by Devyn Springer
The world (or, rather, the social media world) seemed to have been set still for a second due to a moment of thin chaos; the internet was broken for the first time since Beyonce’s surprise album, and nearly everyone seemed to look around to collectively discuss brother Cornel West’s recent article, which is a heavy-handed critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ politics and his latest book. The article, in which West’s opening paragraph refers to Coates’ politics as “apolitical pessimism,” went viral instantly, and the responses to it as well have made great rounds across the internet.
As someone deeply interested in critique, and in love with words, my initial excitement to read bright responses and well-put takes on the entire situation turned to abysmal disappointment and my own kind of political pessimism for the state of Black politics in 2017.
I certainly did not want to nor plan on writing about this situation, donned a beef by social media. I felt that me adding my three cents on the matter would be like an unneeded form of Black inception: a response to Coates’ response to West, and also to the responses of that interaction as a whole. However, after reading a recent piece for Slate by writer Ismail Muhammad, who writes in response to the recent unavoidable beef between writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, I felt the need to add words and a critical response to the responses.
Muhammad states in the opening paragraph:
“Alongside the likes of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison and, of course, James Baldwin, West’s work is part of the canon that teaches younger writers how to think and write about race. It is impossible to imagine a writer like Ta-Nehisi Coates having come into existence without a book like West’s ‘Race Matters,’ which, in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, helped popularize the thesis that anti-Black racism was inextricably entangled with almost every aspect of American politics and culture – including, most crucially, our capitalist economy.”
I agree largely with this statement and, moreover, would suggest that those listed writers and the handful of early race scholars in this category not only taught us how to think and write about race, but also attempted to show us how to talk about and act on race and racial discrimination; they were not merely concerned with theorizing, historicizing, conceptualizing or writing about race, rather offering solutions, alternatives, challenges and transgressions; they were audience-conscious, praxis-oriented in many cases, and calculated in the power they analyzed.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and the handful of early race scholars in this category not only taught us how to think and write about race, but also attempted to show us how to talk about and act on race and racial discrimination; they were not merely concerned with theorizing, historicizing, conceptualizing or writing about race, rather offering solutions, alternatives, challenges and transgressions.
However, it is in Muhammad’s next sentences and argument thereafter that led me here, writing the piece I didn’t want to. In what can only be described as a dramatic description of power dynamic, Muhammad writes:
“West’s importance to contemporary Black thought is what makes his recent Guardian broadside against Coates so disheartening. Not only is it a case of one of Black thought’s elder statesmen attempting a hatchet job on a younger writer, West thoroughly botches the job via disingenuous readings from which a reader is tempted to conclude one of two things: Either he hasn’t read ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ very closely, or he has intentionally misrepresented Coates’ writing in an attempt to bolster his own brand.”
I do not normally prefer block-quoting entire passages, but a statement like this, found in the opening section of an article seeking to dissect a now-heated debacle between Black intellectuals, is misguided at best, scarily biased at worst, and needing to be read in full to understand its weight in intellectual dishonesty. An inherent dichotomy is being made, in much of the same vein as found in Michael Eric Dyson’s sloppy 2015 appeal to liberalism, that positions West as some canon gatekeeping, academically authoritative figure, and simply mean person with immoral and ill intentions.
Moreover, it constructs Coates as someone who did not receive a huge McArthur grant which helped catapult him into fame and platforms like the vast majority of us Black writers will never experience, his position as a national correspondent at one of the largest and most world-renowned journalistic outlets, and the several years he has spent being adorned by white liberals with the title of “voice of Black America,” was praised by drone-operator-in-chief himself Barack Obama and, more recently, was described as “the laureate for Black lives.” In short, pretending that Coates’ current stature, platform and social capital are not comparable, if not far greater than that of West is simply dishonest.
To be concise with my words and not beat around any burning bushes: The sensationalization of West’s words is nothing more than a dramatized projection. The saying “a hit dog hollers” rings true in the way that this harsh, yet honest and nowhere near new critique of Coates by West has been made into a spectacle and deemed “petty.”
However, West’s words are far from “reckless,” as Muhammad describes them, or “petty rivalry” as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb nastily wrote on Twitter in a thread seeping with a personal disdain for West. Positions, or rather the self-sustaining methods of the Black bourgeois liberal class, become immensely clear in these responses to West.
