Yes, Ta-Nehisi Coates is an Intellectual

Just this morning, I was directed by a friend to a rant by Will Antonin on Twitter in response to a piece written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2012. In it Ta-Nehisi admits not knowing Augustine and having not read Nietzsche, Twain, Salinger, Hemingway, Cervantes, Heller and a few others. He referred to “pitfalls in his education” and then revealed what he had read.

My canon happens to include Clifton, Neal, Rakim, Raekwon etc. and Fitzgerald, McPherson, Hurston, Melville, Wharton, Doctorow, Hurston and so on.

And for this honest admission of not having deep forays into Western philosophy and literature but having read an impressive collection of writers and a few rappers, Antonin accuses Ta-Nehisi of “parochialism”, “reveling in ignorance”, and refers to the incident as a “scandal” and “tragic”.

The final tweet is in reference to Ta-Nehisi’s comments on the burden of expectations on someone who bears the title “public intellectual”. Antonin may well not see Ta-Nehisi as one, but I’m happy he acknowledges that some do. Including me.

What has made Ta-Nehisi’s commentary so compelling for so many is the extensive knowledge he exhibits about the history of black people and white supremacy in the USA. His piece on black pathology was referred to by his public intellectual adversary, Jonathan Chait, as “a powerful display of historical erudition.”

Will Antonin’s claim that it is a scandal for Ta-Nehisi not to have read beyond these “lesser-known writers” makes for a good laugh. Ta-Nehisi is honest about what he does and does not know. He once retracted the use of the word fatwa because he admitted not knowing exactly what it meant. He had this to say about Andrew Sullivan, another one of his public opponents:

Honesty demands not just that you accept your errors, but that your errors are integral to developing a rigorous sense of study. I have found this to be true in, well, just about everything in life. But it was from Andrew that I learned to apply it in this particular form of writing. I am indebted to him.

Here is a man who is honest about his knowledge, who displays historical erudition, whose article on a topic as controversial as slavery reparations won the 2014 George Polk award. He displayed his meticulousness when rather than rush to pass commentary on the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, he instead tried to understand French Algerian history so that his commentary could be contextual and nuanced. His criticism of the way President Obama talks to black people was so influential that the president was recently asked to address the criticism.

Yet Ta-Nehisi’s honesty, influence, extensive historical knowledge and thought-leadership in his chosen subject matter does not, to Antonin, make him a public intellectual because he did not know who Augustine was.

Ta-Nehisi once came in for criticism for referring to Melissa Harris-Perry as a public intellectual. He responded thus:

I made this claim because of Harris-Perry’s background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like “Geniuses of Western Music” written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues.

I do not believe this is a matter of race. It is a matter of recognition. Intellect, for some, resides in the study of classical Western philosophy and literature. This means that for those like Ta-Nehisi who read Clifton, Neal, Rakim, Raekwon, Ida B. Wells, Hurston etc., the cloak of “intellectual” does not properly fit their figure.

No matter what may be acceptable to some people, my idea of an intellectual includes people whose influences have consisted of Du Bois, Nkrumah, Achebe, Ngugi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ata Aidoo, Soyinka, and so on. People whose subject matter has been colonialism, neocolonialism, racism, white supremacy and African feminism. It includes people who have seen no relevance of Augustine to their work and people whose work is not made poorer by their lack of interest in Foucalt, Bentham or Schopenhauer.

Let me conclude by finding common ground with Antonin. Yes, cultural institutions matter. But your cultural institutions do not have a monopoly. Ta-Nehisi has cultural institutions also. And he has more than proved his exceptional knowledge of them. If that does not qualify Ta-Nehisi to be an intellectual, then he is not the one being parochial.


One thought on “Yes, Ta-Nehisi Coates is an Intellectual

  1. Pingback: Jerome Reviews The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates | Kinna Reads

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