By JOHN McWHORTER [Daily Beast] — To someone today making sense of the Nacirema [“American” backwards — ed.], the category of person who, roughly, reads the New York Times and the New Yorker and listens to NPR would be a deeply religious person indeed, but as an Antiracist. This is good in some ways—better than most are in a position to realize. This is also bad in other ways – worse than most are in a position to realize.
For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, now anointed as James Baldwin’s heir by Toni Morrison, is formally classified as a celebrated writer. However, the particulars of his reception in our moment reveal that Coates is, in the Naciremian sense, a priest. Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses **the scripture** that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.
This became especially clear last year with the rapturous reception of Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations.” It was beautifully written, of course, but the almost tearfully ardent praise the piece received was about more than composition. The idea was that the piece was important, weighty, big news. But let’s face it – no one, including Coates himself, I presume, has any hope that our current Congress is about to give reparations for slavery to black people in any significant way. Plus, reparations had been widely discussed, and ultimately put aside, as recently as fifteen years ago in the wake of Randall Robinson’s The Debt. Yet Coates’ article was discussed almost as if he were bringing up reparations as a new topic.
It actually made perfect sense. People loved Coates’ article not as politics, since almost no one thinks reparations are actually going to happen. But belle-lettristic concerns weren’t the key either: Coates is hardly the only writer out there who has a way with the words. People were receiving “The Case for Reparations” as, quite simply, a sermon….