To assume a critique as “petty” for challenging the [lack of] attention placed on the lives of those in the Third World, dying at the hands of U.S. imperialism and those domestically who received structural violence that was pushed to the back burner of an Obama-era turn-a-blind-eye Black liberal class is to assume that the lives of those people must also be nothing more than mere “petty” argument fodder – a point of rhetoric – and thus, not a contention of our own humanity. There is nothing “petty” in West’s reading of Coates; the issues of imperialism, cis-hetero-patriarchal domination and capitalism, as well as Coates’ mass appeal to a largely white group of centrists and liberals alike, should be heavily critiqued.
To assume a critique as “petty” for challenging the [lack of] attention placed on the lives of those in the Third World, dying at the hands of U.S. imperialism and those domestically who received structural violence that was pushed to the back burner of an Obama-era turn-a-blind-eye Black liberal class is to assume that the lives of those people must also be nothing more than mere “petty” argument fodder – a point of rhetoric – and thus, not a contention of our own humanity.
Of course, West himself is no saint either. As someone who touts the line of vague radicalism, ambiguously resting somewhere between democratic socialist and Marxist while rallying behind reformist candidates like Bernie Sanders, he opens himself for similar levels of critique. I have heard West speak a handful of times and when I last heard him speak, it was at a rally-conference-panel type of thing happening in D.C. in support of Bernie.
As someone who sits much left of Bernie on virtually every position (I’m much more Monica Moorehead/Lamont Lilly than Bernie Sanders/Nina Turner on any day), West’s endorsement of any Democratic candidate feels like a contradiction to the politics he once proposed in “Race Matters,” “The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought” and “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism,” as well as to the politics he harps on Coates for. In responding to West’s piece itself, I would agree with the conclusion of Coates as someone leaning towards neoliberalism, but would reserve the title as neoliberalism’s “face” of the Black freedom struggle for any one of these blue vest activists who’ve been on CNN and campaigned for a Clinton more times than I can count on my fingers. And, to go even further, his own gendered language, leadership and writing could be called to question a few times as well for teetering too thinly between charismatic and masculinist.
While I sit with and discuss these critiques openly and often in conversation and in my classroom with folks, I still respect West magnificently for his actual work in activism, both historically and currently. He uses his platform for good, raises money for groups and events that are needed, was present for protests in Baltimore, Ferguson, aided water protectors at Standing Rock, and was one of those faith leaders saved by Antifa at recent Charlottesville.
And I believe the larger question around criticism, deciding when it is in “good faith” and when someone is just “hating on” someone, as Charles Mudede implied of West in writing for the Stranger, is when and why such criticisms are implored. Are they in response to something or someone? Are they defensively ad hominem in nature, and would they have been publicly expressed otherwise?
Because, in reading the multitudes of responses to West from Black bourgeois writers jumping to defend Coates, a multitude of critiques of West are lacing the lines of these lowly scathing hot takes. Everything from mention of his past friendship with Tavis Smiley to assumptions that West fundamentally misunderstood Coates’ latest book, which started this debacle, to invoking West’s position as a professor as some strange buck against his defense of poor people.
All in all, the vitriol and somewhat laughable outrage against West has been on of personal contention, not academic, political nor literary, which happens to be the same argument being used against West’s words to Coates. It reminds me of the way Hillary Clinton supporters have dog-piled Susan Sarandon for over a year now over her refusal to vote for the Clinton war machine: It is a magnificently laughable shit show, in which an entire class of well rested Democratic stooges are upset that one small flea in a sea of fur decided to bite.
Another point that cannot be overlooked is West’s use of the word “neoliberal” and the seemingly visceral avoidance of its application by those who, well, are neoliberals. When discussing neoliberalism – a term that is not new but easily over-applied due to its broad nature – we are discussing the socioeconomic relation of private entities, both corporations and persons, to public ownership, economic development and capitalist competition.
As writer Eve Ewing succinctly put it on Twitter, neoliberalism is “the idea that society benefits most when people, ideas and services are governed by market competition wherein those most deserving rise to the top.” Thus, within this common formulation of the ideology, it becomes a booster not only for capitalism, but for encouragement of marginalized individuals and communities to engage in and even support the capitalist machine.
As writer Eve Ewing succinctly put it on Twitter, neoliberalism is “the idea that society benefits most when people, ideas and services are governed by market competition wherein those most deserving rise to the top.”
Much of this criticism of Coates for being a “neoliberal” comes for his conceptualizations of Barack Obama’s power, whether symbolically or literal. Having read several of Coates’ past essays, which almost always go viral, as well as his award-winning 2015 book “Between the World and Me,” I have admittedly only read about three quarters of his latest book, “We Were Eight Years in Power.”
