Fear of a Black Pundit: Ta-Nehisi Coates raises his voice in American media

Before Ta-Nehisi Coates was a superstar at The Atlantic, he was fired from three consecutive writing jobs. Well, not quite fired. “I’m still not exactly sure what happened,” he said, sipping a single espresso at a Morningside Heights bakery near his Harlem apartment, where he lives with his wife, Kenyatta, and their young son. What is understood is that over a seven-year span beginning in 2000, Philadelphia Weekly, The Village Voice and Time consecutively hired Mr. Coates and then promptly released him.

Nobody is going to fire him anymore.

Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Ta-Nehisi Coates.

At 37, Mr. Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States. His Atlantic essays, guest columns for The New York Times and blog posts are defined by a distinct blend of eloquence, authenticity and nuance. And he has been picking up fans in very high places.

Fans like Rachel Maddow, who tweeted: “Don’t know, if in US commentary, there is a more beautiful writer than Ta-Nehisi Coates.” The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg described him as “one of the most elegant and sharp observers of race in America,” when announcing that Mr. Coates had won the 2012 prize for commentary from The Sidney Hillman Foundation. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who recently hosted a book reading at MIT with Mr. Coates, a visiting professor at the school, said that “he is as fine a nonfiction writer as anyone working today.”

Without a Ph.D., Mr. Coates is an uncommon visiting professor at MIT. In fact, he doesn’t even have a college degree, having dropped out of Howard University, failing both British and American literature. Before that, he failed 11th-grade English.

“If you had told me he would be a big deal, I would have said, ‘Get real,’” said Times media critic David Carr. Mr. Coates’s first writing gig was at the Washington City Paper, where Mr. Carr was his editor. “He needed work. He was not a great speller. He wasn’t terrific with names. And he wasn’t all that ambitious.”

Indeed, it was an inauspicious beginning.

The article that launched Mr. Coates toward stardom, his first for The Atlantic, came on the heels of his departure from Time. In that piece, “This Is How We Lost to the White Man,” Mr. Coates situated Bill Cosby’s attention-getting criticisms of black men within the tradition of African-American self-help conservatism championed by Booker T. Washington.

Published in 2008, the article was well-received and eventually included in the collection Best African American Essays 2010. And yet, it almost was never printed. Mr. Coates had started working on the piece the previous year, when he was at Time, and it was rejected by several publications before Mr. Coates asked Mr. Carr if he knew of a home for it. The Atlantic editor James Bennet was receptive.

“I’m very grateful to both those guys,” said Mr. Coates, who was inked to a blog deal by The Atlantic soon after the article came out, “but it shows the power of that networking. I couldn’t help notice that it was one well-placed white dude talking to another well-placed white dude to get it published.”

Ideas about race and racial identity have always been with Mr. Coates. He was introduced to the writing world by his father, a former Black Panther and Vietnam vet who ran an Afrocentric publishing house out of the family’s home in West Baltimore. “I was surrounded by books and ideas. We literally had the machinery for creating books in our basement,” said Mr. Coates, who is tall but carries himself casually. (In his Atlantic author photo, he sports thick black-framed glasses and a driving cap, which is what he wore on the day we met as well.)

The printing press existed alongside the geek paraphernalia that Mr. Coates constantly mentions in his writing—video games, comic books and Dungeons & Dragons are among his obsessions. Mr. Coates’s writings are also filled with anecdotes and lessons extracted from his time spent in an urban reality most American journalists know only from watching season four of The Wire (which was actually filmed at Mr. Coates’s old school, William H. Lemmel Middle). In this way, he finds relevant insights into debates that are mere abstraction for so many other pundits.

Of course, growing up in difficult circumstances doesn’t inherently confer wisdom. In another writer’s hands, the constant invocation of childhood adversity would seem like a ham-handed attempt to assert credibility. But Mr. Coates’s talent is a lottery-ticket-rare ability to both reveal his personal life and seem extraordinarily humble. He also has a disarming habit of smiling as he speaks.

Once, when confronted by the conservative Daily News columnist John McWhorter about something mean-spirited Mr. Coates had written about him, Mr. Coates immediately apologized, saying, “It was tremendously unkind.”

Mr. McWhorter was taken aback by the honesty. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he admitted.