intellectual: late Middle English: from Latin intellectualis, from intellectus ‘understanding,’ from intellegere ‘understand’
Like many bibliophiles, various works within the literature hemisphere have ultimately sparked my intellectual plug. Works like Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Big Sur by Jack Kerouac and Ask the Dust by John Fante are just a few examples. I recently came across a poem by Phillis Wheatley aptly named, “On being brought from Africa to America”. I thought that this poem would be a part of this wonderful list, so I was profoundly surprised with myself when I thought the piece to be overall confusing and, quite frankly, slightly repulsive at some points. Supposedly, some academics have created the argument that this poem was at the core of African American literature. I sat there, in my American Literature discussion class, bewildered with the line “T’was mercy brought me from my Pagan land”. What mercy was brought upon one of the worst, if not the worst, injustice that ever happened on American soil?
I asked myself the question: Is this really how a slave felt after all the injustices done to them? Is this the “justice” that he or she would want? Is this really at the core of “slave” literature? Understandably, Phillis Wheatley was an educated slave, with a family who was much kinder to her in comparison to other slave-holding families at the time — so her perspective on slavery may have been much more lenient than others. After a long discussion with myself, I concluded and funneled my frustration into several painstakingly difficult questions to answer: Is it possible to bring back the forgotten language and intellect of Black slaves and bring to light these thoughts in our supposedly progressive 21st century society? And if so, how? And who would be willing to carry on this massive responsibility of bringing justice and redemption to a historical conversation the world has tired to eschew?
Enter Ta-Nehisi Coates — a contemporary public intellectual, writer, journalist and educator whose distinctive way of tackling racism is to look to the past in order to confront and hopefully solve the racism of the present.
Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up in the Mondawmin neighborhood during the crack epidemic.
His father was the founder of Black Classic Press, a publisher specializing in African-American works of literature. He was a Vietnam War Veteran and a former Black Panther. Coates grew up with his father, and his political and socioeconomic views shaped his perspectives to this day. He attended Howard University, but left after five years to start his journalism career. In 2014, Coates attended a French intensive program at Middlebury College to prepare for a writing fellowship in Paris. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, an American magazine based upon cultural and literary commentary. Founded in 1857, it has a national reputation as a high-quality review with a moderate perspective on current issues.
Aside from being a journalist for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates portrays the role of a modern public intellectual through the use of social media. Through his Twitter page, Coates expounds upon his ideas about the issues a Black man is forced to face in the 21st century. He also tweets opinions about current issues, articles to his liking and self-promotion. He is constantly following trends and giving his opinion, often bluntly, to his 716,000 Twitter followers about socioeconomic issues spanning from the Black Lives Movement to American politics.
Furthermore, his intellectual work is especially distinctive because he creates a conversation by recollecting past injustices in order to solve the issues of racism today.
With full ignorance, the majority of the world naturally ties the term “African American literature” to only the Harlem Renaissance, a warm and artistic time for African American artists, poets, etc.
However, Ta-Nehisi Coates is the complete opposite of Langston Hughes. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ views both reflect ideals from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. If W.E. Dubois, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin had a lovechild, it would be Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Perhaps he is best known for his best-selling memoir, Between the World and Me. In a series of profound and sincere essays, he writes a letter to his son concerning the concept of race in America and how it has shaped American history over time. The Atlantic writer bravely tackles the cost of black lives and more specifically, the cost of the body of an African American — stating that the black body is a “stolen body”, a term he is widely known for penning.
He expounds upon the breakdown of race and the systematic construct of assaulting black people, stemming all the way back to Jeffersonian ideals and the Civil War and coming full circle back to the Black Lives Movement. For the sake of my critical analysis regarding Coates’ intellect, I have chosen this novel as my primary source of textual evidence to expand upon and thoroughly delve into the intellect of this specific American thinker.
In order to thoroughly dig into Coates’ way of thinking, one must go back to the source of his redemptive thoughts against slavery and the life of the African American in America. On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson, among other supposed intellects, signed the Declaration of Independence, a doctrine which states that every American has the right to have a life built upon the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Liberty is the key word here.
Thomas Jefferson was a man full of paradoxical ideals — he stood for both liberty and slavery. He disliked slavery, yet found Africans to be inferior to white people. And the most disgusting fact of all (the one American high school history books tend to leave out), one of our Founding Fathers had a sexual relationship with his own slave, Sally Hemings.
We must delve into Thomas Jefferson’s dark history as one of the sources for this great injustice because his ideals were the foundation for these American streets to be made and for certain American ideals (i.e. life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) we still believe to this day. Specifically, his racist ideals furthered the fervor against African Americans, which then set forth the engines for the machinery of racism. Through mentioning Jefferson as well as other past historical figures, Coates harkens back to the past in order to make sense of how racism is still happening to this day.
Coates states in Between the World and Me that black bodies were “stolen”, that they were “held in bondage by the earliest presidents.” One of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, owned 100 slaves on his very own plantation. The black bodies, among the millions which came later, served as the foundation and base as to what would inevitably become American capitalism.
I would like to expound upon Coates’ word choice, specifically the term “stolen body”. To “steal” something usually translates to gaining something for free, but at the cost of the law. Slavery is probably one of the very few events in history in which stealing a person was legal — that stealing a person’s name, personality, family and life was ordinary and part of conventional standards. Coates specifically uses the word “stolen” because he feels as if his own body is something that can still be taken from him, most especially from police brutality today.
