Cornel West Couldn’t Be More Wrong About Ta-Nehisi Coates

Cornel West wrote this on Facebook yesterday about author Ta-Nehisi Coates:

If you don’t like pictures, here’s the text:

In Defense of James Baldwin – Why Toni Morrison (a literary genius) is Wrong about Ta-Nehisi Coates. Baldwin was a great writer of profound courage who spoke truth to power. Coates is a clever wordsmith with journalistic talent who avoids any critique of the Black president in power. Baldwin’s painful self-examination led to collective action and a focus on social movements. He reveled in the examples of Medgar, Martin, Malcolm, Fannie Lou Hamer and Angela Davis. Coates’s fear-driven self-absorption leads to individual escape and flight to safety – he is cowardly silent on the marvelous new militancy in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Oakland, Cleveland and other places. Coates can grow and mature, but without an analysis of capitalist wealth inequality, gender domination, homophobic degradation, Imperial occupation (all concrete forms of plunder) and collective fightback (not just personal struggle) Coates will remain a mere darling of White and Black Neo-liberals, paralyzed by their Obama worship and hence a distraction from the necessary courage and vision we need in our catastrophic times. How I wish the prophetic work of serious intellectuals like Robin DG Kelley, Imani Perry, Gerald Horne, Eddie Glaude commanded the attention the corporate media gives Coates. But in our age of superficial spectacle, even the great Morrison is seduced by the linguistic glitz and political silences of Coates as we all hunger for the literary genius and political engagement of Baldwin. As in jazz, we must teach our youth that immature imitation is suicide and premature elevation is death. Brother Coates continue to lift your gifted voice to your precious son and all of us, just beware of the white noise and become connected to the people’s movements!

If it’s not clear, Cornel West is pretty much across-the-board wrong about Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I say that not just wanting it to be true, but in the face of mounds of unshakable truth. It is a wrong so clear and politically transparent that I struggle to understand why his statement is still accessible to the public. West is wrong and what he did was wrong. These are two separate crimes. The first is information based and the second is agenda based, and West is transparently guilty of both here.

West acts as if Coates hasn’t written anything else. Coates criticizes about Obama all of the time. (Again, all the time.) (I mean, seriously, all of the time.) His investigative essay on the subject of reparations last year is one of the most damning cases of political indictment as concerns black people’s interaction with the structure of racism in America in recent memory, pointing a finger directly at the policies and conditions allowed by our sitting president. It is a piece of scholarship that politically outstrips at least the last three attempts by West to get me to buy a book, possibly even intellectually. While I am ever hesitant to cast aspersions on West’s intellectualism live, his printed output has slowed and is largely thin on action. When I suggest that Coates accomplishes more politically with his essay than West with his books, I mean that sincerely: it is work that can be taken wholesale and used in the street to determine one’s lot, seek out the causes of that condition, and engage solutions to change that condition. I’ll take that any day over yet another exaltation of John Coltrane as the patron saint of blackness and more brotherly persiflage about being a blues people.

West charges that: “Baldwin was a great writer of profound courage who spoke truth to power. Coates is a clever wordsmith with journalistic talent who avoids any critique of the Black president in power…” On Baldwin he is spot on. On Coates he is attempting to be cute, which in the ‘hood means “We’re about to have a problem, bro.”

(Let us mention briefly that West makes it a habit to protect an old guard that doesn’t actually need his protection. This notion of an intractable black intelligentsia that not only can’t be replaced (which no one is doing, ever) but can’t be joined. For someone who set aside no small portion of his academic cred for street cred by making leadership and cultural totems out of rappers for years, he has a shockingly unkind tone for people who have expended a great many words – books, even – to actually make clear how much they care about black people without the need for reinterpretation of what a good day means, what “nigga” means, and why it’s okay to interpret those things without worrying about, say, the millions of women’s bodies and souls they have ground their feet into to make those points. Toni Morrison suggesting that Coates exists in the same vein as Baldwin pretty much put Coates on West’s hit list from day one. West was never going to get a fair shake after that blurb came to light, and now he never will. In light of the work that Coates has been putting out over the last couple of years we’re in no long term danger of confusing West’s criticism with the truth, but still, it’s not Baldwin who needs defending here. West picks these black avatars – Coltrane, Holiday, Gaye – not because they’re in danger of being set aside for Marsalis, Beyonce and Rihanna, but because he thinks people are too stupid or lazy to get into Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or depending on what college he’s speaking at that week, too white to get into Nina Simone.)

I am a complete and utter fanatic of Baldwin, most notably his essay work. His non-fiction is unassailable in every way: politically, intellectually, artistically…every paragraph in The Devil Finds Work, just to pick one off the pile, is a perfect thing of beauty. His writing on race and America and what it means to be the constant subject of race in America, as all black people are, is literally timeless. The only thing missing in his essays are references to cellphones and rap music, which he did not live long enough to weigh in on. Everything else that fell under his gaze was completely and utterly deconstructed and re-prioritized by its cultural gravity, its personal heft, or its political use. Everyone of Baldwin’s time stood in awe of him, and every black writer living now stands in his shadow. Those two things will never not be true.

Coates is not, again, as West suggests, “cowardly silent on the marvelous new militancy in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Oakland, Cleveland and other places.” Analysis of these moments is not front and center in Between the World and Me because Coates has already written screed on top of screed about those things when they were happening on the internet for free, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of views. It is part of the reason why he has a book deal at all, and most of the people buying his book are aware of that. It’s not like when West blew up in the early 90s and not only had most people not heard of Cornel West, but didn’t care about the issues he was attempting to raise. Coates comes out in a time when technology has empowered even the least of us with a veritable library in our pocket, constantly ringing and vibrating into our consciousness the moves of the machine of racism. Coates isn’t coming out of the blue, dropping the kind of random autobiography that largely comprised the output of black male literature in the early 90s and launched an entire movement of speaking engagements by former gang members done good. Coates has consistently and intellectually been where these fires are, as they burn. And while bringing that up means that I cannot now make light of West’s public arrest at a protest, know that I make that decision not because I think it is above reproach, but because I think he deserves at least a little respect for his willingness to expose himself to not only the physical fray, but (more important politically) public interpretation of his part in it…which is way more than he’s willing to offer Coates.

It is nearly impossible to read The Fire Next Time and then Between the World and Me and not see the connections, and not just because they both contain epistolary devices. Among other moments in Fire, Baldwin recounts meeting with Elijah Muhammad, with what the ideas he encountered during that meeting had to offer black people in relation to their history and future, and the fear of possible failure and a black success under those ideas as they intersect the machine of American racism. Coates speaks very plainly and at length about fear. And while it is an internalized exploration, it is not an exploration devoid of political analysis, nor is it, as West puts it, “fear-driven self-absorption leads to individual escape and flight to safety”. West purposefully obfuscates Coates’ fear as something that it isn’t, which is really criminal considering that West wrote Race Matters.

You’d think the man who made his own way into the spotlight twenty-one years ago by dragging black nihilism into the light with a book no larger than Coates’ – Race Matters – would get that Coates is putting a face and voice directly to the same condition he was studiously convincing America was worth talking about at all. You’d think West would understand that when The Streets come knocking for a seat at the table of intellectualism to speak for itself that we should listen and connect the dots. There are a great many dots that could be connected between the thesis of Race Matters and Between the World and Me. You’d think West would want to connect those dots in the interest of not only scholarship but shoring up the foundation needed for political action. You’d think West would be running to connect those dots, since doing so completely proves everything he was saying two decades ago. He could stop name-dropping rappers altogether. You’d think he’d embrace this book and Coates at large.

And this is why what West did is wrong (crime #2): he DOES know these things. He knows what Coates’ work represents, and where it comes from, and this is how he chooses to engage it. He chooses to disparage. He chooses to hate. He chooses to handpick not only the leaders he thinks we should follow (which Ferguson and more has proven is a dead model if it ever actually lived), but to pretend like we are incapable of gleaning when leadership has missed the mark. At this point West should know from all-too public critical experience that the masses are capable of sniffing out the bullshit of the people before us when we set our minds to the task. Which is not to say that his criticism is not welcome. Black intelligentsia is, after all, a largely public forum these days. But West’s information is wrong, and his agenda is wrong, and in his attempt to spray the bullets of his criticism at the gang of the Obama Age, like any drive-by, he often misses the mark. In this case his bullets have tragically found purchase in someone, some black body no less, that was minding its own business. Fortunately the wound is not grievous and West is a poor shot these days. Look: the body is already getting up – scarcely needs an ambulance at all – and is, I am sure, already making its way to its intended destination.