But even having not finished this current read, resting on his past work, his marveling at Barack Obama’s “symbolic” power has always been troubling to me; Coates often steps to the point where he should grab Barack by the collar of his shirt to scold him, yet steps away every time. In his October essay, “The First White President,” which is drawn from his new book, Coates puts forth the notion that Trump’s presidency is a large scale form of white backlash, stating: “Replacing Obama is not enough – Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness.”
Coates’ marveling at Barack Obama’s “symbolic” power has always been troubling to me; he often steps to the point where he should grab Barack by the collar of his shirt to scold him, yet steps away every time.
A formulation and conclusion as such can only be fully realized by first undergoing two political notions.
The first is the idea that whiteness can be delinked and extracted from the position of president of the United States of America at all. That whiteness, as a relation to class, a relation to the means of production, a racial location of dominance, and a socio-political, institutional centeredness is not sewn into the very fabrics of the White House in its entirety.
From its inception, the presidency has been antithetical to this notion. A role built on a foundation of Native genocide, slavery, purposely constructed legal systems and institutions, the U.S. presidency is and always will be a powerhouse of hegemonic culture that perpetuates whiteness as the standard.
Even when we have Black faces in the White House, even when a Ben Carsen is allowed to step foot on the campus, even when folks sloppily, as West points out about Coates, compare Barack Obama to Malcolm X, there is still no denying that whiteness is inextricable from the presidency of the United States of Amerika so long as this country exists.
The second notion is that Barack Obama’s legacy, both his material and symbolic actions while acting as U.S. president, really did transgress against whiteness. Surely, we can understand the white backlash that may have led to a Trump presidency without dipping into intellectual dishonesty to paste a false anti-whiteness legacy against Barack.
This is one of the biggest reasons we must dead the conversations on Barack’s “symbolic power,” because it gives way for massive intellectual dishonesty on his legacy and excuses for his egregious capitalist, imperialist politics (as West states: “the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of U.S. citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550 Palestinian children killed with U.S. supported planes in 51 days, etc.”).
All of these imperialist actions, from consistent drone strikes to the destabilization of Libya to the record breaking deportations of immigrants, despite Coates’ description of Obama’s tenure as “one of the most scandal-free administrations,” should be seen not only as massive scandals, but pillars that are central to upholding whiteness as it manifests through violence. Whiteness is not some abstract entity we must gaze upon with pity and pessimism, as Coates does. Rather it’s a relation to capitalism, white supremacy and cis-hetero-patriarchy that manifests through violence, violence which Barack Obama’s “symbolic” something was praised for.
All of these imperialist actions, from consistent drone strikes to the destabilization of Libya to the record breaking deportations of immigrants, despite Coates’ description of Obama’s tenure as “one of the most scandal-free administrations,” should be seen not only as massive scandals, but pillars that are central to upholding whiteness as it manifests through violence.
Thus, the symbolic power assessed and seemingly praised by Coates, those defending him, and the likes of similar politicians and writers is neoliberal in nature when it inadvertently praises Obama’s role in capitalism, when it inadvertently (and directly, often) supports Obama’s “climb” to the top of this system that steps on millions more of us.
Making racism, and therefore whiteness, an abstract and seemingly detached reality is the only way one can understand West’s criticisms as “petty.” If anything, the metaphysical sense that he writes in and the often pessimistic conceptualizations he arrives at are the truly “petty” adventures, wherein he trades material and dialectic for metaphysical and flowery language.
Discussing Coates’ idealized metaphysical view of racism for Viewpoint Magazine earlier this year, organizer and writer R.L. Stephen states:
“For millions of poor Black people, racism is the corrosive water pipes poisoning their bodies. School closures, crumbling and unstable housing, and all the intimately practical things necessary for everyday life are the measure of racism. These racist realities are not separable from questions of class. In fact, they are expressions of class politics. The racialized tragedies faced daily by the masses require us to embrace class struggle, not Coates’s demobilizing metaphysical maxims about how white people ‘must ultimately stop themselves.’ Solidarity from below, between cafeteria workers, truck drivers, secretaries and any number of everyday people is worth magnitudes more than special acknowledgement from elites.”
Which leads me to my last and final part, which seems to be missing from everyone’s defensive pieces responding to the “beef”: If not those like West, then who is to hold those like Coates accountable? In the creation of West as a boogeyman or “fallen” man, as was similarly done years ago around his comments on Barack Obama that did not sit well with Black liberals, we have lost the notion of accountability.
