I first heard about Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Longform Podcast, (hour-long interviews of journalists), where he talked about black America and comic books. Then I heard him on Another Round (podcast) talking about the case for reparations. Then I watched him on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, critiquing Bernie Sanders’ stance that reparations are too costly to consider. I knew he was smart (a MacArthur Genius), I knew he was black, I took interest in his opinions.
I did not know he was a beautiful writer.
(Photo: Nina Subin)
In my own writing I think a lot about how much I need to say before the reader can understand. I usually err on the side of spelling it out, because I want to make sure my message is communicated. Coates trusts us as readers, trusts that we’re paying attention, and his prose is much more powerful because of it.
“I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog. I knew that West Baltimore, where I lived; that the north side of Philadelphia, where my cousins lived; that the South Side of Chicago, where friends of my father lived, comprised a world apart. Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies.”
He drops in the asteroid belt trusting that we all know the anatomy of our solar system like BOOM and then he just moves on! Then, half a page later when I’d assume my reader has forgotten about asteroids, he comes back with this:
“I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relationship between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.”
Toni Morrison calls this little book “required reading”. She says Ta-Nehisi Coates is the new James Baldwin. I knew the ideas would be important, but I didn’t expect the language to be so extraordinary.