Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Colson Whitehead, and support for "sprawling" black writing

As a follow-up to the publication of his recent extended essay on Obama "Fear of a Black President" in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a short blog entry and expressed gratitude to the magazine for supporting his work. "I can think of maybe one other magazine," he noted,  "that would have published something like this, at this rather sprawling length." I'm curious about the unnamed magazine other than The Atlantic that he has in mind, and more importantly, I'm interested in understanding the high levels  of support that Coates and one other writer, Colson Whitehead, have received in order to produce "sprawling" pieces.

[Related:  The coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Fear of a Black President" essay]

Over the last couple of weeks, the online sports and popular culture magazine Grantland has published a series of extended pieces by Whitehead based on his experiences at the Olympics. The series includes Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Whitehead's work -- similar to Coates's piece on Obama -- exudes a somewhat "sprawling" length.

Black writers rarely author pieces of long-form journalism. It's true, as some observers are right to point out, that black men such as Whitehead and Coates are more likely to publish such pieces more than women. But for now, I don't want the black male vs. black female concerns to overshadow the fact that really it's simply rare for any black writer to receive the support necessary to produce extensive writings in mainstream, highly regarded publishing contexts.

Privately-owned websites and blogs have made it possible for anyone to produce and publish whatever they like on the internet. However, extensive resources are required in order to ensure that an author's work is adequately recognized and heard amid all the internet chatter out there. This morning, for instance, Coates's career and essay got an additional boost when he was a featured guest on Chris Hayes's morning news program.

I have followed Coates's and Whiteehad's careers closely over the years and found enjoyment in their works. My own interests and preferences, though, are limited, and I admit that it would be nice if major publications supported a wider range of black writers. For now, we might have to say more about how writers and readers benefit when support is offered and consider the level of support required to produce sprawling works by black writers. 

Related: A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

1 comment:

Carla said...

In a word, yes. Thanks for focusing on how these works come to be and that there are so few of them. Same, for investigative work by black journos.

Re: Coates' other unnamed magazine, I'm curious: what's the penalty for naming it? But, The New Yorker came to mind, as did New York magazine--but only because of one similarly sprawling first-person by Asian-American writer, Wesley Yang.

To be fair, it's rare air up there where outlets allow writers to be, in the word I used to describe the piece to a friend, "scattered." And perhaps if we're looking at the pipeline, we should look less at Valhalla, more, at the great long middle and the singular point of entry.

How do black writers break in? Who/what supports them through the great long middle?