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kottke.org posts about Ta-Nehisi Coates

Amy Sherald’s Portrait of Breonna Taylor for Vanity Fair

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2020

Amy Sherald's portrait of Breonna Taylor

For the cover of Vanity Fair’s September 2020 issue, guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Amy Sherald painted a stunning portrait of Breonna Taylor.

For more than 20 years, Amy Sherald has been putting the narratives of Black families and Black people to canvas. In 2016, she became the first woman and first African American to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which led to her painting Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in 2018. That oil-on-linen portrait was her first commissioned work — until Breonna Taylor.

Taylor is an “American girl, she is a sister, a daughter, and a hard worker. Those are the kinds of people that I am drawn towards,” says Sherald, who is immunosuppressed and has been unable to participate in protests. She calls this portrait a contribution to the “moment and to activism—producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever.”

Sherald’s process typically begins with taking a picture of her subject. Painting Taylor, a person she had never met, who would never be able to sit for her, presented a unique challenge. Sherald took extraordinary care in reimagining Taylor, inflecting her portrait with symbols of the 26-year-old’s life. Sherald found a young woman with similar physical attributes, studied Taylor’s hairstyles and fashion choices, and drew inspiration from things she learned about the young woman — that she had been a frontline worker in the battle against COVID-19; that her boyfriend had been about to propose marriage; that she was self-possessed, brave, loving, loved.

See also Breonna Taylor on the Cover of Oprah Magazine.

163 Years of The Atlantic’s Writing on Race and Racism in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2020

The Atlantic was founded in 1857 and in its early days was an outlet for prominent voices speaking out against slavery. Editor Gillian White has compiled a list of the magazine’s writing on race and racism in America from deep in the archive to the present day. It includes writing from Julia Ward Howe, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael along with pieces from modern voices like Bree Newsome, Eve Ewing, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. In introducing the collection, White writes:

Understanding the present moment requires grappling with a history stained by racial inequity, violence, and the constant fight for forward progress. In a century and a half of writing stories about race in America, The Atlantic has published works that have improved the broad understanding of injustice in America, and also works that furthered ideas and theories that ultimately were proved wrong or harmful. To comprehend the current state of the country, we must consider the aftereffects of both categories. We must also take into account the fact that these stories, in aggregate, are overwhelmingly written by men.

And here are a few pieces I picked out for my own personal reading list:

Reconstruction by Frederick Douglass, December 1866. “No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.”

The Awakening of the Negro by Booker T. Washington, September 1896. “I wish my readers could have the chance that I have had of going into this community. I wish they could look into the faces of the people and see them beaming with hope and delight.”

The Negro Is Your Brother (Letter From Birmingham Jail) by Martin Luther King Jr., August 1963. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

The Prison-Industrial Complex by Eric Schlosser, December 1998. “The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world — perhaps half a million more than Communist China. The American inmate population has grown so large that it is difficult to comprehend: imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars.”

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, June 2014. “And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”

The (Continuing) Case for Reparations

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2019

Five years after The Atlantic published his The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke before a House committee and once again made the case for the United States government making reparations for slavery. Here is Coates’ full opening statement, a succinct & powerful 5 minutes:

The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.

The Atlantic has the full text of his statement.

Conduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2019

The New Yorker has published an excerpt of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ forthcoming novel, The Water Dancer. In Conduction, we meet Hiram Walker, a slave who has escaped his bondage in Virginia and traveled to Philadelphia to work on the Underground Railroad.

I followed the river as it bent inward then curved back out. Its banks were crowded with workshops, small factories, and drydocks. The oppressive scent of the city eased some against the cool river breeze. Now I came upon a promenade, a large green field dissected by walkways lined with benches. I took a seat. It was about nine in the morning, Friday. The day was clear and blue. The promenade was filled with Philadelphians of all colors and kinds. Gentlemen in boaters escorted ladies. A circle of schoolchildren sat in the grass hanging on the words of their tutor. A man rode past on a bicycle, laughing. It occurred to me that this was the freest I had ever been in my life. And I knew that I could leave right then, right there, that I could abandon the Underground, and disappear into this city, float away on the poisonous air.

The Water Dancer is out in September.

