Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a very long story about Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is sort of the celebrated writer du jour right now. But unlike a lot of people who suddenly have their moment of recognition, Coates really deserves it. I’ve been reading him for about 3 years now and am often left in awe of his clear thinking and excellent writing. It begins:
Late this spring, the publisher Spiegel & Grau sent out advance copies of a new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a slim volume of 176 pages called Between the World and Me. “Here is what I would like for you to know,” Coates writes in the book, addressed to his 14-year-old son. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
The only endorsement he had wanted was the novelist Toni Morrison’s. Neither he nor his editor, Christopher Jackson, knew Morrison, but they managed to get the galleys into her hands. Weeks later, Morrison’s assistant sent Jackson an email with her reaction: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” Morrison had written. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Baldwin died 28 years ago. Jackson forwarded the note to Coates, who sent back a one-word email: “Man.”
Morrison’s words were an anointing. They were also a weight. On the subject of black America, Baldwin had once been a compass — “Jimmy’s spirit,” the poet Amiri Baraka had said, eulogizing him, “is the only truth which keeps us sane.” On the last Friday in June, the day after Morrison’s endorsement was made public and then washed over Twitter, Coates sat down with me at a Morningside Heights bar and after some consideration ordered an IPA. At six-foot-four, he towers over nearly everyone he meets, and to close the physical distance he tends to turtle his neck down, making himself smaller: “A public persona but not a public person,” explained his father, Paul Coates. Ta-Nehisi said he thought Morrison’s praise was essentially literary, about the echo of Baldwin’s direct and exhortative prose in his own. The week before, The New Yorker’s David Remnick had called the forthcoming book “extraordinary,” and A. O. Scott of the New York Times would soon go further, calling it “essential, like water or air.” The figure of the lonely radical writer is a common one. A writer who radicalizes the Establishment is more rare. “When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised,” Coates said. “I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.”
Coates is not a Christian. The heavy force in Between the World and Me — what makes it both unique and bleak — is his atheism. It gives Coates’s writing urgency. To consider the African-American experience without the language of souls and destiny is to strip it of euphemism, and to make the security of African-American bodies even more crucial. It also isolates him from the main black political tradition. “There’s a kind of optimism specifically within Christianity about the world — about whose side God is on,” he said. “Well, I didn’t have any of that in my background. I had physicality and chaos.”
Over the last year or so, with Ferguson and Baltimore and Charleston reminding us once again of the still-pervasive and institutional racism in America, Coates has become an indispensable voice of reason. He stands in a long tradition of black intellectuals and writers, like Frederick Douglas and James Baldwin, whose words hold a mirror up to white America and show us what we really look like, not the gilded and prettied-up projections we want others — and ourselves — to see. If you aren’t reading him regularly, I think you’re really missing out.