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Black History, Uncensored: Ta-Nehisi Coates can’t be tamed

The GOP’s effort to hide Coates’ work appears to be based in the author’s desire to place whiteness, as an idea, under a microscope.


Ta-Nehisi Coates came to prominence as a writer in the 2010s at a time when so-called unapologetic Blackness was in vogue. 

The conceit behind this term — “unapologetic” — has always seemed to me like Black people’s defiant response to many white people’s judging eyes. To be unapologetic is to remain stoic in the face of judgment. But to me, Coates has always represented something different.

Not so much unapologetic Blackness — the kind that seems deeply concerned, albeit disgusted, with white perceptions of Black people. But, instead, “unquestionable” Blackness. The kind that reverses the white gaze and tells people from this privileged group: Now it’s your turn under the microscope.

He’s not stoic. He’s righteously confrontational. 

That’s why I think Coates and his work have been so summarily targeted by conservatives. He’s a fierce social critic and — even worse for right-wingers — an extremely creative writer who knows how to write about race and class with frankness and seriousness, and without relying on bigoted assumptions about Black people. 

So today, on Day 3 of “Black History, Uncensored,” The ReidOut Blog’s monthlong series focusing on creators targeted by GOP book bans, Ta-Nehisi Coates gets the spotlight. 

His 2010 piece in The Atlantic rebutting a New York Times article on the “culture of poverty” supposedly afflicting Black people speaks to the reversal of the white gaze I mentioned earlier. 

He wrote: 

When we talk “culture,” as it relates to African-Americans, we assume a kind of exclusivity and suspension of logic. Stats are whipped out (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) and then claims are tossed around cavalierly, (black culture doesn’t value marriage.) The problem isn’t that “culture” doesn’t exist, nor is it that elements of that “culture” might impair upward mobility.

He continued: 

It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationally entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there’s something uniquely “black” about those values, and their the embrace.

The piece pairs well with its 2014 follow-up, “Black Pathology Crowdsourced,” in which Coates explains the vital role that historians played in constructing his 2010 essay, and why historians are essential in debates about culture. 

Taken together, the writings are perfect demonstrations of the threat Coates poses to today’s conservative movement. He’s insatiably curious, and he knows how the history that conservatives want to hide with book bans and curriculum changes is extremely powerful. 

Coates appeared on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” on Thursday to discuss recent efforts to ban his work, and the Republican Party’s ongoing assault on nonwhite creators. Check it out here:

Read previous “Black History, Uncensored” posts on Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks.