The Atlantic ’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on race, reparations, and comic books; he appears at the Lensic in a Lannan event
IN June 1972, The Atlantic Monthly published James Alan McPherson’s “The Story of the Contract Buyers League,” a 32-page account of a West Side Chicago neighborhood’s struggle to break free of a deceptive and exploitive home-sales practice directed specifically at blacks. These “easy-payment” plans, pushed by middlemen who often sold houses for more than twice what they bought them for, built no equity and offered no protections. Buyers who missed one payment lost the home and their previous payments. McPherson asked a pointed question: “Has a businessman the legal right to make a profit from a market created by racial discrimination where the buyer has no other place to deal?” Some 42 years later, in June 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates revisited the “Contract Buyers League” in a similarly lengthy story, “The Case for Reparations” — again for The Atlantic .
But Coates, who appears at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, April 8, with NPR’s All
Things Considered host Michele Norris as part of the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom series, has a larger theme. He reasons that the United States should reconsider reparations to African-Americans in the full context. The reparations issue is too narrowly focused on slavery and greeted outside the black community with snickers and not-my-generation denial. Coates gives an accounting of the costs his race has paid that stretches through reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, and separate-but-equal policies. Injustice came of real crime: debt peonage; land, property, and wage theft; and the loss of material and lives resulting from an absence of police protection. His arc, tracing from the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation through the 2008 mortgage crisis, circles housing and a history of fraud, theft, redlining, and segregation enforced by the real estate industry that profited from ruinous practices aimed at a particular race. His vehicle into the story is Clyde Ross, now ninety-three and one of the players in McPherson’s seminal article.
The “Case for Reparations” story was circulated to the point where those who didn’t read it knew about it from the online discussions it stirred and from Coates’ television, radio, and lecture appearances. Strong reactions came from all sides, and a certain political and socially conscious segment of social media exploded. Coates told Pasatiempo that he spent “a year and a half, two years,” writing the reparations story. “I am very, very lucky that I work for a publication that gives me time to get things figured out. It’s a real blessing.”
The story marks a high point in the ongoing renaissance of the essay. Just when it seemed that modern attention spans were dooming essays and the journals that print them ( The Atlantic also has a sizable online presence), Coates demonstrated the relevance of and demand for detailed, thoughtful exposition. His subject is vital, timely, and revealing in its history of inconvenient truths conveniently forgotten. But he also is competent in his craft, writing clearly for comfortable reading, even if the subject matter distresses. “I started as a long-form writer 20 years ago,” he said. “Initially, that’s what I was attracted to and that’s the style that comes most naturally to me.” His blog posts on The
Atlantic ’s website are also typically long — and frank — for the genre. His Tweets, though limited to 140 characters at the most, also appear in long form, notably in a cascade from last December during a public tiff with writer-editor Andrew Sullivan about the racial stances
The New Republic has taken over the years (“from removed disregard to blatant bigotry,” Coates wrote). Among Coates’ more memorable Tweets were “The burden of whiteness is this: You can live in the world of myth and be taken seriously” and “It’s a privilege for me to be black. It’s imposed rigor on me. ... I would never take that back.” When, a few months after the feud, Sullivan announced he was giving up blogging, Coates, with a no-grudges frankness, wrote that when he first began blogging in 2008, Sullivan was his model.
In the blog posts in which he takes on the popular notion of a post-racial society, Coates confronts myths,
accepted wisdom, and deliberate lapses in memory. He calls forth events from the past and follows their trajectories to more current outcomes. He avoids knee-jerk positions: “The killing of police officers is not only the destruction of life but an attack on democracy itself,” he writes in a post titled “Blue Lives Matter” that came after the murder of two New York cops. But he goes on to argue that “If [the murders are] all it takes to turn Americans away from police reform, the efforts were likely doomed from the start.” By contrast, the title of the blog post that came out after the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson police force and the killing of Michael Brown was titled “The Gangsters of Ferguson.” Asked about the reactionary intent of a bill recently passed by the Arizona legislature (since vetoed by Governor Doug Ducey) that would legally prevent the public release of the names of officers involved in deadly and serious shootings for 60 days, Coates pointed out disquieting parallels. “It’s pretty predictable, really. I think one interesting thing is to look at the accountability demanded of teachers. To be in the classroom, to be judged overwhelmingly by test scores. There’s no such accountability for the people who walk around with guns. We have a state-sanctioned right to kill people. It’s sad, but realistic. It comes out of this society’s willingness to solve everything with guns or make the criminal justice system the way to solve every problem in the world.”
Not everything Coates writes is socially or politically charged. His post dedicating the George Polk Award for commentary that he won for “The Case for Reparations” to the late David Carr is an almost confessional look at his days learning the journalist’s craft under Carr at Washington, D.C.’s City Paper . Another post, titled “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things: Feelings of greatness come and go, so savor them,” is neither quick nor a note. He writes of the tempered satisfaction that comes from even modest progress when pursuing difficult goals. “Studying French is like setting in a canoe from California to China,” he writes. “You arrive on the coast of Hawaii and think, ‘Wow that was really far.’ And then you realize that China is still so very far away.” One post is titled “The Broad, Inclusive Canvas of Comics: Hollywood adaptations don’t come close to the transgressive diversity of the genre.” Another is simply called “Spider-Man in Love.” “Comics are part of my adolescence, part of my literary heritage,” he said. “I love comic books.”
The beginnings of that literary heritage are found in Coates’ 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood . Coates paints himself as an awkward, often alienated youth growing up in Baltimore with an activist father who ran a small press that turned out monographs, diaries, and other documents from black writers going back to the time of slavery. The father, W. Paul Coates, introduced his son to this literature at an early age. “I’ve always read,” Coates said. “I came from a literary household. As I got older, I understood what [the books from his father’s Black Classic Press] were, what they meant. I was a political reader by the age of twelve or thirteen, but always loved to read. It was influential growing up, being in a house where there were books everywhere.”
Coates is now part of the legacy his father sought to keep going. “The Case for Reparations” doesn’t call for immediate compensation as much as it makes a plea for understanding. He cites Michigan representative John Conyers’ H.R. 40, “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act,” introduced every year since January 1989, as a good place to start. “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced,” Coates concludes in the essay. “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”