Baltimore-born Ta-Nehisi Coates makes his case

For The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore-born Ta-Nehisi Coates makes his case

It's a crisp January evening on the campus of Loyola University Maryland in North Baltimore, and on this holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a near-capacity crowd awaits the appearance of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Coates strides to the Reitz Arena stage, eases his 6-foot-4 frame behind the lectern, then peers beyond the stage lights. Surveying the racially diverse audience that has come out to honor King's life and legacy, a broad smile illuminates his face.

"Wow, it's a lot of people out here," he says, surveying some 1,700 students, academics, city residents, clergy and a sprinkling of politicians who are applauding enthusiastically. His beaming parents, relatives and friends occupy a few rows nearest the stage. "I'm very thankful to be here," says the Baltimore-born Coates.

This native son has come home. And Coates — his first name, Ta-Nehisi (pronounced TAH-na-HAA-see), is an ancient Nubian and Egyptian name that means "of the land of the blacks" — has arrived on the national stage, as well, with an extensive body of writing that has made him arguably among the most provocative, original and perceptive voices in American culture today.

And when it comes to race, especially, he's not one to merely offer pretty platitudes.

"You know, I didn't actually grow up as a strong Martin Luther King acolyte," Coates, 39, told the gathering at Loyola. "My family was much more influenced by the legacy of Malcolm X. So for me to find the importance of Martin Luther King took a kind of intellectual search."

Coates, who now lives in New York with his wife and teenage son, has flown in from Paris, where he is completing a fellowship, to speak at the college's annual King convocation about what he sees as the moral imperative of our time: reparations.

It's a subject that the longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic has exhaustively researched. Last year, Coates wrote a June cover story for the magazine titled "The Case for Reparations," — a 15,000-word opus that tackles 400 years of America's plundering of black folks, from slavery to brutality to discriminatory housing policies.

His overarching premise: Until America reckons with the moral debt it has accrued owing to racism, and the practical damage that has resulted to generations of African-Americans, it will fail to live up to its own democratic ideals.

Making the case

The article quickly caused a sensation. Bookstores ran out of copies of the magazine and the multimedia version drew tremendous traffic to The Atlantic website.

"The essay attracted more online visitors in a single day than any previous Atlantic magazine story, and the June issue became a sought-after collectors' item," says Anna Bross, a spokeswoman for the magazine.

The Atlantic team had heavily promoted the story in advance, producing two video trailers to pair with the article, along with interactive graphics.

"I saw this as a landmark piece for us, and we did a lot of work around it," said James Bennet, editor in chief of the Atlantic, which is headquartered in Washington. "We hoped it would have a huge impact, generate conversation and encourage debate."

It has — and then some. Veteran journalist Bill Moyers deemed the story "a must read for every American" and it has become one of the most talked-about works of nonfiction in recent memory.

Coates has appeared on dozens of TV and radio shows. In addition to Moyers, he's sat down with MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perry and been a guest on NPR's "All Things Considered," as well as "The Colbert Report" and HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher." He has spoken at forums and venues around the country.

"Given Coates' reputation and the explosiveness of the subject — and the way that the Atlantic teased the piece in past days like it was a blockbuster movie — expectations were high," wrote Ben Mathis-Lilley, a blogger for Slate, "and the piece, by most accounts so far, fulfills them."

Of course, not everyone has showered Coates with laurels.

Kevin D. Williamson, a correspondent for the National Review Online, opined that "Mr. Coates's beautifully written monograph is intelligent and sometimes moving, and the moral and political case he makes is not to be discounted lightly. But it is not a persuasive case for converting the liberal Anglo-American tradition of justice into a system of racial apportionment."

Coates isn't cowed by the critics. He believes reparations, which Webster's dictionary defines as "payment to another for a loss or injury," will square things.

He also suggests support for a bill that has been introduced annually in Congress for the past 25 years by Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Detroit. The measure calls for a commission that would study the effects of slavery and possible solutions. Yet it has never made it to the House floor.

