Ta-Nehisi Coates sports one of those preposterous made-up African personal names, which is, I suppose, a vital fashion accessory for a fellow who makes his living as a professional angry black man.
TNC (as other writers often refer to him) is a college drop-out who (for some completely mysterious reason, what could it possibly be?) has managed consistently to fail upward. Starting in 2000, over a period of seven years, TNC was hired and then quickly fired by the Philadelphia Weekly, The Village Voice, and Time magazine in succession. Naturally, with a resume like that, the Atlantic was quick to hire him as national correspondent and senior editor.
At the Atlantic, TNC has a comfortable gig. When he doesn’t feel like turning in any copy, he simply posts a sign reading: “The Lost Batallion,” and that’s cool with his employers. They keep TNC on, despite his tendency to punt, because when he does write an article, he produces 200-proof, double-distilled racialist venom. Back in May, TNC argued for reparations to be paid to gentlemen of color like himself to compensate for “395 years of preferential treatment for white people” and an “early American economy built on slave labor.”
More recently, TNC has been off at Middlebury in Vermontstudying French. His French lessons, you might suppose would be racially irrelevant, but you’d be wrong.
TNC, you see, finds learning French hard, and that is your fault, whitey!
There were years when I failed the majority of my classes. This was not a matter of my being better suited for the liberal arts than sciences. I was an English minor in college. I failed American Literature, British Literature, Humanities, and (voilà) French. The record of failure did not end until I quit college to become a writer. My explanation for this record is unsatisfactory: I simply never saw the point of school. I loved the long process of understanding. In school, I often felt like I was doing something else.
Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness. The phrase “Ivy League” was an empty abstraction to me. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed. These observations cannot be disconnected from the country I call home, nor from the government to which I swear fealty.
For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”
And so a white family born into the lower middle class can expect to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures. A black family with a middle class salary can expect to live around a critical mass of poor people, and mostly see the same things they (and the poor people around them) are working hard to escape. This too compounds.
Rod Dreher read the same TNC article, and he, too, was a bit ticked off by TNC’s revolutionary racialist BS.
TNC goes on to draw some sort of black nationalist lesson from his summer at French camp, culminating in this line: “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!
I snark, but honestly, the idea that the enormous privilege of spending a summer studying a foreign language at a verdant Vermont college should conclude with a resolution to become even more of a militant race man is depressing. Exactly whose house will TNC be burning down as a result of the tools he acquired this summer at Middlebury? François Hollande’s? I don’t get it. I seriously don’t. Seems to me that learning French as a middle-aged American can only do one worthwhile thing: make you more of a humanist. TNC thinks it has done that for him, I guess. Recalling his past self, he writes:
I saw no reason to learn French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti.
I had to be a nationalist before I could be a humanist.
What does that mean? That he had to learn to love his people before he could love all the world? I guess I understand that, but if a rural white Southerner had the same thought, what would TNC think of him? I know good and well what the overclass that TNC spent his summer with would think of that Southern kid.
Anyway, it seems that TNC is, in fact, learning French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti. I don’t know how else to read his conclusion, referencing Audre Lorde’s line, that the meaning of his summer spent immersed in the language of Baudelaire, Racine, and Rimbaud is to be found in how it empowers him to resist white supremacy. That does not sound like power to me. That sounds like impoverishment.
He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner?
TNC is a sore winner, of course, because that is actually his profession. TNC is a professional angry black man, employed by the elite editorial board of the Atlantic, sitting atop the heights of establishment American culture, to be a kind of in-house Caliban, to rant, to rage, to emote and accuse America generally in order to solidify and confirm that Atlantic editorial board’s claim to top-people-ship. If TNC were reasonable and rational, he might actually have to find a real job and meet editorial deadlines.