And for my list heads:

5 Ways Cornel West is Wrong About Ta-Nehisi Coates:
1) Titanically wrong.
2) Ridiculously wrong.
3) Wrong on a molecular level.
4) Completely and utterly wrong.
5) Kanye West bum-rushing an awards stage wrong.

10 thoughts on “Cornel West Couldn’t Be More Wrong About Ta-Nehisi Coates

  1. You are so right — Cornel West is so hopelessly wrong. He is a pompous out-of-touch azz with an agenda: criticize the president, whom he believes snubbed him way back in history at the time of Obama’s first inauguration. He can’t get beyond that, and anyone who doesn’t join him in his indignation receives his scorn. Can we please make him shut up and go away?

    1. Why is West wrong? Because he sees things differently. Our landscapes, political and personal, allow us to see for ourselves. Weat is a bigmyakker and holds strong opinions. He is not wrong.

  2. Do you think a lot of this has to do with West trying to preserve his legacy? It seems like West wants to cannonize himself among the elite “prophetic tradition” as he puts it, thus protecting himself from any reproach and yet maintain his relevancy which affords him the right to critique. The only way for him to do that is to distinguish himself from his contemporaries and successors alike in these wayward critiques.He goes at Dyson – who basically told him that “Race Matters” was his Illmatic – “that’s a one hot album every ten year average” – and now he goes at Coates. West needs to put out some new work if wants to continue to have a seat at the table.

  3. Cornell West is so Obama-sick that it may have driven him crazy! He is just jealous of Coates, as the younger man has written himself to the forefront of not just the Black Intelligentsia, but the social Intelligentsia period. I am a big fan of Baldwin and I think Coates writing is reminiscent of Baldwin’s eloquence and precision. Funny, I never thought that about West’s writing. West has turned himself into a caricature.

  4. I am truly sick of Mr. West’s third rate, smarmy, Christian, brother this, sister that, leftist, faux-progressive, holier than thou imitation of William F. Buckley’s ex-cathedra pronouncements. Like Buckley, his smug self-regard knows no bounds. It would be hard to find another public “intellectual” quite as smitten with the sound of his own voice.

  5. When my wife and I were at Harvard Divinity School in the 80s, Cornel West was a towering, and virtually unassailable tower of intellectual power. His new self – naming as a “prophet” has robbed us of his magnificent mind. Now he seems to be floundering about, grabbing at whatever is a current issue. I am truly concerned. But I want the whole world to know that I believe that prayer may return our Giant, and that he’ll be strong enough to Let go of the scary “prophet” that he claims as his new self. His old intellectual self was admirable, and never criticized like now. He needs to know that his mind is missed. He needs our loving prayers to receive himself back. Again, he was a beloved Tower, even if only a few knew him. What do you think?

    1. I never reply to anything here, but I want to speak on this one. I think prayer isn’t enough to combat ego.

  6. West continues to set the bar high for black leadership. He sees great potential in those daring to speak out on divisive issues and often engages in tough love when he believes they haven’t done enough. Coates’ new book is not trying to be a big thing. It has been made into a big thing. It’s more of a modern primer for black teenagers struggling to make sense of this crooked world. If a white man of the same age as Coates, as I am, can also be educated, then his book may have more appeal than he intended.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue!

  7. To dismiss Coates is to dismiss a poignant black narrative that reveals chasms of inequality in this country. To negate West’s brilliant scholarship, specifically his Socialist Theory of Racism along with scores of others in that movement of tracing colonialism into oppressive economies is dangerous neoliberalism.

    “When you write in prose, you cook the rice. When you write poetry, you turn rice into rice wine. Cooked rice doesn’t change its shape, but rice wine changes both in quality and shape. Cooked rice makes one full so one can live out one’s life span . . . wine, on the other hand, makes one drunk, makes the sad happy, and the happy sad. Its effect is sublimely beyond explanation.” – Wu Qiao

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