With Atlantic article on reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates sees payoff for years of struggle


Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the Atlantic’s cover piece about slave reparations in this month's issue. (Andre Chung/for The Washington Post)

He paid to get here. Paid with the skull-rattling pain of a metal trash can clattering down hard onto his head when he was a kid racing from thugs in West Baltimore. Paid with the jobs he lost. Paid with the sandwiches he delivered when no one wanted to pay him to do what he so desperately wanted to do, what he so unwaveringly knew he was supposed to do: to write.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, “here” is bigger than a star turn on the stage of the Sixth and I Synagogue, where hundreds lined up down the block to hear him talk last week about his blockbuster Atlantic cover story making the case for slave reparations. No, here is a place of prominence in the stream of American thought, a perch that positions him as an ascendant public intellectual with a voice that stands out in the white noise of a wired and word-flooded era, an object of praise and a target.

At 38, Coates has already been a trenchant observer of America’s fraught relationship with race, both in his well-read Atlantic blog and in the printed magazine. But his exploration of reparations in this month’s Atlantic — a 16,000-word report that calls for a national “airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts” — has supercharged his profile. The piece, titled “The Case for Reparations,” intricately and provocatively traces the history of racism in the United States from slavery to recent examples of housing discrimination.

“To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying,” Coates writes.

The much-lauded piece set a single-day traffic record for a magazine article on Atlantic’s Web site, and the attention it has garnered has given Coates a greater forum to wrestle with questions of identity — both blackness and whiteness. The print edition shattered the magazine’s previous best sales figures at Barnes and Noble, where many stores sold out within days.

Coates expected criticism particularly from the political right — and it has come in cascades. In the conservative National Review, columnist Kevin Williamson called Coates “catastrophically wrong,” arguing that he “miscalculates what the real-world effects of converting our liberal conception of justice into a system of racial appropriation might mean.” The columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote on the Atlantic’s Web site that reparations would lead to “embitterment” and “discourage young blacks from entrepreneurship.”

But what also has been notable is the reaction of like-minded readers to the piece, which took two years to complete. Everywhere he goes, Coates hears versions of the same plea: What about my group? What about Native Americans? What about Latino immigrants? What about me?

“You get here and people say, ‘Why can’t you do that for our community?’ ” Coates says one morning at a Capitol Hill coffee shop. He calls the reaction “disrespectful” but “not illogical.” Disrespectful because he believes the experience of blacks in America deserves its own, focused examination. Not illogical because he can empathize with the desire of people who feel wronged.

“If you want that treatment,” he says in reference to the exposure offered by a cover story, “you should get laid off from your job three times, too. People see you up there, and they think you just materialized out of nowhere. . . . It costs, man. It costs.”

As he speaks, Coates seems to be working out the logical string on the spot, circling back to the beginning and editing himself, refining the argument, then re-refining it. He is 6-foot-4 and has a round, soft-looking face that makes him appear younger than he is. When he’s groping for a word, and that is often, he tends to fill the gaps with “you knows” and bursts of laughter followed by bursts of ideas.

Coates’s accounting of his personal costs begins with the menace of West Baltimore, a place where young black men — such as himself — were ever at risk. His father, Paul Coates, is a former Black Panther who chose a first name for him inspired by the ancient Egyptian word for Nubia. Its non-intuitive pronunciation—Ta-nuh-ha-see — and its unfamiliar spelling are the source of frequent errors. Coates delights in needling critics who misspell his name.

The elder Coates fathered seven children with four women. Ta-Nehisi lived with both his parents throughout his childhood. His father wanted all his kids to know one another, and so Ta-Nehisi says he lived in “various iterations with my brothers and sisters” over the years. “It was usually whoever was causing trouble,” he says. “That’s who came to live with us.”

All the women in his father’s life played a role in raising him, Coates says, and he often spent time at his brothers’ and sisters’ homes. “I had a community, a village, as they say, around me,” he says.

Asked whether there were tensions or jealousies among the women, Coates says, “maybe and probably,” but that wasn’t the sort of thing that he sensed as a child.

What he did sense was a love of words. In the late 1970s, his father founded a small publishing house that he still runs, Black Classic Press. It specializes in republishing works of black authors that have gone out of print. “There were books everywhere,” Coates says. “There were books in our basement; there were books out in our garage. There were black books in our living room, black books in our bedroom, black books in the kitchen, black books. It was everywhere around me. . . . I was bathed in it. I couldn’t escape it.”

The world outside the family home came with its own inescapable realities. Tough guys “jumped me all the time,” Coates recalls. The worst was the time he was hit over the head with that metal trash can — an incident that makes coping with the intellectual attacks he often faces seem almost easy. “What are words after that?” he says. “You can’t have a bad day after that.”

Coates enrolled at Howard University but dropped out to pursue a freelance journalism career. He would write for the Washington City Paper and Washington Monthly. He says he eventually got — then lost — jobs at three publications: the Philadelphia Weekly, the Village Voice and Time magazine.

