Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Peculiar, Particular, Educational Intellectual

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Race

In the last six years, few have pushed America to reconsider history the way that Ta-Nehisi Coates has. Yes, the thrust of his visions come from a specific lens of his black-male-from-Baltimore-ness, but this lens has offered many a new language by which to address the past decade and the harrowing present. The denouement of President Barack Obama’s term, the ascension of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the new wave of public intellectualizing has given Coates an affirmed and awkward space to stand. Only three years ago did he point to Melissa Harris-Perry as America’s foremost intellectual, much to the chagrin of countless (white) thinkers used to dead versions of who they diluted and aspired to. In many of my circles these days, the question “OMG, did you read what he wrote?” both for intellectual provocation and critical reading became commonplace. Criticisms are aplenty, but he’s given some of the more memorable interviews specifically because he doesn’t know what to do with the newfound power he’s accumulated besides write and speak on that which he writes.

In the education space, his writing has been positioned with the likes of his heroes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Between The World and Me gets placed on book lists with Go Tell It On The Mountain and The Bluest Eye with regularity. He’s already headlined some of the biggest education conferences in the nation, and gets to use words like “white supremacy” in front of people who could otherwise have the rest of us fired. While the education zeitgeist has been pushed into conversation about educational equity [NB: action remains to be seen], it’s important to note that the education space is usually disinclined to moving towards rising tides. However, the aforementioned movements along with many others have forced educators to face deeper conversations about their own complicity in our country’s systemic oppression.

And who better than a person who’s a MacArthur “genius,” a New York Times best-seller, a person who’s conversed and debated Obama on a number of occasions in The White House? And what if that same person happens to have been spurned multiple times by the same educational system we so often laud?

We Were Eight Years In Power as a title made a few of us snicker when we first heard it, too. My fellow educators voted for Obama to denounce the No Child Left Behind approach to educating students. Ramping up standardized tests, privatizing schools, and shutting down schools en masse has been an unequivocal disaster for many of our most vulnerable students. After we took notice of Obama’s move towards doubling down on this formula, many of us built movements to defend public education, opt out of standardized tests, and protest public co-locations at every turn. Even when the former president finally leaned away from overtesting and education reformers finally got the idea that degrading teachers was an onerous path to recruitment and retention, the damage still felt done.

As a book, however, Coates’ meta reader speaks directly to the sardonicism. He couches each of his chapters in an essay that speaks to the context of when he wrote it, its logical and technical flaws, and the trajectory that lead him to the man he is today.

Eight Years In Power is most effective not as a read (or, for many of us, a re-read), but as a reminder of the time from whence we came. To understand Obama’s eight years is to understand Bill Cosby’s – not Cliff Huxtable’s – rendition of respectability in the early aughts. To understand the disposition of white people’s rage towards Obama is to get the reverence we have for Malcolm X’s oratory because of his flaws. To understand the debate over Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act debates is to understand reparations and any social programs that might even allude to it. To read this book is to ground an audience of well-meaning white people (and not so well-meaning) into reasons why our most vulnerable students don’t come in happy to hear the stories we’re telling them.

To understand that someone who’s eschewed systems in his youth in the quest for his own intellectual enlightenment can have a knee-deep concentration on these systems, prodding and poking at America’s sores is to know the work of Coates.

As Coates dropped Jay-Z quotes on his Twitter timeline recently (Jay reciprocates, of course), I couldn’t help but look back at Mr. Carter’s discography and hit upon the most apt CD to compare this to: The Hits Collection Volume One. If you only starting reading Coates since “Fear of a Black President,” he’s got essays to catch you up on. If you started at around his prominent treatise “The Case for Reparations,” he’s got pieces for that, too. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was listening to “Young, Gifted, and Black” and “My President Is Black (remix)” while conjuring up these ideas.

I don’t normally like the way K-12 educators seek to extract expertise from non-educators in place of the folks doing the work right in our schools, but Coates is an obvious exception. The few educators of color in his audiences usually take comfort that he makes no apologies for what he’s about to say.

Our system failed him; this is a remuneration.

photo c/o