At 38, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior correspondent for The Atlantic’s online property, has become one of the nation’s foremost writers on race and culture. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Coates (whose first name is pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) found himself on stage at the Cleveland Public Library before a large, diverse crowd that included students from the all-male Ginn Academy, a Cleveland public high school. The boys created a crimson line in the audience in their signature red blazers.
Despite the formal setting, Coates was quick to share his humble beginnings. Born in West Baltimore, he came of age in “the era where black boys died,” he said. Drugs and violence decimated entire communities, but Coates said his saving grace was his parents’ strict guidance. His father, Paul Coates, was a former Black Panther who encouraged his seven children to immerse themselves in African-American history. His father ran an independent publishing house, Black Classic Press, out of their basement, while his mother, Cheryl, worked as the breadwinner for many years.
In conversation on stage with Plain Dealer Book Editor Joanna Connors, Coates described a young Ta-Nehisi as bright but unable to focus in school or earn passing grades. But in a junior-level English class — which he was repeating his senior year — he came across a passage in Macbeth that worked as revelation: words, put in the right order, could be beautiful. He found the poetry of Shakespeare reminded him of his favorite lyricist, Rakim. Admitted to Howard University, he reveled in Zora Neale Hurston’s words. “She wrote about black people as I knew black people,” he said.
A series of writing gigs at The Village Voice and Time Magazine led him to The Atlantic. Coates rules his corner of the site like an unabashed totalitarian, seeing his role as a blogger as parallel to a dinner party host. He deletes comments he sees as adding nothing to the conversation and engages those that give him something to chew on. He is not afraid to be schooled, and readily admits he is nothing if not “insanely curious.”
At the tail end of 2012, Coates devoured all 600-plus pages of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and began 2013 with a pointed critique of American politics, concluding that “America does not really want a black middle class.”
“America says to its citizens, ‘Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete,'” Coates wrote. “The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract.”
The intersection of injustice and policy fuels many a blog post. Over the past few weeks, Coates has dedicated the majority of his space to understanding the outcome of the jury verdict given Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old white man who shot into a car outside a Florida convenience store. Inside the vehicle were four unarmed teenage black boys; Dunn killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
Speaking on Davis and Trayvon Martin, Coates said, “They were robbed of the right to experience the world, to allow the world to change them. They are frozen in time in their boyhood.”
As the father of a 13-year-old son, Coates said these incidents haunt him. Still, he doesn’t believe he is as strict a parent as his own father. He explored their dynamic in his debut book, 2009’s The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, and appeared to still be coming to terms with the current state of their relationship.
“I work hard to make my son accountable for his own dreams,” Coates said. “He talks about all these goals where he wants to play soccer for a German club or go work at Google. I’m telling him, yeah, that’s great, but are you practicing? Did you do your math homework? Being smart and talented is useless without hard work.”
Retha Powers, the editor of the magnificent and addictive new “Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations,” has a handful of all-time favorite sayings, or “micro-histories,” as she calls them. One is from the author of the foreword to her book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time — but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish.
Powers, a life-long New Yorker, likes sushi better than catfish, but she revels in Gates’ point. She described the thrill when he accepted her invitation to write the foreword, transmitted in an email Gates sent from a plane. The two had not met.
“His work has been tremendously important to me,” Powers said over coffee near her home in Harlem. “I’m not an academic and, in a lot of ways, Dr. Gates mentored me from afar – in his far-reaching, accessible writing and his insistence on embracing Africa. He is not afraid of being an intellectual.”
In an interesting twist, both Powers and Gates are finalists for the NAACP Image prize in nonfiction, Gates for his PBS companion book, “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The Harvard University professor and chair of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards praised Powers, noting that she stands in a proud tradition: the first collection of black quotations published in 1898.
“In following them, Retha Powers both honors their work and reaffirms something essential about black culture: quoting or ‘sampling’ are both versions of the larger African American language practice of signifying,” Gates writes.
