Being white and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for the Atlantic, lectures at Davidson College on Nov. 16.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for the Atlantic, lectures at Davidson College on Nov. 16. The Washington Post

Why do so many white people love what you write? a black journalist asked Ta-Nehisi Coates recently.

A reasonable question, considering that Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, pulls no punches when he describes being black in America. “As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom,” he writes in his new bestselling memoir, “Between the World and Me.” “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program. ... Our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white.”

Coates, who lectures at Davidson College on Nov. 16, told that journalist he really couldn’t explain his white readership. But I know why I’m a fan – because Coates’ conclusions, often linked to his personal history, are grounded in deep research and reporting. On top of that, the man crafts beautiful sentences. The result is convincing and powerful, even though, in Coates’ telling, white America’s legacy is a dark one.

This has been a remarkable year for the 40-year-old writer. Since “Between the World and Me” was published in July, he’s become the subject of interviews and a New York magazine profile, a finalist for the National Book Award, and the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant. (Unfortunately, he’s not doing media interviews with his Davidson visit.)

What’s distinctive about his work, according to the MacArthur Foundation, is how it “subtly embeds the present – in the form of anecdotes about himself or others – into historical analysis in order to illustrate how the implications of the past are still experienced by people today.”

That’s what first sold me on Coates – how he digs into history to explain our contemporary racial wounds. In his 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” he mapped the obstacles African-Americans faced in accumulating wealth across generations, from slavery through Jim Crow to racist housing policies. Of course, I knew about slavery and Jim Crow, but I’d only vaguely understood the government policies that made getting a mortgage and accumulating home equity near impossible for generations of black people. When I finished, I thought: Now I get it.

Coates writes “Between the World and Me,” as a letter to his 14-year-old son, filling it with inconvenient truths that crush notions that race discrimination died with Jim Crow.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

His view of America is a bleak one. Coates gives no uplift. This riles his critics.

But if you think of America as a family, then maybe Coates is that one brother willing to expose the ugly secrets that keep us dysfunctional. To confront them is painful, but we must. In the long run, we’ll all be better off.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271

Coates at Davidson

Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers Davidson College’s annual Reynolds Lecture at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 in Belk Arena. Tickets are free, and available online with a $3 handling fee: www.davidson.edu/the-arts/ticket-office.