Ta-Nehisi Coates

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H.R. 40... tries to get that figured out, and get that math figured out, and figure out the best way to do it. But if we don’t actually have a study, we can’t actually answer those questions. You can’t ask a doctor to make a diagnosis before there’s an actual examination.
Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.
If I injure you, the injury persists even after I actually commit the act. If I stab you, you may suffer complications long after that initial actual stabbing. If I shoot you, you may suffer complications long after that initial shooting. That’s the case with African Americans. There are people well within the living memory of this country that are still suffering from the after-effects of that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates (born September 30, 1975) is a senior editor for The Atlantic and a memoirist. He often writes about African-American history, gaming, and current events.

Quotes[edit]

sorted chronologically
  • I'm looking to avoid a subtly demeaning subtext which holds that reading, say, Jamaica Kincaid is something you should do--like flossing or taxes or laundry. I don't want to speak for women writers, but I recoil at the idea of someone reading my book because they really should read a black author or two. I don't want to be an icebreaker at your corporation's Kwanzaa gathering.
  • You actually can’t understand American history without understanding slavery.
    • Ibid. (May 30, 2014) Part 2, Democracy Now!
  • Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir (2008)[edit]

  • There was the normal high that comes from the hormones of youth, that fresh sense of being unchained. But also there was the omnipresent feeling that It could go down. In those moments—which back then were all of our moments—your neurology was always code red.
    • p. 34.
  • I was young and could not see the weaponry my ancestors had left for me, the shield in the tall brown grass, the ax lying right next to the tree.
    • p. 41.
  • My father was haunted. He was bad at conjuring small talk, he watched very little TV, because once Conscious, every commercial, every program must be strip-mined for its deeper meaning, until it lays bare its role in this sinister American plot.
    • p. 54.
  • That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledged feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book—it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I knew what Fruitie was trying to say, that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone.
    • p. 111.
  • Our folks understood that there was a war upon us and that school was a weapon that outdid any Glock. Yet the whole process—with its equally spaced desks, precisely timed periods and lectures, with its standardized pencils and tests—felt unnatural to me. But much as I hated their terms, having been impressed into them, I hated more the failing. So I was left with a great unconscious sadness, an emptiness which, even when I was alone, I was not fully aware. But it worked on me like an invisible weight, altered my laughter, posture, my approach to girls. Fuck what you have heard or what you have seen in your son. He may lie about homework and laugh when the teacher calls home. He may curse his teacher, propose arson for the whole public system. But inside is the same sense that was in me. None of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up.
    • p. 169-170.
  • Nowadays, I cut on the tube and see the dumbfounded looks, when over some minor violation of name and respect, a black boy is found leaking on the street. The anchors shake their heads. The activists give their stupid speeches, praising mythical days when all disputes were handled down at Ray's Gym. Politicians step up to the mic, claim the young have gone mad, their brains infected, and turned superpredator. Fuck you all who've ever spoken so foolishly, who've opened your mouths like we don't know what this is. We have read the books you own, the scorecards you keep—done the math and emerged prophetic. We know how we will die—with cousins in double murder suicides, in wars that are mere theory to you, convalescing in hospitals, slowly choked out by angina and cholesterol. We are the walking lowest rung, and all that stands between us and beast, between us and the local zoo, is respect, the respect you take as natural as sugar and shit. We know what we are, that we walk like we are not long for this world, that this world has never longed for us.
    • p. 177.
  • I built djembes not by parental edict, not under threat, but because of my own native yearning. This was a giant step toward seeing more. Across the country our elders were battling the shades that shrank our minds and abbreviated our world. We thought the corner was cool, but more than that we deeply believed that we could do no better, that this tiny parcel was all we deserved in this world of sin.
    • p. 192.
  • [In the mid-90s] The older gods were falling off. EPMD were breaking. Chuck and Flav had taken us as far as they could, and already the new voices were being hijacked by the death cults. Brothers who last week were shouting out Malcolm were flipped into studio gangsters, killing every nigger in sight.
    • p. 199.

