Ta-Nehisi Coates got his inevitable close-up in this week’s New York Observer and, as anyone who’s followed his work on- and off-line in The Atlantic will tell you, he deserves all the love he’s getting here. He has the grace to be embarrassed by these garlands – which of course only makes him worthier of them, especially when the one encomium that makes him cringe the most is being labeled “the best writer on the subject of race in America.”
While it’s true, as articles like this (from last fall) or this (more recent) make radiantly, abundantly clear, that Coates can slice through racial cant with this dude’s ruthless efficiency, even a casual tour of Coates’ blog site discloses his facility with such subjects as history, politics, sports, science and music. Cultural arbiters will insist that, however eclectic his interests, they are filtered through an African-American point-of-view. Well, yes. He’s a young African American and he has points-of-view that are informed by his life experiences. But what if he chose to write solely (and with comparable grace and precision) about, say, chess or music videos or physics or economics? Would his mastery of these subjects be recognized, much less lionized? Probably. We live, after all, in a world where black writers become famous on TV for being sports journalists and a film reviewer-of-color receives the Pulitzer Prize, just for being excellent and eclectic.
Still, African American writers remain the default setting for editors seeking that all-important-all-encompassing “black perspective.” And that’s by no means an inconsiderable, or unnecessary thing. There are things we know, feelings we have access to that white editors and writers don’t. We ask the questions that others may not. Our loyalty and devotion to our race confers a responsibility to enlighten our white country-persons if only to make sure they don’t assume, presume or otherwise say (or do) something stupid, insensitive or ill-informed to and/or about us. Still, why should Being Black be the one-and-only-thing about which we are always counted on to deliver an informed opinion?
Coates shouldn’t have to fall into a “spokesman-for-his-people” niche conferred by whatever passes for a post-millennial media establishment, though the risk is always there. That unofficial pedestal prevented my adolescent self from fully appreciating James Baldwin back in the 1960s when I too often thought he was speaking “for” me rather than “to” me. (It’s only as a much older adult that I’ve come to value Baldwin as the visionary essayist and undervalued novelist he was at his peak.) As master of the blogging art, in emceeing and in posting, Coates has more space than his predecessors did in trumping and deflating any attempt to make him The Black Spokesperson; it also helps that he’s been generous enough to give his peers some props, something too few of our predecessors did in a more competitive era.
But black writers shouldn’t always have to be the go-to source for writing about race. Indeed, some of the finest nonfiction on this topic has come from Caucasian writers as well. Larry L. King, whose recent obituary saw fit to highlight his collaboration on a successful little musical about Texas hookers, wrote a brave, candid essay, “Confessions of a White Racist,” that was expanded to an even better memoir. And I’m now in the midst of re-reading Joan Didion’s “Sentimental Journeys,” her exhaustive and masterly 1990 report about the hysteria surrounding the 1989 rape and near-murder of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Having seen Ken and Sarah Burns’ recently-released, award-winning cinematic j’accuse, Central Park Five, I now find Didion’s epic dissection of the crime and the subsequent police investigation, arrests, convictions and warring points-of-view to be one of the most cogent examinations of how race, class, politics and hype conspire against simple justice – and, given how things turned out with those five convictions, Didion also proved how steely and forbiddingly prescient an observer she is. Could any other writer, black or white, have shown as much composure at a time when emotions about the case, for and against the original convictions, were still strident and raw? I can usually imagine almost anything I want, but I’m having trouble with that one.
Sometimes, I think everything you write about when you write about America is about race – except when it isn’t. (And when it isn’t, I’m tempted to think the writer’s trying to hide something.) But as Coates as written, it’s in the particular rather than in the general that a writer can find her true voice on this volatile topic. When the voice reaches too far, too hard and too broadly, bad things tend to happen. I shall let the Best Writer on The Subject of Race have the last words:
“No one who wants to write beautifully should ever — in their entire life — write an essay about ‘the subject of race.’ You can write beautifully about the reaction to LeBron James and ‘The Decision.’ You can write beautifully about integrating your local high school. You can write gorgeously about the Underground Railroad. But you can never write beautifully about the fact of race, anymore than you can write beautifully about the fact of hillsides. All you’ll end up with is a lot of words, and a comment section filled with internet skinheads and people who have nothing better to do with their time then to argue internet skinheads.”