And so, “Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations” spans 5,000 years and samples politicians and poets, artists and visionaries from the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and ancient Egypt. It moves chronologically, and veers from Ma Rainey to Lionel Richie, from Frederick Douglass to Michelle Obama, from Derek Walcott to Kanye West, from Mary McLeod Bethune to Mayor Marion Barry. The text is also rich in Anisfield-Wolf winners.
Writing in the New York Times, critic Dwight Garner praised it as “a necessary and preternaturally lively new reference book,” adding that “it also possesses something no other book of quotations quite does: a potent and sweeping narrative arc. It is possible to consume this book avidly from end to end.”
Powers hoped to evoke that response. She wanted these quick bites to excite the palates of readers to seek out a speaker or a period of history, to discover a new book, or thrill to the way Phillis Wheatley – the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry – and Rita Dove are in conversation across the centuries.
“There are a lot of years between Phillis Wheatley and Rita Dove but there are interesting parallels too,” Powers said. “Both are very concerned about an emotional reality, about place and principles. And both are black women writing about things that aren’t domestic.”
One difference, circa 1772, that Gates observes: “Wheatley had to submit to examination by the leading lights of Boston to ascertain that the poems she had written were not mere quotations of others’ work but her own original creations, the creation of a fellow human being.”
Powers includes much from music, and the both the book and the English language are richer for it. Nor does she flinch from the infamous: Colin Powell’s “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons,” and Marion Barry’s “Bitch set me up.” Her own taste runs to Zora Neale Hurston and other contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, an affection she strove to discipline with balance and tough editing.
At 44, Powers is quite mindful that the verdicts of history shift. She peppers her own conversation with quotes: “Stanley Crouch said, ‘If there is an intellectual highway, there is also an intellectual subway.’” This book, she said, is meant to be “browse-able, fun, delightful and surprising.” Who doesn’t perk up to learn – or remember — that Shirley Chisholm’s 1967 presidential campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed”?
For an editor whose purse still contains stray scraps of “micro-histories,” Powers is excited that “Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Black Quotations” is being adapted into an app. She is particular fond of a remark by Anna Julia Cooper, born in 1858: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”
Powers also cottons to James Baldwin’s 1976 observation: “Identify would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose.”
As she awaits word on the NAACP Image prize, for which she will travel to Los Angeles, Powers might want to flip her book to a passage from “Beloved,” the novel by Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrison: “Here . . . in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh . . . You got to love it, you! . . . Love your heart. For this is the prize.”
Philosophy Professor David Livingstone Smith kicked off the University of New England’s 2014 diversity lecture series with a talk on why “race” is a destructive concept.
The 2012 Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction award winner for “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others” stated his mission at the top: “I wish to liberate you. I do not think I will succeed, but I hope I will raise questions about certain beliefs you take for granted.”
Smith presented his audience with a slide of four individuals with light skin and typical European facial features. He then asked the audience if they could determine which two were, in fact, African-American. It proved puzzling for those assembled. (See the slide here.)
“Virtually every genocide that I know enough about has been a racialized genocide,” Smith told his listeners on the Maine campus. “The notion of race gets us into a lot of trouble.”
Smith, who has taught philosophy at the university since 2000, is also the co-founder of The Human Nature Project, which explores evolutionary biology and human nature. He is the author of seven books, including Less Than Human, a centerpiece text in several college classes, including the Anisfield-Wolf course at Case Western Reserve University.
Watch his entire talk below on the “race delusion” and share your thoughts:
Anti-racism activist Tim Wise joked that he was on his third visit to the University of Akron campus in the past 15 years and was pleased to see the audience increase each time.
Wise, 45, opened the evening by taking note of his privilege as a middle-class, college-educated, heterosexual white man. “I’m here because I fit the aesthetic for what’s necessary for white people to talk about racism in America,” he boomed. “People of color get up and say it all the time, but they get ignored. The real measure of post-racial America is when a black person can stand here and receive the same reception I do.”