"America is not interested," says Coates.

Baltimore upbringing

Although he is now a renowned writer, Coates joked with the Loyola audience that if you went back to his early years, his current success "was not expected."

"I'm from West Baltimore," he continued, "and in the daily interactions, no matter the moral imperatives of nonviolence, it was not, shall we say, too often practiced in the crowds that I ran with. That's no slight on nonviolence and the morality of it."

In his 2008 memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle," Coates relates growing up during the 1980s — an era when crack, adolescent gangs and guns made the urban landscape perilous for a young black male coming of age.

Coates struggled academically in those days.

"He wasn't a fantastic student," says his mother, Cheryl Waters-Hassan. "Ta-Nehisi always liked to read, but by high school, he was failing several classes, including English," says Waters-Hassan, herself an educator.

Forced to leave Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute, her eldest son later graduated from Woodlawn High School. "His father and I pushed very hard to get him into college," she says.

At the time, Coates' father — W. Paul Coates — was employed in Washington at Howard University's library.

He was a Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther whose past marriages and relationships led to seven children by four women, and his family didn't all live under one roof at the same time.

Still, the elder Coates, who in the 1970s launched an underground publishing company called Black Classic Press, was fiercely devoted to his brood.

"I worked at the college, because I was able to get tuition remission for my children," says W. Paul Coates, whose publishing operation is still thriving. All of his children have college degrees from Howard or other institutions, with the exception of Ta-Nehisi, who left Howard after five years without graduating. While there, he began writing for The Hilltop, the university's student newspaper.

"He was never interested in grades. He was always interested in learning," says his dad, who adds that his son, a history major, would sometimes take classes that he wasn't even registered to attend. Reading and intellectual discourse have helped to shape his son's innate gifts, he says.

"He's a great American writer, and I say that not as a father," W. Paul Coates says, "but as someone who evaluates words. I'm very proud."

He has reason to be. His son is racking up honors. Coates is a finalist for a 2015 National Magazine Award in the essays and criticism category, the third such nomination for his work in the past three years. The awards will be presented Monday in New York.

Back in 2013, Coates' article for The Atlantic, "Fear of a Black President," won top honors. A year earlier, he received the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

"Coates is one of the most elegant and sharp observers of race in America," wrote Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, one of the judges for the Hillman Prize. "He is an upholder of universal values, a brave and compassionate writer who challenges his readers to transcend narrow self-definitions and focus on shared humanity."

Writing his way

While Coates now has an impressive resume, there was a period when he bounced around professionally.

"It can sometimes be a problem for African-American writers to demonstrate that the ideas we want to pursue have validity," says Coates, who was laid off from Time magazine before arriving at the Atlantic seven years ago.

His first major commentary for the publication, "This is How We Lost to the White Man," stems from a quote by Bill Cosby. It's a candid look at generational and ideological rifts in the black community.

Since that time, Coates has proved prolific. He curates a lively blog, has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and regularly produces influential articles.

"It took me about a year and a half to finish" the reparations piece, Coates said, chatting a few days before the Loyola engagement. "My editors were very patient and supportive.

"You never know what's gonna happen with something like this," he adds. "It's probably the most-read thing I've ever written. I'm just extremely grateful."

Six months later, Coates is in high demand. Last semester, he was the journalist in residence at the School of Journalism at City University of New York; previously, he was the Martin Luther King Visiting Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For the past month, Coates has been in Paris completing a fellowship. "France is cool. The wine, the cheese, I do like the people. It's my first time really being out of the country."

To prepare, Coates enrolled last summer in a French language immersion course. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done," he says, "but I greatly enjoyed it."

Now he's crafting his first novel, whose plot involves an interracial family in pre-Civil War Virginia. Soon, he is scheduled to return to France, this time bringing along his immediate family.

"I just feel lucky and fortunate," says Coates, who will send dispatches to the Atlantic from overseas. "Really, I just love to write."

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