Between the World and Me (2015)[edit]

  • The elevation of the belief in being white was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.
    • p. 8.
  • Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because ... America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist.
    • p. 8.
  • One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.
    • p. 8.
  • Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. ... The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
    • p. 9.
  • Any claim to ourselves, to the hands that secured us, the spine that braced us, and the head that directed us, was contestable.
    • p. 37.
  • I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.
    • p. 146.
  • Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.
    • p. 150.

"The First White President" (October 2017)[edit]

article source, The Atlantic.
  • It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump's predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
  • Any empirical evaluation of the relationship between Trump and the white working class would reveal that one adjective in that phrase is doing more work than the other. In 2016, Trump enjoyed majority or plurality support among every economic branch of whites. It is true that his strongest support among whites came from those making $50,000 to $99,999. This would be something more than working-class in many nonwhite neighborhoods, but even if one accepts that branch as the working class, the difference between how various groups in this income bracket voted is revealing. Sixty-one percent of whites in this "working class" supported Trump. Only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks did. Indeed, the plurality of all voters making less than $100,000 and the majority making less than $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate. So when Packer laments [in the New Yorker] the fact that "Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway," he commits a kind of category error. The real problem is that Democrats aren't the party of white people—working or otherwise. White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.
  • Obama himself, underestimating Trump and thus underestimating the power of whiteness, believed the Republican nominee too objectionable to actually win. In this Obama was, tragically, wrong. And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase "grab 'em by the pussy" into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, "If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president."

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes the Case for Reparations at Historic Congressional Hearing, Democracy Now' (20 June 2019)[edit]

(full program & transcript online)

  • Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible... This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties... But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.
  • As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement, quote, “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics” of America, so that by 1836 more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America—$3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.
    The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
    It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement. But the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs—coup d’états and convict leasing. vagrancy laws and debt peonage, redlining and racist GI bills, poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.
  • We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
    What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something.” It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.
    The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Reparations Are Not Just About Slavery But Also Centuries of Theft & Racial Terror, Democracy Now (20 June 2019)[edit]

(full program & transcript online)

  • You know, the two great crimes in American history is obviously...the near destruction...of this country’s Native American population, the theft of their land, and on to work that land was brought in native Africans into this country, beginning in 1619. Those twin processes profoundly altered the shape of the world and made this country possible. Obviously, first of all, you know, the land on which America and Americans currently reside was the land of Native Americans, but the people brought in to break that land just transformed it.
  • The profits derived from slavery are more extreme than I think are commonly acknowledged. As I said yesterday, in 1860, the combined worth of the 4 million enslaved black people in this country was some $3 billion, nearly $75 billion in today’s share of dollars. Cotton, in 1860, was this country’s largest export—not just its largest export, it was the majority of exports out of this country. So, from a financial perspective, just the economics of it, it’s absolutely impossible to imagine America without enslavement.
  • The onset of the Civil War, the greatest preponderance, the greatest population per capita of millionaires and multimillionaires in this country was in the Mississippi River Valley. It wasn’t in Boston, wasn’t in Chicago, wasn’t in New York. The richest people in this country were slaveholders. Most of our earliest presidents were slaveholders. And the fact that they were presidents is not incidental to the fact that they—to their slaveholding. That was how they built their wealth. That was how Thomas Jefferson built his wealth. That was how George Washington built his wealth. Individual slaves were the equivalent of, say, owning a home today. They were people, but turned into objects of extreme wealth. So, just from the economic perspective, there’s that.
  • The average African-American family in this country making $100,000, which is, you know, decent money, actually lives in the same kind of neighborhood that the average white family making $35,000 a year lives in. That is totally tied to the legacy of enslavement and Jim Crow and the input and the idea in the mind that white people and black people are somehow deserving of different things.
  • If I injure you, the injury persists even after I actually commit the act. If I stab you, you may suffer complications long after that initial actual stabbing. If I shoot you, you may suffer complications long after that initial shooting. That’s the case with African Americans. There are people well within the living memory of this country that are still suffering from the after-effects of that.
  • This whole thing about who should get a check, and should we cut checks, you know, I understand those questions. That’s great. Those people should support H.R. 40, though, because that’s what H.R. 40 does. It tries to get that figured out, and get that math figured out, and figure out the best way to do it. But if we don’t actually have a study, we can’t actually answer those questions. You can’t ask a doctor to make a diagnosis before there’s an actual examination.
  • And in terms of poverty and race in this country, again, you know, one of the things that I really, really wanted to stress is, the level of poverty specifically that you see in the African-American community is not accidental. It’s not accidental. This is part of the process. The process of enslavement involves stealing something from someone. It involves taking something from someone.
  • Jim Crow was theft. First and foremost, it was theft. If I tax you or if tell you you have to be loyal to this country and pledge fealty to its laws, but then I don’t give you the same degree of protection, I don’t give you the same access to resources that I give to another group of people, I have effectively stolen something from you. I have stolen your tax money. I have stolen your fealty.
  • So, when the state of Mississippi, for instance, taxes black people and then builds one facility for education and another for—one facility for education for whites and then an inferior facility for blacks, that’s theft. That’s theft. If I build a public pool system and then tell you you can’t use that public pool system, that’s theft.
  • And so, that is the long history of this country, that doesn’t end, again, conservatively, until 1968. And so, there are people who are very, very much alive who have experienced that, who are suffering the after-effects and effects of that. And that’s what, you know, as far as I’m concerned, the whole movement around reparations is about.
  • Mitch McConnell... does not want to be responsible for enslavement that happened 150 years ago, but, yet and still, wants the right to operate his business or operate his career in a building that was built by enslaved people.
  • I think the testimony was that one should not receive payment that would properly be due to the enslaved. But this country is, to this very day, receiving payment that was due to its enslavers. That’s the way inheritance works in this country, however one might feel about that. If I assemble a mass of money, I have the right to pass that on to my kid. My kid has the right to do whatever and then pass it on to their kid. And so, there’s something fundamentally injust if I have secured that money by taking it from one group, and then I pass that money on to my kid.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Joe Biden Shouldn’t Be President, Democracy Now (20 June 2019)[edit]

