When people see my neighborhood, they are often surprised. People don’t often place me in Queens, mostly because I don’t even live in the United States anymore, but there is an obvious class assumption about me that betrays everything they think they know about people who come from my hood. If I am having a good day and speaking at a conference they don’t see me growing up down the corner from the nameless fried chicken place. They imagine that I should be harder and rougher somehow. The thing is, I am and I’m not. I’m not because I was more likely to cry on my pillow, after walking through the daily assaults of street harassment and found ways to make myself invisible when the violence would erupt. I’m not because I survived, developed silent strategies and avoided the worst that my environment had to offer.
I’m reminded of a particular trip to the McDonalds after school that was booby-trapped. After my day at Brooklyn Tech, I went to the corner with two girlfriends that I inherited from middle school. My job was to keep them because they were way cooler than me and I was determined. But as we jovially rounded the corner on Dekalb Avenue, we were set upon by a posse of about 10 kids that demanded our cash and jewelry. I had neither but stuck around corralling the belongings that were strewn on the street after they were rifled through. I memorized the faces of every robber and every customer in the McDonalds that watched us through the wall of windows. Doing nothing. I took a couple blows but none hurt me as much as all of the casually amused eyes upon me. I knew then that there was no inherent justice in having an audience.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates rose to prominence, I’ve watched proudly and horrified as challenges rolled out to meet him behind every accomplishment. He was honest about his background and process in his consistent writing and got attacked for not being fully formed. He went to buy his dream house and someone published the address so he retracted. Every grant or public appearance met with numerous think pieces of writers and activists trying to out-think him. His celebrity has been equal parts blessing and curse.
When one chooses to be a writer, there is hope that a diversity of thoughts are valued. The world of hot-takes has turned the art of theory into a competitive sport, however. Your book can be misrepresented and rebuffed in an article. Your off-hand statement can be turned into a cause to rally against you. The anxiety does not produce more nuanced ideas but more brand-able ones. This differs from the call to be politically correct which just implores you to treat marginalized people with respect. This is a call to develop theories that survive the various purity tests of gatekeepers, lest you be subjected to a take-down in the public sphere.
Make no mistake, Cornel West is a gatekeeper in this case. His Guardian article and previous call-outs of Coates in a Root interview are all attempts to create a show of the ways in which his analysis are superior to Coates’. The macho bravado and patronizing goading with which he calls Coates “brilliant” made me immediately tired. It reminded me of times at Howard when a professor would call me brilliant only to follow it up with “but naive”. West proposes an either / or world where ideas can’t co-exist or better yet compliment each other. He longs to bring Coates into the church of right-thinking where neo-liberalism trumps white-supremacy as the starting point for analysis. The idea that Coates would be loudly accused of not seeing the brutality inherent in the American project is a joke.
Cornel West is doing what he does. Picking an imaginary intellectual fight for theoretical stakes with someone who he thinks he can out-preach into rhetorical submission. But then this is 2017, so there is a worldwide audience who is much more interested in the possibility of blood than in the possibility of black liberation. My twitter feed has been filled with people salivating at the prospect of Coates/West match-up yet don’t have the range to engage with the theories of either. What West did by coming for someone who never sent for him was to volunteer to create a show for a public that just wants to see someone in pain.
It’s super disconcerting to read Cornel West’s latest piece, and then see Ta-Nehisi Coates so quickly and throughly debunk so many of West’s criticisms, especially TNC showing he’s written about everything Cornel said he didn’t.
— X (@XLNB) December 18, 2017
Coates made a few statements and deleted his Twitter. I was relieved that he opted out of the performance. The ritual he was being asked to engage in was nothing more than posturing. A fruitless fight can be demanded of you but you don’t have to show up.
I imagine Coates somewhere looking at the jeers, praises and memorizing the faces of the hungry onlookers. The demands of this audience say more about their needs than his.