Cornel West Seems to Believe Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Writing From the Sidelines, but Sidelines Don’t Exist for Black People

Cornel West (Scott Olsen/Getty Images)
Cornel West (Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

I’m writing this from the third floor of the brownstone in Pittsburgh’s Northside that my wife and I have been renting for a year and a half now. I’m in a bedroom that has been repurposed as both my office and my de facto closet. My daughter’s bedroom is on the same floor, and the bedroom my wife and I share is directly underneath. This is where I do most of my morning reading and writing. If it’s the afternoon, I’ll likely either be at Commonplace Coffee or Arnold’s Tea, which are both in the same neighborhood. And if I’m working in the evening or later at night, I’ll either be back home or at the Ace Hotel.


Although I have demands and responsibilities that must be met, I can work where I want and I get paid very well to do something that, before VSB was acquired by Univision this year, I was doing for free. Last year I was also fortunate enough to have Ecco buy my proposal and ask me to write two books. Oh, and I belong to a speakers bureau now. Which means that people invite me places to pay for me to say the same things aloud that I was writing for free.

Today, in 2017, this is my life. Which is a life of relative privilege.

I am also three years removed from sending Ebony magazine frantic emails and phone calls on New Year’s Eve—while celebrating at Panama Jackson’s house in Washington, D.C.—because my checking account balance would soon be in the negative if the two-month-late check they owed me didn’t come through. Four years removed from needing an insurance payout from my mom’s death to be able to pay for my wedding.

Six years removed from breaking up with my then-girlfriend; moving out of the townhouse we shared; temporarily moving in with my parents because the lease at the new place I was renting hadn’t started yet; watching, while I was staying there, my parents lose their house to foreclosure; and moving with my parents to the house they had to rent and sleeping on the couch there for three months because the contract I had with the August Wilson Center fell through—and my job at Ebony hadn’t started yet—and I couldn’t afford to move into my new place.

Twenty-five years removed from coming home one day and seeing an eviction notice and a padlock on the backdoor of my parents’ house in East Liberty but still being small and flexible enough to prop up on my dad’s shoulders, squeeze through the kitchen window and open the door from the inside. Twenty-six years removed from my mom getting shot in her arm while sleeping after a drug dealer mistook our house for a rival’s house three doors down and shot into our windows.

And 36 hours removed from coming home after watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi and sitting, with my wife, in front of our house in my car just to sit and talk about whatever husbands and wives talk about at 1 in the morning. And then seeing three police cars creep up our street and stop right next to the car. And watching the officers park in the middle of the street, get out of their cars and walk up to a house across the street from ours and have what looks to be a cordial conversation with the youngish white people living there.

And then watching the cops congregate back in front of their cars and laugh with one another and then get back into their cars and pull off, and my wife and I not moving an inch or breathing in that 10-minute span because it was dark and they didn’t know we were sitting in my car, and startling them by opening a car door could have scared them, and we know what can happen when scared cops encounter random black people.


Anyway, it is in this third-floor bedroom repurposed as an office and closet that I first read “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is the Neoliberal Face of the Black Freedom Struggle,” by Cornel West, Sunday morning.

It is also here where I read this passage:

Coates wisely invokes the bleak worldview of the late great Derrick Bell. But Bell reveled in black fightback, rejoiced in black resistance and risked his life and career based on his love for black people and justice. Needless to say, the greatest truth-teller about white supremacy in the 20th century – Malcolm X – was also deeply pessimistic about America. Yet his pessimism was neither cheap nor abstract – it was earned, soaked in blood and tears of love for black people and justice.


I won’t pretend to have an expert grasp on neoliberalism or a full knowledge of the context behind Cornel West’s beef—at least not as much as Jelani Cobb possesses—but what West alludes to in this paragraph is clear.

Derrick Bell and Malcolm X possessed the right to be pessimistic. Because “it was earned.” It was “neither cheap nor abstract.” Here, West reveals that he believes Coates’ voice is unearned. Abstract. Cheap. To West, Coates seems to be an outsider. An interloper with too much distance from the struggle for his thoughts on the struggle to matter. A writer with no investments in or ties to what he’s writing about. And I am disappointed that a man as brilliant and iconic as West would believe and publish such a thing.


Every black American is invested in this metaphysical, existential and literal black American struggle by virtue of being born black in America. Even those who don’t want to be connected to it—who actively try not to be connected to it—are. There’s no level of privilege or income or education or status that can shield us from that. No brownstone or gated community that’s arsonproof. No ivory tower we can’t be snatched out of. No proximity to whiteness—physically or spiritually—that can’t be erased by eminent domain. No bougie riddle that a cop’s bullet can’t solve.

Of course, some of us are more immediately vulnerable than others. Continuing the sports/sidelines analogy, some of us are in the paint. But we’re all on the court somewhere—all in play—because sidelines are a privilege we just don’t possess, and a black person assessing the investments of another black person in blackness based on how close he happens to be to the fire is fruitless and fucking dangerous. It’s also myopic because the assessment is based on how close he believes he happens to be today, neglecting to account for the fire he might have literally just leaped out of and the flames he might be pushed back into tomorrow (or tonight).


It’s past noon now, so when I’m done writing this, I’m going to get something to eat and perhaps drive to Commonplace Coffee to spend the rest of my day. And I will be reminded, when I leave this third-floor bedroom repurposed as an office and closet and see just how fully surrounded by whiteness I am—that we all are—that this house I’m in doesn’t belong to me. This street it sits on doesn’t belong to me. This city I live in doesn’t belong to me. This country I exist in doesn’t belong to me. And there’s nothing abstract about attempting to find some peace and safety in and trying to make some sort of sense out of a place where nothing you can touch will ever be yours.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Damon Young

Also, just to be clear, I still very much admire and respect Dr. West. He’s done so much — and he’s still doing a lot. But I really believe that, although many of his criticisms of Obama were valid, the way Obama didn’t really make space for him hurt him deeply, and that seems to be affecting his public work now.