Acknowledging his privilege is the cornerstone of Wise’s career. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, he received his B.A. from Tulane University, where he led an anti-apartheid student group. In the early 1990s, he moved south to become a coordinator for the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, whose mission was to extinguish the political future of white supremacist, David Duke. Wise moved on to community organizing in New Orleans’ public housing, and to work as a policy analyst for a children’s advocacy group.
His 2005 memoir, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, still sells briskly. It also still fuels debate on the soundness of a white man’s prominence in the anti-racism movement, endorsements by Angela Davis and Cornel West notwithstanding. And White’s public speaking habit of shifting into “white” voice to contrast with his “black” voice can be cringe-inducing.
Still, if there were critics tucked into the Akron crowd of 500 at E.J. Thomas Hall, they stayed quiet. Several African-Americans nodded vigorously as Wise laid out his points. “You can’t solve social problems with silence,” he argued. “I invite white folks to have the difficult conversations.”
Structural inequity should bother everyone, Wise said, and as the country’s demographics shift toward majority-minority, equality is more important than ever. “What binds us as Americans?” Wise asked the crowd. “It’s the myth of meritocracy — that anyone can make it if you try hard enough.”
Wise argued that this simplistic dogma ignores reality. “Here’s one fact for you: 500 white people in this country have the same accumulated wealth as 41 million black people,” Wise said. The crowd fell silent. “If you think that’s because those 500 people just somehow worked harder…no amount of education will help you.”
Wise swiveled his focus to a 1963 Gallup poll, when two-thirds of white Americans believed that blacks had equal opportunity for fair housing, education and employment, even as the civil rights movement was bubbling to a fever pitch.
Wise didn’t hesitate in calling such respondents out. “They were delusional,” he said, voice rising. “But there wasn’t any penalty for being ignorant of black and brown issues. It’s not on the test. Whatever white folks think is important, black people have to learn that. That will damn sure be on the test. White folks write the test. That’s the luxury of being the norm.”
Filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley knew he wanted to make a film on Rita Dove. So the director of documentaries on former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and revolutionary Che Guevara decided to finance the project out of his own pockets.
“To have someone like Rita Dove expressing herself in generational terms by talking about her father and grandfather in her poetry was, to me, like a triple jackpot,” the Virginia-based filmmaker said. “I got the writer I was looking for. I got the story I was looking for, and I had it all right here at home.”
The result is “Rita Dove: An American Poet” built from family photos, home videos and interviews with its subject Montes-Bradley explores the former poet laureate’s formative years and asks how a girl from Akron, Ohio, became one of the most lauded poets of our time.
The film premiered in late January to a sold-out crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove, 61, has been a professor at the University of Virginia since 1989. Boyd Tinsley, violinist with the Dave Matthews Band, gave remarks post-screening, followed by a few selected poems from Dove herself. Later, Dove sat for a brief Q&A with the director of University of Virginia’s creative writing program.
“What I love about the film is that it manages to maintain some mystery,” Dove remarked. “It resists the stamp of ‘this is Rita Dove.’ And his attention to the influence of music in my life — I am just extremely grateful for.”
Indeed, music is her center. The accomplished musician, whose talents extend to the viola da gamba (related to the cello), finds that both music and poetry “scratch the same itch.” Dove’s connection to music lead to the little-known story of African-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower, a protege of Ludwig van Beethoven. He inspired her 2009 book, “Sonata Mulattica.”
“I am obsessed with music,” Dove mused. “And poetry is a perfect vehicle for it because words are music. I’m obsessed with trying to capture what sensations music gives us.”
Watch footage following the premiere of the documentary, captured by Dove’s husband of 35 years, writer Fred Viebahn.
Wither the best book list? Inherently inane and crazy-making, these are also undeniably good conversation starters.
