The Word

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in full Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, (born September 30, 1975, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.), American essayist, journalist, and writer who often explored contemporary race relations, perhaps most notably in his book Between the World and Me (2015), which won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Coates’s mother was a teacher, and his father—once a member of the city’s Black Panther chapter—was a librarian, entrepreneur, and publisher who founded Black Classic Press, which reissued forgotten works by African Americans. Coates’s unusual first name was an Egyptian appellation for the ancient African region of Nubia. His exposure to books as a youth prompted Coates to gravitate toward a literary career, and he started writing poetry at the age of 17. In 1993 he enrolled at Howard University, but he left without a degree.

Coates began writing for a variety of periodicals, including Washington Monthly, to which he contributed the attention-grabbing essay “Confessions of a Black Mr. Mom”; Philadelphia Weekly; Mother Jones; the Village Voice; Entertainment Weekly; Time; and O, the Oprah Magazine. His career blossomed when in 2008 he became a blogger for The Atlantic magazine’s Web site. In his first byline, he criticized actor Bill Cosby—the patriarch of an upwardly mobile black family in the television sitcom The Cosby Show (1984–92)—as a crabby lecture-circuit grandpa who cast aspersions on his “less fortunate brethren.” Coates’s grasp of pop-culture trends and his penetrating insights earned him a following.

Coates’s 2008 Time article “Obama and the Myth of the Black Messiah” reminded readers that the election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president was not the cure-all for poverty and ghettos. Obama, Coates said, “is a black President, not black Jesus.” In his 2012 essay on the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, he commended Obama on his heartfelt response to the tragedy. (Obama memorably said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”) Coates’s Atlantic essay “Fear of a Black President” earned him a 2013 National Magazine Award. The 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” resulted in another National Magazine Award. In 2015 Coates was named a MacArthur fellow. The following year he was the recipient of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

In 2008 Coates published his first book, the memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. The critically acclaimed work was followed by Between the World and Me (2015), which became a best seller. It was written in the form of a letter from Coates to his teenage son and recounts the author’s childhood in Baltimore’s inner city, his daily fear of violence, and the emergence of the crack cocaine epidemic. The narrative leads to the controversial contention that American society is structured to promote white supremacy. Many readers noted the book’s relevance in a time of frequent high-profile racial incidents. In addition to the National Book Award, Between the World and Me won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction. In the essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power (2017), which included work previously published in The Atlantic, Coates explored the presidency of Barack Obama as well as the subsequent election of Donald Trump.

In addition to his nonfiction work, Coates wrote a comic series based on the Marvel superhero Black Panther. The first installment was published in 2016.

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