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The Language Ta-Nehisi Coates Taught Me

Coates' new book shows how he developed a set of linguistic tools that have opened up new ways for black Americans to describe the world.
Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Sonia Sanchez at a panel on Broadway on June 15th, 2016, in New York City.

Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Sonia Sanchez at a panel on Broadway on June 15th, 2016, in New York City. 

When I was a kid, I'd always sink into myself just a bit whenever the issue of racism would come up among my white peers. Of course, I was used to talking about racism in other contexts, specifically with my family; growing up as a black kid in South Carolina, I would've found totally sidestepping the issue largely impossible. For instance, I remember talking with my family about racism when, in 2000, South Carolina lawmakers removed the Confederate flag from the state's capitol dome. I remember talking about racism even when it came to barbecue sauce. My parents promptly forbade my siblings and me from going to Maurice's Piggie Park, a popular barbecue chain, after it was disclosed, also in 2000, that the restaurant's owner, Maurice Bessinger, had been distributing pro-slavery literature at his headquarters in West Columbia, under the Confederate flag he'd hoisted outside. There was no thought of avoiding the conversation—but there also wasn't much guidance, more broadly, for how to have it.

The crux of my unease back then was that I didn't know how to talk about racism. It was supposedly enough that I knew that racism was "bad"; beyond that, people told me, "race shouldn't matter." That's one I heard everywhere, particularly among my white friends and in popular culture of the early 2000s. More to the point, I didn't yet have a vocabulary that could help me name the central planks of American racism, things I'd eventually learn to identify as state power and a protected, centralized whiteness. Instead, the only words I had were ones like "colorblind," which even at the time felt like a maudlin sentiment, and which I now recognize actually does the work of racism, simply by pasting over the depth of America's indefatigable commitment to preserving whiteness, whatever the cost.

I thought about my own stories—and the words to describe them that for so long I didn't have—while I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. It comprises nine essays originally published in The Atlantic, one from each year of Barack Obama's eight-year presidency, plus an additional essay surveying the aftermath. Coates also adds a preface, of sorts, to each piece, to "capture why [he] was writing and where [he] was in [his] life at the time." Over the course of the book, readers observe Coates as he reflects on his growth as a writer and, in turn, develops a set of linguistic tools that have opened up novel ways for Americans—black Americans especially—to describe the world and its workings.

At its core, what does racism do? In a word: plunder. It's a word Coates employs—several dozen times, with a rhythmic repetition—throughout the book: plunder, plunder, plunder. "America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary," Coates writes in "The Case for Reparations," the 2014 essay that solidified his status as an intellectual celebrity. He uses the word again in "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," a 2015 essay: "To war seriously against the disparity in unfreedom requires a war against a disparity in resources," he writes. "And to war against a disparity in resources is to confront a history in which both the plunder and the mass incarceration of blacks are accepted commonplaces." Coates' simple, repetitive exposition captures the layered valence of racism: "Plunder" speaks to theft of black culture as much as it does to exploitation of black labor.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

Coates, moreover, gives us a lexicon to match his political critique, and we see it in his steady portrayal of black selfhood as a physical body on which racism preys. "In Malcolm's time, that message rejected the surrender of the right to secure your own body"; "The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves." Here, as in much of his writing, Coates relies on blunt, intimate language. This tendency makes his writing more personal; it also offers new ways for his readers to speak. For me, the casual humanity of his prose—how it crystallizes life's daily encroachment on blackness as physical and invasive—helps bring to light the reality of a racist world.

Of course, Coates' language is the product of his literary inheritance. He writes that his relationship with The Atlantic gave him a degree of stability and freedom and thereby allowed him to "fulfill [his] own dream of walking the same path as [his] heroes"—that is, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin. Yet Coates' writing style isn't descended purely from essayists of the last century. Sure, Baldwin's towering influence—the pastor-like ferocity and the dramatic hooks that carry echoes of Henry James—is all there. But so is hip-hop. "That is where I begin, as a writer: in hip-hop. It was the first music I ever really knew, which is to say the first literature I ever knew, which is to say the first place where I consciously developed a sense that words, strung together, could be—and really should be—beautiful," Coates reflects in the preface to his 2011 essay, "The Legacy of Malcolm X." By blending a range of elements, he's created his own aesthetic cosmos: Coates' language is literary and lyrical, and he uses it to center the terrible vulnerability, but also the remarkable strength, of blackness.

All of which makes the recent, vociferous criticism around Coates so bizarre—the idea that he and other anti-racist thinkers "fetishize" race and thereby give whiteness power; as if an interest in scrutinizing the reality of racism is what perpetuates white supremacy, as opposed to, say, white supremacy itself. Indeed, this un-logic gets it all incredibly, and dangerously, backward. Coates is well aware that America, particularly in these times, can't escape race—let alone racism—by downplaying it or pretending it doesn't exist. While his work isn't intended to be a panacea, Coates affords his readers a shared language to investigate race, ruthlessly.

Seeing Coates craft his own style is what gives We Were Eight Years in Power its weight. Because Coates, in all that, is trying to do the exact thing so many other black Americans are trying to do in response to a world bent on muting us: take power back, word by word.