Amazon has posted the latest iteration: its best “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.” It includes two Anisfield-Wolf prize novels: Junot Diaz‘ “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” as well as James McBride’s memoir “The Color of Water.” Also on the list is the immortal “Invisible Man” from Ralph Ellison, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Landmark Achievement, and books by Anisfield-Wolf recipients Edwidge Danticat and Louise Erdrich.
Of course, it is strange to see “Kitchen Confidential” make the cut, and the bizarre assertion that “Portnoy’s Complaint” is Philip “Roth at his finest.” The Amazon list tilts toward best-sellers, rather than an author’s best work.
Working another vein is the redouble Cosmopolitan Magazine, which has offered its list of the 10 best books to read after a breakup. Junot Diaz makes this list, too, this time for “This is How You Lose Her,” his sexy, harrowing short story collection. Surprisingly, he is joined by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc for her gold-standard of domestic reporting, “Random Family.” Cosmo editors give the somewhat spurious reason that the book is an absorbing distraction. May we add: and much more.
When 13-year-old Idris Brewster, subject of the thought-provoking documentary “American Promise,” is invited to a classmate’s bat mitzvah, he says he hasn’t much interest. None of the girls ever want to dance with him, and he has a good idea why.
“I bet if I was white, I’d be better off,” he says plainly.
His parents, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, are sitting off camera. They let the moment land.
Such incidents occur often in the two-hour film, which follows Idris and his best friend Seun Summers for 13 years at The Dalton School, a prestigious college preparatory institution in Manhattan. The documentary premiered on PBS in February and is available to viewers on the PBS website until March 6, 2014. Then it goes on sale.
Since it made the rounds at last year’s film festivals (winning a jury prize at Sundance), American Promise has sparked a new round of conversation about black male educational achievement. The numbers are sobering. Black children are more likely to have ineffective teachers and fewer educational resources, which may partly explain why black males are also twice as likely to drop out.
Brewster and Stephenson said their motives were simple. “We were confident that [attending Dalton] would set them on a course for academic success and we wanted to capture it all on film,” they write in their filmmaker’s statement. “This personal experience pushed us to expose the impact of the unique social and emotional needs of black boys on their academic performance.”
Serving a dual role as parents and filmmakers, Idris’ parents demand nothing but excellence from him and their younger son, Miles. They have no trouble expressing their exasperation when Idris doesn’t live up to expectations. After a particularly rough semester, Idris’ parents develop a spreadsheet to better manage Idris’ time. “Every hour of the day is accounted for,” Joe says.
Life at Dalton, which sends 30 percent of its graduates to Ivy League colleges, challenges all of its students, but those problems are magnified for African-American males. Dalton administrators talk on camera about how often black boys falter at the school, but suggest few solutions. The pattern is evident with Idris and Seun. They start out in kindergarten with a thirst for knowledge, but by sixth grade things are souring.
Parents of other black boys at Dalton express discomfort with the changes they see in their sons. And they wonder whether the sacrifice is worth it. Tuition runs $25,000 and some parents spend an addition $30,000 per year on tutors. They ask how their sons can compete.
The pressure is palpable as the boys as grow into young men. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and his parents hire a tutor to help him keep up. But the demands increase even as Seun—very bright and capable, according to his teachers—falls further behind. He transfers to a public school where the student body is predominately African-American. He begins to feel more comfortable, and this seems reflected in his work.
Idris remains at Dalton, where he is pushed (by his parents and teachers) beyond his perceived limitations. As he matures, his struggles with identity become more apparent. He learns the art of “code switching” — changing language, tone and posture as his company changes.
Brewster and Stephenson put together a companion book, Promises Kept, which expands on the film and offers parents and educators with resources to help close the achievement gap.
“Essentially, how well students do is how well we do as a nation,” Stephenson said. “The two are interlinked and intertwined. If we really want to compete at a level that makes sense to maintain, not only our status but our community and our values in this country, we have to take care of all of our children.”