• Tahuhu Korero

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Struggle of the Black Body

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an award-winning journalist and recipient of a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’, though he never quite finished his history degree. His writings focus on social, political and cultural issues in America, in particular for African Americans. Somewhat infamously, he makes a case for reparations; arguing for financial compensation for historical wrongs committed against African Americans by the State. This can be understood, and possibly validated, through the perspective of the historical ‘African American experience’ Coates conveys through his writings.

It is a well-established concept in history and sociology that race is a construct - how a society defines race in any given context is a product of political, cultural, historical, and social ideas in that particular time. What is significant about the construction of race in America is that it is fundamentally born out of racism. Coates defines racism as ‘the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce and destroy them’ [1]. This violent, provocative definition is based on Coates’ own experiences as an African American and research into African American history. ‘Whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ are ‘not a fact of providence, but of policy - of slave codes, black codes, Jim Crow, redlining, GI Bills, housing covenants, New Deals, and mass incarcerations’ [2]. It is against this backdrop that the struggle of the African American experience can and must be properly construed. As Coates argues, ‘in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body - it is heritage’ [3].

Coates writes that he could not have understood twentieth-century discrimination without understanding its earlier manifestations. Slavery was the means through which Africans became African Americans - ‘whole generations followed more generations who knew nothing but chains’ [4]. These generations were the backbone of the American economy. Coates is not constrained by objectivity in the same way as historians and historical accounts. He is determined that the reader see the struggle, see the faces and bodies behind the statistics - as ‘Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh’ [5]. Coates uses this re-humanisation of slaves as a way to critique America and people who feed into American exceptionalism, dismissing those who celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting the origins of the American economy as partaking in ‘patriotism à la carte’ [6].

The civil rights movement has often been heralded as a bright spot in America’s dark history of racism. But for many revisionist historians, the characterisation of the ‘movement’ as a triumph of nonviolent and peaceful protest is inaccurate. Recent scholarship has emphasised the often elided or demonised Black Power movement, and how the movement’s commitment to separatism and self-defence was rooted in traditional black culture. Coates situates these ideas in his own experiences. He describes the shame he felt as a young black man, watching videos ‘dedicated to the glory of being beaten on camera’ [7]. As a teenager growing up in nearly-segregated Baltimore, Coates struggled to reconcile the admiration of these people with the history he was taught and the violence and poverty of his daily life. What Coates felt was not unique; most African Americans did not approve of the Freedom Rides, or sit-ins, or even the ruling in Brown v Board of Education [8].

Coates’ interpretation of the civil rights movement is important for many reasons, but it is particularly significant because of its relation to a phenomenon drawn upon by historians Leigh Raiford and Renee C. Romano. They argue that contemporary representations of the civil right movement can have a powerful influence on how people understand both the past and the present. The danger is that those who ‘believe the movement was successful in incorporating America’s black minority into the mainstream may see little role for the State in ameliorating current racial inequalities’ [9].

The struggle between the state and African Americans did not end with the Voting Rights Act. Redlining is an example of state-sanctioned discrimination, the ripple effect of which is untold. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, African Americans in cities such as Chicago were cut out of the legitimate housing market. From restrictive covenants to mass harassment to bombings, white residents often took extreme steps to ensure their neighbourhood would remain segregated. This was not simply an act of blanket racism, but often reflected pragmatic realities about the damage having an African American neighbour could do to one’s house valuation.

In the wake of a housing shortage crisis, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) decided to intervene and offer up FHA-backed loans that could make purchasing a house accessible. However, the FHA implemented redlining, a scheme whereby neighbourhoods were given ratings based on the prospects for insurance. Green areas were considered excellent prospects, whereas red neighbourhoods, primarily African American neighbourhoods, were largely ineligible for these loans. Redlining was eventually outlawed in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act, but by then, ‘the damage was done’ [10].

This historical struggle culminates in Coates’ argument for reparations. Coates argues that America is still largely segregated. He purports that there is ‘massive, overwhelming evidence’ that ‘white supremacy is the only thing wrong with black people,’ as opposed to some inherent problem with African American culture that causes them to be overrepresented in almost every negative statistic [11]. He points to historical precedent for reparations - providing eighteenth-century examples of freed-men and -women demanding pensions as reparations for their unpaid work. He also reminds the reader about reparations paid to Israel following the Holocaust, noting that while reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis, they did ‘launch Germany’s reckoning with itself’ [12].

The symbolism of reparations is important. Reparations, or at least a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects, as called for by Bill HR 40, would signify America acknowledging, admitting and taking responsibility for its roots in slavery and racism, and the resulting inherent systemic discrimination. A nation outlives its generations, and, more important than handing out cheques to every African American, reparations, to Coates, would ‘represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders’ [13].


Helen Loveridge is in her final year of her conjoint BA/LLB at the University of Auckland, majoring in History and Politics. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2015), 7.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “How Racism Invented Race in America,” The Atlantic, June 23, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations-a-narrative-bibliography/372000/.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, 106.

[4] Ibid., 70.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.

[7] Coates, Between the World and Me, 32.

[8] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Civil-Rights Protests Have Never Been Popular,” The Atlantic, October 3, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/colin-kaepernick/541845/.

[9] Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford, “Introduction: The Struggle Over Memory,” in The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, eds. Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2006), xiv.

[10] Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”

[11] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy,” The Atlantic, May 22, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations-an-intellectual-autopsy/371125/.

[12] Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”

[13] Ibid.

Further Reading

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Fear of a Black President.” The Atlantic, September 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “My President Was Black”. The Atlantic, January/February 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/01/my-president-was-black/508793/.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Slavery Made America.” The Atlantic, June 24, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/slavery-made-america/373288/.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The Atlantic, October 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/the-black-family-in-the-age-of-mass-incarceration/403246/.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Legacy of Malcom X.” The Atlantic, May 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/05/the-legacy-of-malcolm-x/308438/.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World, 2017.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War?” The Atlantic, December 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/02/why-do-so-few-blacks-study-the-civil-war/308831/.

Wright, Richard. “Between the World and Me.” Partisan Review 2 (July-August 1935), 18-9.

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