Baltimore, as might be expected of any city, has good weeks and bad weeks. Last week was an unabashedly good week — at least on the literary front.
If you’re a reader, and Baltimore benches suggest this city is riddled with them, you likely know that Baltimore native and writer rock star Ta-Nehisi Coates published his first novel, “The Water Dancer,” on Sept. 24th. Oprah chose it as the latest selection for her book club, and it is currently Amazon’s No. 1 best selling book (“Oprah Winfrey picks Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates novel for her book club,” Sept. 24).
Mr. Coates was born in Baltimore 1975 and grew up in the Mondawmin neighborhood in what was surely the apex of the crack epidemic. He attended the now-closed William H. Lemmel Middle School and then went to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute before graduating from Woodlawn High School. Then he went to Howard University. Then Middlebury College. Then a career in journalism which has included writing for The Washington City Paper, Time and The Atlantic. Since then he has published several non-fiction books, including “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award in 2015.
I am particularly excited for Mr. Coates’ new prominence for two big reasons. First, I get so annoyed when I am driving in and around and through the streets of Baltimore during school transportation hours. I never stop to think that any of the kids I see getting on the bus or taking their sweet time in the crosswalk might one day become a National Book Award winner. Or even better, an Oprah pick. Now I will. And so should all of the kids in all the schools in all the neighborhoods in Baltimore. Kids: You can be an Oprah pick!
Additionally, Saul Bellow once asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” You know Tolstoy, the Russian author considered one of the greatest of all time. In response to this, a Sports Illustrated reporter named Ralph Wiley replied, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” The point was to illustrate how we measure the value of writers. It is sad to admit, but not too many people care about Zulu writers or thinkers. It’s not your fault. I was an English major in college and never read any Zulu literature. Or Chinese. Or much non-Western at all. I missed so many lessons because of the shallow pool of thinkers the shallow pool of curriculum makers of yesteryear thought relevant.
When we think of Baltimore writers, we think of Edgar Allen Poe and Tom Clancy and Laura Lippman and H.L. Mencken. They are all very important. But we now have a new writer on the cusp of canon status we can celebrate. Let’s do so. The more people who know that Baltimore can produce its very own Tolstoy. Someday people will be asking, “Who is the Coates of New York?”
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