Friday, June 21, 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates, reparations testimony, and the art of direct address

source, Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

I've heard some people complain that there were no scholarly experts on the panel for the House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning H. R. 40, "Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act." That's not true though. Economist Julianne Malveaux and law professor Eric Miller both testified at the hearing. Most of the coverage, though, has been on Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In addition to being famously linked to reparations based on his well-known article on the subject, Coates offered a testimony that was filled with artistry. He also added a timely direct address, part of the artistry of the testimony, that ensured that commentators would focus on his testimony more than others.

Much of the commentary on the hearing observes that Coates responded to Senator Mitch McConnell. "Ta-Nehisi Coates Clapped Back at Mitch McConnell," reads a headline from The Root. "Ta-Nehisi Coates rips into McConnell for slavery comments," states Axios. "Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates gives Mitch McConnell a thorough history lesson on reparations," announces Vox.

Those and many similar headlines entice readers by framing the hearing about reparations as a battle between two key characters. That one of those characters in this story is a black writer and another one is a white senator further accentuates the drama.

On Tuesday, McConnecll told reporters, "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea." He went on, "We've tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president."

On Wednesday, in his testimony, Coates incorporated responses to McConnell from just the previous day. "Yesterday, when asked about reparations," Coates began his remarks, "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply. America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible. This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations."

Coates refers to "Majority Leader McConnell" and "Senator McConnell" throughout the testimony. By doing so, Coates moves from an abstract discussion of advancing the reparations bill to identifying a specific, powerful white man who would impede such progress. This was not a blog entry like this one or even a Op-Ed. Instead, Coates was critiquing a sitting U.S. Senator during a congressional hearing.

Coates has a long history, by the way, of directly addressing and critiquing powerful men -- white and black --. He has produced extensive writings critiquing Louis Farrakhan, Bill Cosby, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Kanye West, and now McConnell. And writing about powerful men is not his only approach. Remember that his most famous book is framed as a letter to his son.

This recent testimony and many of his previous writings reveal that the art of direct address and critique is an important element of Coates's writing, especially his writings that garner widespread attention.

A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

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