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.”