The Water Dancer, a Forthcoming Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2019

Having thoroughly conquered the world of nonfiction, Ta-Nehisi Coates now has his sights set on fiction. His first novel, The Water Dancer, is due out in September. Here’s the cover and a synopsis:

Water Dancer Coates

Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage — and lost his mother and all memory of her when he was a child — but he is also gifted with a mysterious power. Hiram almost drowns when he crashes a carriage into a river, but is saved from the depths by a force he doesn’t understand, a blue light that lifts him up and lands him a mile away. This strange brush with death forces a new urgency on Hiram’s private rebellion. Spurred on by his improvised plantation family, Thena, his chosen mother, a woman of few words and many secrets, and Sophia, a young woman fighting her own war even as she and Hiram fall in love, he becomes determined to escape the only home he’s ever known.

The NY Times has a bit more info here about the book.

“I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2018

Kanye West has a new solo album coming out soon (as well as a collaborative album with Kid Cudi) and so has been out in the world saying things, things like expressing his admiration for Donald Trump and suggesting that slavery was a choice. In a piece at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, an admitted fan of his music, writes that West’s search for white freedom — “freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant” — is troubling.

Nothing is new here. The tragedy is so old, but even within it there are actors — some who’ve chosen resistance, and some, like West, who, however blithely, have chosen collaboration.

West might plead ignorance — “I don’t have all the answers that a celebrity is supposed to have,” he told Charlamagne [Tha God]. But no citizen claiming such a large portion of the public square as West can be granted reprieve. The planks of Trumpism are clear — the better banning of Muslims, the improved scapegoating of Latinos, the endorsement of racist conspiracy, the denialism of science, the cheering of economic charlatans, the urging on of barbarian cops and barbarian bosses, the cheering of torture, and the condemnation of whole countries. The pain of these policies is not equally distributed. Indeed the rule of Donald Trump is predicated on the infliction of maximum misery of West’s most ardent parishioners, the portions of America, the muck, that made the god Kanye possible.

Coates suggests that Kanye, also like Trump, has been telling us who he is all along:

Everything is darker now and one is forced to conclude that an ethos of “light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands,” of “mutts” and “thirty white bitches,” deserved more scrutiny, that the embrace of a slaveholder’s flag warranted more inquiry, that a blustering illiteracy should have given pause, that the telethon was not wholly born of keen insight, and the bumrushing of Taylor Swift was not solely righteous anger, but was something more spastic and troubling, evidence of an emerging theme — a paucity of wisdom, and more, a paucity of loved ones powerful enough to perform the most essential function of love itself, protecting the beloved from destruction.

13 books recommended by Ta-Nehisi Coates

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2016

In a conversation last year with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates recommended that readers of his acclaimed Between the World and Me check out a baker’s dozen other books, including his mentor David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, The Half Has Never Been Told (previously mentioned here), and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

I could have imagined Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent The Warmth of Other Suns on this list too; it’s the most eye-opening American history book I’ve read in years. (Paging Lin-Manuel Miranda to make a play out of this.)

Take down the Confederate flag. Now.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2015

Atop the South Carolina statehouse, both the national and state flags flew at half mast yesterday. But not the Confederate Flag. The symbolic reasons loom large. The literal reason was uncovered by a reporter.

The flag is part of a Confederate War Memorial, and is not on a pulley system, so it cannot be lowered, only removed.

That actually sounds like an ideal solution. In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues we should take down the Confederate Flag.

That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it.

Bill Cosby rape accusations grow

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2014

A defense of Cosby requires that one believe that several women have decided to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in recent Hollywood history of a crime they have no hope of seeing prosecuted, and for which they are seeking no damages.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates does the math (15 women have now accused Bill Cosby) and some journalistic soul-searching: The Cosby Show.

+ Netflix has “postponed” a Cosby stand-up show scheduled for later this month. (Ya think?)

+ Cosby’s old routine about wanting to drug women’s drinks.

I’m quitting football.

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2014

Life-long NFL football fan Steve Almond recently wrote a book called Against Football in which he details why he is no longer watching the game he loves. Ian Crouch talked with Almond for the New Yorker.

Any other year, Steve Almond would have seen the play. But, after forty years of fandom, he’s quit the N.F.L. In his new book, “Against Football,” Almond is plain about what he considers the various moral hazards of the game: “I happen to believe that our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.”

