Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing is post-bop Miles. Not liking Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is Ed Hardy T-shirts. If you are wearing one, you don’t need to say anything else, because I know everything I need to know about you.
Thus, critiquing Coates or his work makes you prime for Twitter darts thrown mercilessly by his minions. He has a tribe. They would argue that their intellectual acumen makes them superior to stans. But they stan for Ta-Nehisi.
Ta-Nehisi-ites arguably include some of your favorite writers and are as deadly as the Beyhive. They will come for you, should you attack the Gawd. (And, I am not being loose here; writer Bomani Jones literally calls him the Gawd.)
So I know what I’m getting into by tackling Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, although what has me conflicted isn’t really the book itself but everything around it. The book is lyrical and rhythmic. There are lines in the book that are worthy of tattoos; there are lines in the book that could be early writings of a constitution for black folks. There are lines in the book that will make you cry.
So it isn’t the book as much as it’s the duality of Coates the writer and Coates as celebrity, as voice of blackness-turned-entity, Coates as phenomenon.
Coates as writer still believes—even earnestly, I would imagine—that he is just Coates the writer. Coates as phenomenon is a powerhouse sentient being who has the ear of the actual god, Toni Morrison, and has been anointed a Christ-like literary Jesus.
Coates as writer writes. Coates as phenomenon has been resurrected off the page and moved us to God-like prices; $26 for 152 pages of a paperback disguised as a hardcover. God-like prices for the musings of a father to his son. God-like prices gifted to a diabetic community in the form of high-priced organic produce.
Coates as writer cooks up soul food. Coates as phenomenon is Whole Foods.
Coates as writer explains beautifully the two worlds that exist to him in this country, and these are the two worlds that he tries to present to his son. The first is the perfumed world of the dreamer, where the harsh realities of America don’t ruin the air; and the other, for his son and those who look like him, is that stank reality of the worker who helped build the dream.
And there is also this: The black body has always been a commodity in this country, and as such, America has traded in the value of this stock. Black male life is a novelty to those who believe it an impediment.
These are all valuable lessons, and I would trust no one else with these positions besides Coates as writer. I just don’t know what to make of the juxtaposition of Coates as writer, who denounces the dream of those who “believe themselves white,” and Coates as phenomenon who lives firmly in it.
Coates as phenomenon is a media darling, the toast of black writers, whose work is deserving of the credit it receives, but isn’t that the dream? To be a called-upon journalist whose voice lends weight and ethos to subject matter just because he has spoken?
On the other side of this dream are the boys of Baltimore who were the first threat against Coates’ black body. They were the first to create the defensive stance in the young Coates, who navigated Baltimore in his youth, a stance that would seem as unfamiliar as the adult Coates in Paris. The Baltimore boys become the first frame in the migration of Coates and the first imposing threats. They are not friends to be remembered fondly; they are potential land mines to be avoided.
If the trajectory of the book is followed through travel, and Paris is the fantasized and Howard University is the mecca, then what does that make the boys of Baltimore? And aren’t they also Coates?
Between the World and Me is not a bridge between the Baltimore of his youth and the Paris of his dreams. It’s a sailboat away from those niggas that meant him harm and a Dickensian tale of maturation—and in that, always in that, is a distancing from an old self that looks like leaving people behind who could be you.
In short, Coates as writer is a recognizer and nonsubscriber to the dream. Coates as phenomenon achieved it.
And isn’t that the premise for it all? The book as a private conversation between a father and his son for public consumption, a literal migration from Baltimore to Baldwin. Even the fact that Coates as writer is shocked when whites are interested in his work underlies the truth that Coates as phenomenon writes. For. The. Atlantic.
His Twitter blasts are the carefully selected disses of his work taken out of their context and tweeted like a private thought to a public audience. The release of the book, which was originally slated for Sept. 8, was changed after the church tragedy in South Carolina, as if the world, this world, needed a primer to have a frank conversation about race.
Coates as writer wouldn’t subscribe to this, but Coates as phenomenon is being traded on Wall Street.
The separation from the worlds that help shape us isn’t a new theme, nor one that Coates as writer hopes to exploit. But there is always a disconnect between the young men who die in the places they couldn’t escape and those who broke free, and I don’t know if Coates as phenomenon thought about this when the price for his book was set, but I have to believe that Coates as writer cares.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.