The literati darling Ta-Nehisi Coates received some daunting criticism Thursday via Facebook. Political commentator and professor Dr. Cornel West has countered Toni Morrison’s glowing comparison of the author to James Baldwin with a politically charged status update. New York Times columnist David Brooks weighed in on Coates’ book Friday as well.

According to West:

“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 … 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.”

Coates, a voracious tweeter (@tanehisicoates), responded:


The author’s memoir, “Between the World and Me,” is ubiquitously adored by reviewers and readers, many of whom spring from the illustrious ilk that Coates hopes to condemn. Anyone familiar with cultural consumption knows this to be a price of artistic and commercial success. Ultimately, can the work be compromised by its audience? Coates is certainly aware of the question:

Big difference between who decides to listen to you, and who you intend to talk to.

Still, West’s loudest critique of Coates is the author’s perceived “Obama worship.” But don’t his pieces in The Atlantic say something different? In the past, he has condemned the president’s views on abortion, his patronizing subversion of race in speeches and “The New Jim Crow.” While not directed at Obama, his most recent critique is a heartbreaking letter to his 14-year-old son that painfully dissects the hemorrhaging of American race relations alongside personal trauma:

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can protect you only with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or succeeded at something much darker.”

Meanwhile, in his Friday column, Brooks writes that since police killings of people of color have become an important topic of discussion for every American, it has been a great year of “education for white people.” He goes on to praise Coates’ book, saying it “is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it.”

As the debate continues on the Twitterscape and in the physical realm, more people may begin to pick apart Coates’ work. Still, his influence is unquestionable and the debate essential to race and class in 2015. Perhaps West’s closing words say it best, despite his grievances:

“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!”

–Posted by Rory Thost

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