In his early 20s, his wife was pregnant and he was struggling to find freelance work. He took a job in Washington for a service that delivered food ordered by customers from various restaurants. Later, when he moved to New York — the city where he now lives with his wife and son — he delivered food for a deli in the Park Slope neighborhood to make ends meet because, at first, he couldn’t find writing gigs. He bounced from job to job — yearning to deepen his reporting and writing but not always having the proper platform — until finding a professional home at the Atlantic in 2008.

“All of that was about trying to get here to do this,” he says of his cover story on reparations. “My family paid a great price along the way as that was happening.”

Coates came slowly to the side of advocating reparations. Four years ago, he wrote that he opposed them. But he says that his thinking shifted as he began to delve more deeply into history. The transformation, as with much of his intellectual evolution, took place in public, puzzled out in blog posts that can sometimes read like a glimpse into someone’s afternoon daydreaming or late-night studying.

“Ta-Nehisi is amazing in the way he thinks out loud and invites people in,” says James Bennet, the Atlantic’s editor in chief. “He’s carrying out his extraordinary intellectual development in public. He’s very direct about what he doesn’t know.”

Once, Bennet recalls, Coates was engaged in a gun control debate on the Atlantic’s Web site with Jeffrey Goldberg, a well-known colleague at the magazine. Goldberg referred to the philosopher and theologian Saint Augustine. Coates confessed that he didn’t know who Saint Augustine was, then charged ahead with the debate.

“I can’t think of another writer who wouldn’t have Googled it!” Bennet says.

Bennet was so impressed with the reparations piece that he gave it more space than any other article in his eight-year tenure as editor. Both Bennet and Coates thought that the issue of reparations deserved a thorough hearing in the mainstream media; and the article fit neatly into the historical context of the magazine, which was founded in 1857 by a group of prominent writers who were avowed abolitionists.

In his article, Coates is unstinting, yet lyrical, in his criticism of the powerful forces of America’s past and the decision-makers and activists of its present. “Some black people always will be twice as good,” he reasons in the piece. “But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.” The Mississippi of the 1920s was a “kleptocracy,” he writes, where African Americans were routinely stripped of their land and possessions through trickery or force.

He argues that even some revered social programs — such as the New Deal, Social Security, the G.I. Bill and Aid to Families with Dependent Children — were originally constructed to shut out large numbers of blacks. He seethes at the use of phrases such as “mud people” to describe black people by mortgage lenders implicated in recent years in vast discrimination scandals. He hears echoes of Jim Crow in today’s battles over voter identification laws.

“America was built on the preferential treatment of white people,” he writes. “Today progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.”

The milestone of America’s black president hasn’t tempered Coates’s concerns. Coates has accused Barack Obama of avoiding race issues, most notably in a widely cited article headlined “Fear of a Black President.” Asked whether he believes that a “post-racial society” — a phrase often invoked after Obama’s election — was desirable, Coates — ever the tinkerer — offered an alternative wording.

“We should have a post-racist society,” he says. “But people are scared of what that might mean.”

So, then, what would it mean? Coates leans heavily back in his chair, thinks for a moment, then starts working through the logic out loud: “A post-racist society is a society where you really don’t have any white people. That’s the scary thing. . . . The idea of whiteness is tied to power. And the destruction of that power means the end of whiteness itself.”

Coates appears to echo — and add his unique take to — a strain of thinking about whiteness as a concept more closely knit to power and social status than actual skin color. It does not advocate actually doing away with white people but eliminating a construct that its adherents say was created by white Europeans to deny power to nonwhites. The controversial idea has been debated in intellectual circles and been the subject of academic inquiry.

“We live in a world right now where if you are white there is a bottom that you can never fall to — or if you are not black — there is a bottom you can never fall to,” he says. “You could never be a nigger. You just can’t. You just can’t fall that low.”

“That has, since the days of the slave codes, granted security to people. Reparations is the end of that, you know. It’s the end of that particular format. And it’s deeply troubling.”

Reparations is more than a conceptual notion on Capitol Hill, where Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has been introducing a reparations bill each year since 1989. Coates’s article could be read as a 16,000-word endorsement of Conyers’s bill, H.R. 40, which calls for a study of the issue, rather than mandating how reparations might work. In the piece, Coates says H.R. 40 would be a “vehicle” for a hearing on “crimes” committed by the American people against blacks.

The Conyers measure has never gotten any traction, but the congressman says in an interview that he plans to continue introducing it. He says he also plans to introduce the Atlantic article into the Congressional Record and to hold forums around the country to discuss it.

“It has a historical resonance that is, to me, extremely important,” the 85-year-old congressman says. “I think it will be very helpful.”

But Coates doesn’t see himself leading some political charge for reparations. That’s not how he envisions living his life. He is the writer, the researcher, all the things he wanted to be when he was delivering those sandwiches. Someone else can do the politicking, he says: “I’ve done my part.”

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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