Ta-Nehisi Coates was a media meteor during the years Barack Obama lived in the White House. Coates walked comfortably in step with the times and grew into an American rarity. He was a serious writer. And a serious star.
So how does Coates walk through the Donald J. Trump era, when American steps have been so vastly altered? A packed audience at Colorado College on Thursday night listened to the answer.
Coates laughed. Really, he did. He even had trouble halting his laughter.
“He speaks with great clarity,” Coates said of Trump, adding that if you don’t understand the president’s message, you aren’t listening.
“It doesn’t get much clearer. … What is there to interpret? What is the complexity?”
Trump’s essence, according to Coates:
“Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist,” Coates wrote in September 2017. “But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.”
Listen, if you’re about to turn off Coates and this column, consider this: The man is not stuck in one lane in a time when far too many Americans are stuck in one lane.
He was harsh, too, with liberal darling Bernie Sanders, saying Sanders is ridiculously deaf to the concerns of African-American voters. Five minutes after Coates trashed Trump, he laid waste to Bernie.
Coates is what we need right now. His writing carries a bite, but he’s nonpartisan with his considerable wit. He’s a free-roaming critic of American shortcomings, always a ripe area for wandering. He’ll criticize anyone whom he believes deserves attacking.
He became a star the old way, by writing powerful and poetic words. Words that soothe. Words that sting. Used to be, this route to stardom was taken by many. Today, this route is taken by few.
He inspires a level of adulation usually reserved for music and movie stars. When he was introduced to the CC crowd, there were whistles and shouts. Remember, he’s an author.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this book, not to be dramatic, but it will save your soul. I think I read each page about two or three times,” a devout fan wrote Thursday on Twitter, praising “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Coates’ look back at the Obama White House era.
And he inspires a level of condemnation normally reserved for politicians.
“When’s the last time he’s been through the ghetto, in the hoods, to the schools and indecent housing and mass unemployment?” fellow social critic Cornel West wrote of Coates, responding also to “We Were Eight Years in Power.”
“We were in power for eight years? My God. Maybe he and some of his friends might have been in power, but not poor working people.”
In 2007, when Obama began his campaign for president, Coates was a little-known writer. That rapidly transformed after he was hired by The Atlantic magazine. He wrote scorching essays on the state of America. He wrote admiringly of Obama.
Soon, he was everywhere. He wrote a beloved blog with entries like “Five Books To Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War.” A long-time fan of comic books, he writes stories for “Black Panther” and “Captain America.”
He was awarded a MacArthur Grant, known as the “genius” grant, along with $625,000 in 2015. He won the National Book Award. His first fiction book, “The Water Dancer” will be released in September.
He inspired one of The New York Times all-time best clarifications. A 2017 Time story stated Coates was a millionaire. Soon, this correction arrived: “Mr. Coates states that he is not a millionaire.”
Not yet, anyway.