The At­lantic ’s Ta-Ne­hisi Coates on race, repa­ra­tions, and comic books; he ap­pears at the Lensic in a Lan­nan event

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Bill Kohlhaase I For The New Mex­i­can WRITER TA-NE­HISI COATES

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.”

Ed­uardo Montes-Bradley

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