Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Making of a Public Intellectual

Concepcion De Leon in The New York Times:

CoatesWhen Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first book, “The Beautiful Struggle,” was published in 2008, it landed with barely a ripple. At the time, Mr. Coates was a struggling writer. He had lost three jobs, and he and his family relied on unemployment checks, his wife’s income and occasional support from his father to stay afloat. By the time the book came out in paperback, his fortune had shifted slightly; he’d become a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine, writing a blog that attracted a moderate but engaged audience. “I went and did a few events. I did one in Brooklyn and I did one in San Francisco, and maybe 30 people showed up. And I thought, ‘This is what I want. This is it,’” he said in a conversation over a recent lunch. Suffice it to say that Mr. Coates’s second book, “Between the World and Me,” published in 2015, did not suffer the same lack of readership. An early galley was sent to Toni Morrison, who strongly endorsed the book, calling it “required reading” and likening Mr. Coates to James Baldwin. That year, Mr. Coates was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award in nonfiction. His appearances filled auditoriums and the book was adopted on college syllabuses. It has sold 1.5 million copies internationally and has been translated into 19 languages, catapulting him to prominence.

…When the discussion was opened up to the audience, Mr. Jenkins asked how Mr. Coates advised his son on the subject of political activism. Mr. Coates answered that his own father had been part of the Black Panther Party and had later become disillusioned with mass politics. Mr. Coates’s advice to his son, Samori, was to educate himself before getting involved in protests. “I don’t know that that was the correct answer,” he said, “Protest is a very, very real thing, but for me, it’s much more private.” That perceived detachment has drawn criticism. When “Between the World and Me” was published, Dr. West took issue with Ms. Morrison’s comparison of Mr. Coates to Baldwin and expressed as much in a Facebook post, writing that, unlike Mr. Coates, “Baldwin’s painful self-examination led to collective action and a focus on social movements.” In his view, Mr. Coates’s inattention to the Black Lives Matter movement and political activists in “Between the World and Me” “shows a certain distance” from his subject matter.

Mr. Coates counters that he hopes he writes “things that clarify stuff for people that go to those marches, that clarify things that inspire people who go and think about policy. I necessarily need a little bit of distance.”

More here.