at the end, is a mysterious contributor who is well-known and legendary among the Horde for his (or her?) well-researched and thoughtful comments on the blog. As a side and long-running amusement, members of the Horde try to guess Cynic's age, gender, and identity.]  

Another regular commenter from the Horde, sara_l_r,  left a note on my entry about Coates noting that "I am honestly just a spazzy college grad who's read way too many feminist blogs." sara_l_r and TNC often have exchanges and "scraps" about feminist perspectives and gender. Back in December, Coates mentioned the contributor in a main post pointing out that "Longtime readers and commenters know that no one here is more ferocious on gender" than sara_l_r.  

Beyond composing and publishing entries on the site which constitutes Coates's most visible duty as a blogger, he is also an active facilitator or curator of the conversations. The comments section for any site on the net can quickly become overrun with spam and trolls--people who purposely insult people and cause trouble. Coates appears to take much of the responsibility for ensuring that his site is a place that is comfortable for visitors.

Early on, TNC would regular post messages reminding people not to engage and thus provoke trolls, and he encouraged people to email him directly if they noticed problems on the blog. You will also notice Coates, as the moderator, deleting or tweaking comment submissions when one commenter is verbally abusive to another or if the comment takes the conversation way off topic.

Back in the day, let's say during the black arts era of the 1960s and 1970s, there were these extended conversations about "the role of the black writer." The definition of "black writer" (thankfully) wasn't fully settled then, and it's certainly not settled now when we consider that Coates, a black writer, is a journalist, memoir author, and composer, commenter, and curator/editor for his blog.

I'm thinking that black writers have always been aware of their audiences. The famous or best-selling authors, for instance, receive evidence that they they have a large audience when they receive payment from their publisher on book sales. But the regular exchanges that an African American author has with audience/contributors on a major like site The Atlantic might be a new or fairly uncommon and important moment in the history of black writing.

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