Ta-Nehisi Coates and Samuel R. Delany


You may have noticed that Ta-Nehisi Coates has been on a tear lately. If you’re in any kind of black studies networks and you’ve been on the Internet in the past week then you’ve probably seen posts about his exchange with Jonathan Chait. Coates’s most recent response, “The Blue Period, An Origin Story” posted yesterday on April 1, is devastating, inspiring, uplifting. I want to take time to read it again, carefully, and also to listen, carefully, to the Nell Painter video that he posted with it. The article really resonated with me as someone whose first academic training was in history. I recognize many of the sources that he cited and wrote about.  I too have been trying to make sense of this same history, to try to cut off at the pass these cynical arguments about black progress and the imperatives to be “optimistic” (which is less about real optimism and more about alleviating other people’s discomforts).  Every college educated black person has heard some version of what Chait threw at him in their exchange.  We’ve had people tell us: Hey, you and your colleagues seem to be doing just fine. Why are you so angry?  We’re making progress here in America.  When are you going to let go of this bitterness and resentment?

But what really struck me about Coates’s piece is that he so eloquently grapples with the prior gaps in his own knowledge.  I’m impressed that he’s clearly been engaged in a serious study of black history, and American history, and slavery, and the place of America in a global culture and economy. And he clearly understands that education is always a work-in-progress. And he also understands that there are people on the Web now looking to build their brands off “social justice” and sell themselves as “experts” instead of seriously engaging with the meaning of this history.

I think now, four years after watching that video, and having read A History of White People, that I am a writer. And that is not a hustle. And this is not my “in” to get on Meet The Press, to become an activist, to get my life-coach game on. I don’t need anymore platforms. I am here to see things as clearly as I can, and then name them. Sometimes what I see is gorgeous. And then sometimes what I see is ugly. And sometimes my sight fails me. But what I write can never be dictated by anyone’s need to feel warm and fuzzy inside.

The whole article is a breath of fresh air in a cultural moment dominated by the wunderkind.  The web is littered with stories of 20something millionaire app developers and programmers and pundits and bloggers.  I just saw another one of those “30 under 30” articles flash across my twitter feed yesterday.  And last weekend Twitter was dominated by a non-troversy started by a 23 year old social media “activist.”  Why are we even listening to these twits?  Coates’s article is a lesson in the true humility of education. Nobody who is that young has it all figured out, not even the smartest and most accomplished ones. Learning takes time, and effort, and more time, and more effort.  It takes life experiences, it takes getting kicked in the ass a few times, and it requires constantly revisiting your prior ignorance and revising the things that you once believed to be true.

Yesterday, April Fools’ Day, was also Samuel R. Delany’s 72nd birthday.(Delany was a prodigy himself, having published nine science fiction novels in his twenties.) I’m looking forward to celebrating with him next week at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia.  Coates’s piece actually reminded me of a passage from Delany’s excellent book About Writing, and I wanted to share it here:

“To learn anything worth knowing requires that you learn as well how pathetic you were when you were ignorant of it. The knowledge of what you have lost irrevocably because you were in ignorance of it is the knowledge of the worth of what you have learned. A reason knowledge/learning in general is so unpopular with so many people is because very early we all learn there is a phenomenologically unpleasant side to it: To learn anything entails the fact that there is no way to escape learning that you were formerly ignorant, to learn that you were a fool, that you have already lost irretrievable opportunities, that you have made wrong choices, that you were silly and limited. These lessons are not pleasant, The acquisition of knowledge – especially when we are young – again and again includes this experience.”   – Samuel Delany, About Writing, pg. 34-35