Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Black Scholar

tEarlier this week when I came across an NPR headline that announced "Black Scholar Of The Civil War Asks: Who's With Me?," my immediate question to myself was whether Ta-Nehisi Coates was aware of that black Civil War scholar. Coates has spent considerable time on his blog over the last few years writing about the Civil War, and I knew he would be interested in the scholar NPR highlighted.

Turns out, the scholar that NPR had in mind was, in fact, Coates. In a recent special issue of The Atlantic, he has a feature article Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War? The NPR article highlights Coates's interest in the war and in his efforts to raise awareness about what it meant and means for African Americans and the nation in general.

It's cool that NPR referred to Coates as a scholar, and it's even cooler how he earned that title. Folks familiar with Coates's background know that attended but did not finish his undergraduate degree at Howard University. He first became a journalist at a newspaper in Washington D. C. and then went on to work for larger papers, including The Village Voice and Time before becoming a journalist and blogger for The Atlantic in the late summer/early fall of 2008.

In addition to writing about politics, football, black history and consciousness, and various news items, Coates has blogged quite a bit about the Civil War. He published a few posts on the subject of history, black people, and the War in late 2008. But he really took off on his writings about the Civil War in the summer of 2009.  In fact, from April 2009 to June 2011, he published more than 300 entries on subject.  

In the process of reading books about the Civil War and visiting historic battlegrounds, Coates has actively engaged with the many commenters on his blog. Conversing with a wide range of commenters about the Civil War, Coates often acknowledges, has made it possible for him to sharpen and broaden his ideas. The appearance of his writings and musings on a major venue like The Atlantic gives Coates a visibility that is fairly uncommon for an African American or scholar. (Few magazines and newspaper have black journalists and bloggers as senior editors).    

Coates's high level of serious engagement on the subject of the Civil War likely led the folks at NPR to refer to him as a "black scholar" in their headline. A part of me was pleased to see him earn that title. Referring to him as such allows us to expand the idea of what a black scholar is and does.

On the other hand, I wondered about how that idea--black scholar--barely begins to capture what it is Coates does and how his writing has inspired me and so many others. Recently, my students and I finished reading Coates's memoir The Beautiful Struggle. A recall a number of the brothers being inspired by the fact that Coates was a "failed" rapper and a college dropout and yet had still written this wonderful book and was dropping all kinds of knowledge on his blog. Perhaps, they appreciated that Coates was so scholarly without following the traditional path of a scholar.

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