Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mark Anthony Neal, and Writing about Black Men

If you're like me and trying to consider writing seriously about noted black men as thinkers and as complex beings with weaknesses and strengths, then you kind of, sort of have to follow some of the pieces by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mark Anthony Neal. I was reminded of that fact recently when I noticed Coates's extended blog entry on Obama. Here's Coates's closing:  
There are moments when I hear the president speak, and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of "twice as good" in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.
Obama has been a really important, consistent topic for Coates. He has written about Obama with pride and admiration, and at the same time, he has expressed his misgivings about some of Obama's practices, including how the president talks at and sometimes down to black people.

Neal's book Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013) kind of caught me by surprise. On his blog site, Neal regularly writes about a range of contemporary cultural topics, including hip hop, feminism, and black masculinity. So I wasn't expecting him to step back a little and produce, in his book, extended treatments on Gene Anthony Ray, Avery Brooks, and Luther Vandross, as well as pieces on Jay Z, R. Kelly, and The Wire character Stringer Bell.

Like Neal, Coates has produced writings on an eclectic group of black men. Coates has written extensively about Louis Farrakhan, Bill Cosby, Malcolm X, and his father, Paul Coates. Over the course of their writings, Neal and Coates write about an even broader array of black men. And I'm aware that scholars now have deep investments in focusing on "black masculinity," but there seems to be something else also at work in their treatments, like say, "black intellectual histories," though they don't use that phrase as much.

Still, I get that sense, that Neal and Coates are really delving into black intellectual and cultural histories when you follow them working through ideas on these various black men over the course of several years. I also appreciate the extended side reading lists Neal and Coates have consulted, which emerge while reading their pieces on an assortment of subjects.      
I work with a large number of black men students at my university. Sure, in case you're curious, we do cover many non-black male subjects. But we also talk and think about black men fairly often. We talk about our own experiences as well as all the circumstances of black men we observe out there in the world. We're like Neal and Coates in the sense that we end up thinking about an array of figures over an extended period of time. 

I sometimes wonder in my classes comprised of all first-year black men college students: what if the "next" Coates, Neal, Colson Whitehead, Kevin Young, Aaron McGruder, _______________, ______________, or ____________ is among us? Thinking about the guys as the "next" Coates or Neal, for instance, is somehow more interesting to me than thinking of them as the next Obama or Jay Z. Thinking of the fellas in this way also means that we have more work to do covering considerable ground in order to prepare for extended careers continually addressing the activities and ruminations of black men cultural figures.   

Mark Anthony Neal
Ta-Nehisi Coates

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