By Ellen McGirt
Updated: December 19, 2017 6:35 PM ET

And then he was gone.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates abruptly deleted his twitter account last night after a debate about his latest work brought out an unusual alliance of critics. “[F]eminists, white supremacists and leftists all in agreement. Wow,” he tweeted.

The catalyst was a sharp critique from Dr. Cornell West, who focused his analysis on Coates’ most recent book “We Were Eight Years In Power,” a collection of mostly previously published Atlantic essays that explored the Obama legacy and the re-emergence of white supremacy as an open, political force.

According to West, Coates has made an unforgivable mistake by focusing on whiteness rather than black response and failing to discuss Wall Street excess, global U.S. military policies, and gender.

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance.” For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

The essay elicited an immediate response, alright, mostly (but not all) in support of Coates. Coates also weighed in on Twitter, politely posting links to his work that refuted West’s point.

This epic Twitter thread by professor and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb, also weighed in, while calling West out for what appeared to be a personal grievance.

“It’s one thing to challenge and interrogate,” he tweeted. “Quite another to cloak petty rivalry as disinterested analysis. Neoliberal? What part of neoliberalism demands reparations @CornelWest — and places that demand squarely within the history of racist American public policy.”

Cobb’s entire thread is worth your time. “Pray for someone to back you up like Jelani backs up Ta-Nehisi,” sighed black opinion Twitter in unison.

One notable dissenter, however, was white supremacist Richard Spencer, who highlighted the above quote from West’s essay and declared, “He’s not wrong.” Coates retweeted the screenshot of the exchange. “And here we end up. My god,” he wrote, of the irony of a great black intellectual and a white supremacist in agreement. Then, “peace, y’all. I didn’t get in it for this.”

Minutes later, his account was deleted.

Losing Coates’ Twitter voice feels like a blow in these strange times.

He has become an extraordinary presence in American life, an unusually dedicated explorer of difficult subjects and an unconventional intellectual force whose path to prominence has always included deeply personal stories interspersed with references to hip-hop, Dungeons and Dragons, and comic books. He brings no formal academic receipts, which earns him sniffs from the sanctum and cheers from the cheap seats.

Here he is explaining the Civil War to White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly. Here he is patiently explaining why white hip-hop fans shouldn’t use the “n-word,” even if they really love the song. There are more examples, but they’re gone now.

His critics aren’t going to go away so easily. And the battle is bigger than just Coates.

This recent essay by Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times Magazine, also drew a dotted line between Coates and white supremacy, but takes the extra step of including an interview with Spencer himself.

“Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural.”

Spencer explained “gleefully,” that he believed Coates’ focus on white supremacy to be a unique opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he said to Williams.“This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

That remains to be seen.

While I will leave the discussion of neoliberalism in the Coates canon to the true intellectuals — I’ll link to those critiques as I find them – I am moved to say one thing definitively.

In this poignant 2008 interview, Coates talked about his first book The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, that covered the devastating crack epidemic in Baltimore, his larger than life Black Panther/Howard University professor father who raised seven children with four mothers, and his own fragile path into (and ultimately out of) Howard University.

The book was, in part, a look-back at his earlier self. “At that point, I had a feeling that I would not do anything that would be equal to what my father and my father’s generation did,” he said. “There would be no great battles. All the great battles had been fought, for better or ill.”

In this, for certain, Coates turns out to be wrong.



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