This part resonated most with me:

Even a casual N.F.L. fan can recognize that this is a particularly opportune time for a Raiders fan to stop watching football. The team is terrible. I asked Almond about that. “If the Raiders were really good, I might not have written the book,” he said. “How fucked up is that? It’s true, I love them. I see those colors, and it’s me.” For Almond, his struggle to confront his own hypocrisy is exactly the point: proof of football’s insidiousness, of its ominous power.

“Football somehow hits that Doritos bliss point,” he told me. “It’s got the intellectual allure of all these contingencies and all this strategy, but at the same time it is so powerfully connecting us to the intuitive joys of childhood, that elemental stuff: Can you make a miracle? Can you see the stuff that nobody else sees? And most of us can’t, but we love to see it. And I don’t blame people for wanting to see it. I love it, and I’m going to miss it.”

I’ve been a steadfast fan of NFL football for the past 15 years. Most weekends I’d catch at least two or three games on TV. Professional football lays bare all of the human achievement + battle with self + physical intelligence + teamwork stuff I love thinking about in a particularly compelling way. But for a few years now, the cons have been piling up in my conscience: the response to head injuries, the league’s nonprofit status, the homophobia, and turning a blind eye to the reliance on drugs (PEDs and otherwise). And the final straw: the awful terrible inhuman way the league treats violence against women.

It’s overwhelming. Enough is enough. I dropped my cable subscription a few months ago and was considering getting it again to watch the NFL, but I won’t be doing that. Pro football, I love you, but we can’t see each other anymore. And it’s definitely you, not me. Call me when you grow up.

Update: Chuck Klosterman recently tackled (*groan*) this issue in the NY Times Magazine: Is It Wrong to Watch Football?

My (admittedly unoriginal) suspicion is that the reason we keep having this discussion over the ethics of football is almost entirely a product of the sport’s sheer popularity. The issue of concussions in football is debated exhaustively, despite the fact that boxing — where the goal is to hit your opponent in the face as hard as possible — still exists. But people care less about boxing, so they worry less about the ethics of boxing. Football is the most popular game in the United States and generates the most revenue, so we feel obligated to worry about what it means to love it. Well, here’s what it means: We love something that’s dangerous. And I can live with that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates quit watching back in 2012 after Junior Seau died.

I’m not here to dictate other people’s morality. I’m certainly not here to call for banning of the risky activities of consenting adults. And my moral calculus is my own. Surely it is a man’s right to endanger his body, and just as it is my right to decline to watch. The actions of everyone in between are not my consideration.

Same here. I don’t feel any sense of judgment or righteousness about this. Just the personal loss of a hobby I *really* enjoyed. (via @campbellmiller & @Godzilla07)

Digging in the crates (or Why my generation is into history)

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 13, 2010

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist for the Atlantic who blogs mostly about contemporary cultural issues, hip-hop, politics, nerd culture, race relations, video games, journalism, and the American Civil War. (I’m guessing, no statistical averages here.)

How does that work? I think TNC actually explains it in this post. First he responds to Andy Rooney’s “I don’t know who Lady Gaga is, and kids today probably don’t know who Ella Fitzgerald was. Maybe we should call it even” with “I suspect that he gives himself too much credit.”

When I was a kid at Howard, I used to go into Ben’s Chili Bowl and hit the jukebox. I always played Otis Redding, The JBs, or Sam and Dave. I knew this music for two reasons: 1.) It was what my parents played, and on long road trips their music, not mine, was the soundtrack. It’s like being black in America—I knew that part of their world in a way that they could not know mine. 2.) Hip-Hop created a culture of Digging In The Crates. The notion was that digging through crates and crates of records to find a gem was something to be prized.

Whatever you think of the music, no self-respecting hip-hop head, at that time, could ever get away with saying, “Man, I don’t be listening to no Ella Fitzgerald!” Your friends would have looked at you like you were crazy. Knowledge—not the kind of ignorance Rooney evinces here—was prized. I remember going into Ben’s and the old heads looking over and going, “Son, what you know about that?”

Here’s what I knew—when me and Kenyatta took long drives through Maryland, I knew to play Otis Redding, not H-Town. I learned that digging through the crates. I learned that from my parents. But I never said that of course. I just laughed because it was cool and it was funny. But it was also instructional, and here I must apply what I’ve learned. Perhaps my generation had a monopoly on that kind of knowledge. Maybe young people today really don’t know who Ella Fitzgerald is. I don’t really know.