Sunday, September 24, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his American Critics, 2012-2017: a primer

Next week, One World Publishing, an imprint of Random House, will publish Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The book collects several of Coates's previously published articles for The Atlantic. I suspect that the book will do well, in part because of the strength of the writing, including the short, powerful reflections preceding each article and also because of Coates's overall prominence at this point.

I've followed Coates's work for more than a decade now, long before he was widely popular. I've watched aspects of his writing and thinking evolve, and, I've taken note of the dramatic change in his reception. Over the last 3 years, more than at any previous point in his career, there has been tremendous growth in the critical discourse -- affirmations and critiques - of his works. That is to say, during the first decade of reading Coates, there was relatively little response to his work.

When Coates began blogging for The Atlantic in 2008, interest in his writing and ideas began to steadily increase. The most extensive collective responses came from the more than 100 hundred people actively discussing his work in the comments section. There was even more general feedback and references to Coates in 2012, when he began producing a prolific body of blog entries concerning Trayvon Martin and Stand Your Ground Laws.

Still, the first major concentrated response to his journalism came in August 2012, when Coates published his essay "Fear of a Black President." I charted about a dozen responses, which, at the time, seemed like a lot. Little did I know how much his reception would grow. In 2014, more than a hundred journalists and commentators responded to Coates's "The Case for Reparations" and even more responded to his book Between the World and Me. And just as many responded to Coates's Black Panther #1 debut.

Many years ago, back when I was a graduate student, I solidified my interest in tracking responses to black writers after coming across past writings by Larry Neal and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. In 1966, Neal published an article about Amiri Baraka, which included a photo caption: "LeRoi Jones and his critics." I also learned that my former Tougaloo College professor Ward had written a dissertation entitled "Richard Wright and His American Critics, 1936-1960."

Ward later introduced me to the the renowned Wright bibliographer, Keneth Kinnamonm whose books A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982 (1988) and Richard Wright: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Commentary, 1983-2003 (2005) collectively contain over 21,000 annotated items. The influence of those kinds of works were in my mind as a blogger and largely prompted me to begin producing these "coverage of" series where I would chart online responses to books, authors, and special topics.

Tracking the coverage of Coates's work has been particularly fascinating because of the quantity, intensity, and diversity of responses. While Coates is greatly admired by many, there is a strong negative response to his works from two key groups. Published works by conservative writers (mostly white men along with a few black men) and certain kinds of black progressives or leftists (mostly black men along with a few black women) convey some contempt for Coates's positions. It's not just that they respond to him, but  in many instances, they express disdain toward the many favorable responses to Coates's work, especially in relation to the large numbers of white liberals who apparently hold Coates's work in high esteem.

There was a somewhat persistent line of critique from some black women commentators. They offered misgivings about Coates's work, charging that he does not adequately represent black women, or again focusing on the responses to Coates's work, wondered why black women did not achieve his level of acclaim. In a review of Between the World and Me, Britini Danielle wrote that, "As I read Coates’ book, I couldn’t help wondering why black female writers aren’t lavished with the same level of pomp and circumstance given to black male writers who write about race—or hailed as the second coming of Baldwin."

Of course, the most well-known endorsement linking Coates to Baldwin came from a black woman who happens to be our most critically acclaimed writer of all time. "I've been wondering," wrote Toni Morrison in her book blurb for Coates's Between the World and Me, "who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." Prominent African American writers and thinkers, including Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Herb Boyd, and Michelle Alexander have all chimed in to offer assessments of Coates's writing as well.

For a bibliographer interested in tracing the responses as well as the responses to the responses of black writers, then Coates's career, especially between 2012 - 2017, provides much to consider.

A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

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