President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. Key points in Obama’s speech for this purpose are the following:
- “Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness.”
- African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
- “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”
Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Ta-Nehisi Coates, through the prism of that speech and of a related presidential speech at Rutgers University.
Although President Obama in his speech specifically commended Coates, a Howard alumnus who did not graduate, for writing “a book that wins the National Book Award” and “the new run of ‘Black Panther.’” Obama did not attempt to determine whether Coates satisfied the above charge to the class. If Obama had done so, I believe he would have concluded that Coates did not meet this version of the challenge.
Coates’ major work to date, “Between the World and Me,” clearly demonstrates his confidence in his black heritage, his overwhelming awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle and his passion for change. In this sense he meets at least this part of the Obama challenge.
However, Coates fails in this book to go beyond righteous anger. He does not have a strategy or program for change. In fact, his book eschews any such program as destined for failure. And when he addresses one possible program for change– reparations for past racial injustice in a separate Atlantic Magazine article–he fails, in my opinion, because he weakly concluded that Congress should adopt a bill to establish a commission to investigate the issue and because he apparently makes an erroneous assessment of a Chicago class action lawsuit involving contracts for deed. The more detailed basis for this negative assessment is set forth in an earlier post. 
In addition, Coates in an interview by Charlie Rose demonstrated a facile reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” According to Coates, this saying is a demonstrably false reading of history and a false prediction of the future and, therefore, meaningless. But the saying was never intended to be a history lesson or a future prediction. Instead, It was intended to be inspiration to continue the struggle for justice for those who were so engaged. Indeed, President Obama understood it correctly when in his speech at Rutgers University he said,
- “But progress is bumpy. It always has been. But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark. I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ . . . I believe that. But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own. It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.” (Emphasis added.)
Perhaps Coates is off the hook with Obama’s concession that there is no one way to be black and there is no litmus test for black authenticity or as 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us, there are different gifts to different people for the common good (verses 4-11) and there are many parts to one body and all work together for the common good (verses 12-31). Thus, perhaps Coates’ gift is to express anger over racial injustice and to leave it to others to figure out what to do about that injustice and to work to overcome it.
Although Coates has said that his book was not written for “white” people, `I have to say that as a “white” septuagenarian, I initially and vigorously disagreed with Coates’ ranting that others and I “have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white,” that “’race’ [was] a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” and that “the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white [was achieved] through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of blacks; 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 [Coates’ son] and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (Pp. 7-8)
Yes, I always have regarded myself as white, checked the box “White” or “Caucasian” on many forms without a second thought and found myself identified as “white” on a 1940 U.S. Census form. But I never have done any of the awful things that Coates says were done to elevate my belief in being white.
Nevertheless, Coates’ rant has been nagging and causing me to conduct further research and reflection. I, therefore, now think that Coates is correct on this important point, which I will explore in subsequent posts. Thus, perhaps Coates is satisfying, in his own way, the Obama criteria for African-American men, and indeed for all of us, to be honorable citizens of this great country.
 Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 13, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).
 Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015). See also Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses the Age of Mass Incarceration, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 17, 2015).