(full program & transcript online)

  • Joe Biden shouldn’t be president. You know? You know, obviously, I don’t think I’m breaking any news here. You know, if he ends up being the nominee, better him than Trump, but I think that’s a really, really low standard.
  • I think when you have somebody who is celebrating their relationship, the ability of a person who saw no problem depriving an entire population of African Americans in their state of the right to vote, the right to participate as American citizens, the fact that that person was polite to them?... And so, I don’t know what is going on in your brain where you decide to celebrate the fact these people were polite.
  • You know, Joe Biden says that he’s been involved with civil rights his entire career. It’s worth remembering Joe Biden opposed busing and bragged about it, you know, in the 1970s. Joe Biden is on the record as being to the right of actually the New Democrats in the 1990s on the issue of mass incarceration, wanted more people sentenced to the death penalty, wanted more jails. And so, you know, I’m not surprised. I mean, this is who Joe Biden is.
  • A large portion of this country... want to see somebody who can beat Trump. I get that. And there is, you know, a feeling, I think, among certain people that Joe Biden can out-white-man Donald Trump.... I get that beating Donald Trump is extremely, externally important. I get that. But I just hope that that’s the floor and not the ceiling.
  • Well, I think I should say before I say that, my understanding is that Senator Sanders now supports H.R. 40. I think that’s where we are now. So I’m obviously pretty pleased about that.
  • I think all of the things that Bernie Sanders... listed about paying attention to distressed communities should be done. And we should also have reparations. So, I don’t see those two things as in conflict. It’s not clear to me why both can’t be on the agenda. In fact, it was never clear to me why both can’t be on the agenda, why one can’t associate themselves with the massive gaps in the wealth, that don’t just exist in the African-American community, but exist in communities across the country, and at the same time recognize that there’s something specific about the gap in the African-American community that’s tied to the specificity of American history. But, you know, as I said, I’m happy Senator Sanders now supports H.R. 40.

The Water Dancer (2019)[edit]

  • We feared [Ryland's Hounds] and hated them, perhaps more than we feared and hated the Quality who held us, for all of us were low, we were all Tasked, and we should be in union and arrayed against the Quality, if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake. (p. 57)

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