Coates is not an organizer or an activist. And, as far as I am aware, West is not an organizer, but is at least seen as some form of celebrity activist by popular standards of today (although, when the bulk of your “activism” surrounds presidential elections and campaigning, I challenge that application fully). This is not to say one is better than the other, rather that their ears are clearly to the ground in crucially different spaces.
Thus, the question of who they listen to in order to hold themselves and be held accountable must also be crucially different. While one may be critiqued and hailed by the academy as what seems like a sole source of affirmation, the other is concerned with the voice that arises upward from the grass. And while some might bemoan this as “unfair” to Coates, that is indeed often the nature of truth.
Both of these cis-het men we’ve spent a week discussing are seen as Black intellectuals, with West having taken up great space over the past few decades as the philosophical representation of Black America in many aspects (though many have greatly challenged this). And while both of these cis-het men have taken on their respective roles as Black intellectuals, there is a key difference in understanding each.
This difference and its importance comes into play in the philosophy of West himself, which was deeply influenced by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the intellectual, and their role in society, as seen in West’s works such as “Prophetic Fragments” and “Breaking Bread.” Following in Gramsci’s philosophical model, West divides the public intellectual into the “organic” intellectual and the “traditional” intellectual, and applies this to what he sees as a crisis for Black leadership today, stating that the former intellectuals are “activistic and engaged” and deeply concerned with applying the abstract to the everyman, while the latter are “nesting in comfortable places far removed from the realities of the common life” and “academic and unattached.”
Thus, one should understand this distinction, which has guided West’s political life and views of Black leadership for several decades now, as the means through which his criticisms of Coates can be situated within. With West, his criticisms and harsh handlings of truth are always for the purpose of some moral, spiritually guided leadership he feels is his duty to press upon the traditional intellectual, to “hold fire” to their feet and make them dance for the people.
With West, his criticisms and harsh handlings of truth are always for the purpose of some moral, spiritually guided leadership he feels is his duty to press upon the traditional intellectual, to “hold fire” to their feet and make them dance for the people.
And who is to say this is wrong? West in his own words admits his ability to flop between the organic and traditional intellectual, hoisting it as a strength of his, stating:
“When it comes to abstract, theoretical reflection, I employ Marx, Weber, Frankfurt theorists, Foucault and so on. When it comes to speaking with the Black masses, I use Christian narratives and stories, a language meaningful to them but filtered through and informed by intellectual developments from de Tocqueville to Derrida. When it comes to the academy itself, there is yet another kind of language, abstract but often atheoretical, since social theorizing is mostly shunned; philosophers are simply ill-equipped to talk about social theory: They know Wittgenstein but not Weber, they know J.L. Austin but not Marx.”
It doesn’t matter whether we believe in this distinction of intellectuals or not (we should) because West does, and he believes himself to be in the organic intellectual category, even if questionably so. Thus, his placement of Coates in the opposing category, which is inherently applied if not stated, means that only others in the traditional intellectual category, or those who can code switch into that language, are able to communicate proper critique to Coates and push him further.
In an obviously intentional characterization of West, many responses to his piece have also left out mention of his hour long interview with The Root from Monday, in which he admits that he and “brother” Coates had a conversation on the phone prior to him writing the Guardian article. I have only met West a handful of times, but I can imagine that that phone conversation had a “call in” nature to it rather than a “call out” tone.
In the interview with The Root, West clearly refers to Coates as his “brilliant” brother who is from the “same tradition” as he is, admits they both fail often, that he pressed him personally on Coates’ views on Obama, and voiced his deep disagreement on the notion of a “Good Negro Government” Coates toys with. To assume that his intentions are of ill-conjecture, or based in some ignorance of Coates’ fundamental positions, is nonsensical at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.
Truthfully, I cannot round out this exploration of Coates, West and the bushes burning around them without mention of the (appalling) response of Coates that was given via social media. Instead of one of the most stylistically developed writers of our time taking to pen to respond to West, or entering a podcast, or calling any media outlet that would likely bend over backwards for an interview with Coates on the matter … he tweets.
And not only did he tweet, he tweeted a thread of all his previous published articles in an attempt to “debunk” many of the criticisms West put forth. What is first wrong in this response is the assumption of ignorance against West implored as a public spectacle – that Coates was stepping around the idea that West simply didn’t know, and pressing that idea onto his digital sphere of over a million followers – and that the answer to all of the problems lies in his writings themselves, as if they weren’t what was being critiqued.