From an article he recently wrote for The Atlantic, Coates states that he believes in a world with “equal access to safe, quality, and affordable education; with the right to health care; with strong restrictions on massive wealth accumulation; with guaranteed childcare; and with access to the full gamut of birth-control, including abortion”. These ideas reflect Malcolm X’s human activism, ideas which perhaps may have been passed down from his father, a former Black Panther.
However, Coates does not believe that “if this world were realized, the problem of white supremacy would dissipate, anymore than I (he) believe(s) that if reparations were realized, the problems of economic inequality would dissipate.” Their backs, organs, muscles, fingers, veins — were all “transfigured” into “sugar, tobacco and gold.” Coates approaches the fact that slaves were collateral, that they
were strictly business, that through the machinery of racism, innocent people’s eyes and hands and backs and feet became the source of America’s wealth — of America’s monetary dynasty. Again, Coates creates a visceral image from the past in order to comment upon the consequences of the systemic roots of racism.
Coates’ representation of racial injustice is something I agree with, though I have to point out that not all slaveowners at the time came to be as malevolent and villainous as others turned out to become. However, this does not erase the malpractices which occurred due to racial prejudice and systematic racism.
In the memoir Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that “racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth”. He distinctively creates the argument that the black body is a breakable and destructible thing which can be dislodged simply through repulsive practices such as lynching.
The legal institution of lynching was a tool in propelling white masculinity and white power by racially and sexually degrading black men. These acts established fear within the black population and completely dehumanized black people by showcasing their murders through repulsive propaganda like lynching postcards. Moreover, these acts disgraced blacks through sexual torture (i.e. cutting off genitals) as a means of stripping black males of their manhood within a public setting.
Ta-Nehisi Coates states in his memoir that “at the the onset of the Civil War, our (their) stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product ended by our (their) stolen bodies — cotton — was America’s primary export.” He further claims that “the richest men in America .. made their riches off our (their) stolen bodies.”
His work is distinctive due to his thematic construct of the stolen body, of the stolen mind. Coates firmly believes that slavery was a robbery, and “that is what it is, and what it always was.” The author refuses to ignore the cyclical outbreaks of violence against racism by nudging through this particularly sensitive conversation. He demands an answer for the reasons for racism by bringing up the harsh past and through this, he requires the present to converse and utilize historical facts in order to answer the question that is racism.
Furthemore, Coates believes that in America, it is tradition to destroy the black body – it is heritage. His intellect is characteristic due to this statement; he sticks to the concept that the black body in America is a business engagement and if need be, will be destroyed.
I do not particularly agree with this statement, most especially the words “tradition” and “heritage”. Perhaps, it has been a historic aspect that certain people in The United States have beaten and battered the black body due to slavery, but I absolutely refuse to say that it is part of our heritage. Beating and killing bodies in general are not part of the Hallmark list of American holidays. We may be a nation of imperfect ideals, and perhaps I may be overstepping with this comment, but we are not all purely evil that destroying human bodies out of racist spite is part of our American heritage to this day.
Coates rejects the idea of there being a God; he believes that “our bodies are our selves, that my (his) soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves and that his spirit is my (his) flesh.” From a historic vantage point, slaves and African Americans in general have always had a deep relationship with a Christian God. There is a large population of African Americans whose culture is founded upon Christianity, and that the Lord will save them from the strife and injustices that have happened to them.
In comparison to this African American tradition, Coates rejects the concept through his atheist intellect. He asserts the idea that God will not be the one to save his body, but he will be the one to save himself. This is controversial and definitely groundbreaking when considering the fact that most African Americans are generalized to being deeply rooted to Christianity.
Perhaps the root of his atheism lies upon the murder of his friend, Prince Jones. He stated that “for the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones, I (he) did not believe in forgiveness.” Coates’ strong and redemptive prose captures his vitriolic anger against slavery, the machinery of racism, the racial injustices within America, and the memory he has from this particular event. His intellect is comparable to a broken record describing these mistakes and injustices — he will always remember the tyrannical oppression from the past and as long as he is living, he will exhaust his mind, his body, his heart towards the subject.
“The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stonewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.” – Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates firmly believes that tackling the issues of the past is the answer to racism that still exists today. His focus is not on the generalized misconceptions of racial degradation, but within the less visible, less pronounced roots which have been systematically ingrained within our society. Coates refuses to ignore the cyclical outbreaks of violence against racism; instead, he takes it upon himself to start a conversation, whether with the use of his Twitter account or simply writing an article in The Atlantic.
He allows the audience to see an ancient problem in 1,000 different ways. Coates is known for his incredibly refreshing sense of the truth. He refuses to preach upon people his ideas, and is honest about his lapse of knowledge with certain subjects.
Coates, in every shape and form, is a public intellectual living in the age of new media.
Currently, Ta-Nehisi Coates is busy writing for the Marvel realm through the revival of the first black superhero series —The Black Panther. His artistry and script was inspired by, yet again, the lack of conversation and representation for minorities and race. Coates, a public intellectual and Renaissance man, continues and will continue to bridge the societal gap of injustice and look to the past in order to tackle and hopefully solve contemporary racism.