In several of the articles he used in his clapback thread, which was much more “No Frauds” than “shETHER,” the very things he was critiqued on were present within them. In his articles he cites as his “pressing” Obama on drones, he is simultaneously inadvertently praising Obama as “scandal-free” and a “deeply moral human being.”
He cites his famous call for reparations, one of the essays that has helped catapult him to such mega stardom, which uses the settler-colonial, capitalist, ethno-religious-nationalist occupying state of Israel as a guideline for Black “reparations” while completely ignoring the very existence of Palestinians and their urgent oppression.
Coates cites his famous call for reparations, one of the essays that has helped catapult him to such mega stardom, which uses the settler-colonial, capitalist, ethno-religious-nationalist occupying state of Israel as a guideline for Black “reparations” while completely ignoring the very existence of Palestinians and their urgent oppression.
On the claim that he does not focus on (or even mention usually) the lives of [Black] TLGBQ folks, he responds with an essay from 2010 on race and same-sex marriage, a political hot topic used as a scapegoat for “solidarity/allyship” by many liberals that allows for an ignorance of an entire host of structural, interpersonal and institutional oppression we experience that can be explored instead of same-sex marriage.
And, as if this milquetoast and lazy response wasn’t enough, he then deleted his Twitter after tweeting his blame of “feminists, white supremacists, and leftists all in agreement,” which is a statement that is simply lazy. All three of those mentioned – feminists, white supremacists, and leftists – are invested in disagreeing with and/or sharing critiques of Coates for vastly different reasons, and to assume Richard Spencer’s cosign on West’s critique of Coates is in earnest and wholesome intention, while simultaneously bemoaning the “poor intentions” of West, is exactly the problem.
As Adam H. Johnson reminded folks on Twitter, “Richard Spencer is a troll and his endorsing of [West] is not evidence that [West’s] position is a nazi position. Spencer supports paid maternity leave and David Duke opposed the Iraq War.” For Coates and the trove of writers and commentators (who seem to be working harder to defend Coates than he is himself) to equate leftists and feminists cosigning West’s criticisms with the endorsement by Spencer shows the miscommunication, commitment to intellectual dishonesty and tendency to punch left rather than right.
This plus the deletion of his account entirely exposes the need to demonize, make spectacle of, talk around and ultimately disengage from criticisms from both the mentioned “feminists” and those to the left of him. This response is, for lack of better words, disappointing coming from the wordsmith of our generation. He did not actually engage with the neoliberalism category he has been largely placed within, nor did he wholly engage with the critiques that have existed and festered for several years now.
In another review filled with criticism of “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Black feminist writer Imani Perry says she wants to ask Coates: “What do you make of these encounters at an intimate level, as a Black man whose professional rise was deeply bound to a president who was, in the fashion of myth, both reviled and reified? And more specifically, what do you make of them in the age of spectacular Black death and economic disaster? Or, to riff on W.E.B. Du Bois: How does it feel to be both a problem and an answer?”
I believe to answer that and to move past such criticisms, Coates must first honestly confront the truth of where he believes he falls within this problem and answer. He has to continue being a voice of a generation, but be that voice more honestly if possible, and more radically definitely.
Coates has to continue being a voice of a generation, but be that voice more honestly if possible, and more radically definitely.
The answers to the problems are all wrapped together in the beautiful writing of a man whose politics are still forming, but on such a large scale that these criticisms must come with an urgency, as West delivered them. He has to meet the “neoliberal” descriptor, which has been aptly applied to everyone from Kamala Harris to blue vest activists, and all that comes with that term head on, not through tweets or heavily emotional punches at the left rather than into the books and streets that can lead him towards righteousness.
If he is to continue being called the voice of my people, he has to move from being a traditional intellectual who walks the line of academic and objective writer into the space of organic intellectual that he likely sees himself as, who is activistic in nature. And I could continue to ramble, but the point becomes glaringly clear no matter how you argue it: Ta-Nehisi Coates simply doesn’t get it.
Devyn Springer is an Atlanta writer, organizer and artist who recently published his debut book, “Grayish-black: Poetry from the Ribs,” which is available on Amazon. He is content editor at Offtharecord.com, communications director at the Walter Rodney Foundation, and a member of Workers World Party. You can view more of his work and contact him at devynspringer.journoportfolio.com.