By Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic, 9/29/15
As a MacArthur Fellow, Coates’ true genius is his hunger for knowledge.
[Ta-Nehisi Coates has] never stopped asking questions….
The MacArthur Foundation says it gives the grants to those who display “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.” There is no question of Ta-Nehisi’s merit as a writer—his latest book proved an instant bestseller and sparked ongoing public debate…. He’s stitched together a remarkable résumé as a journalist, punctuated by his stories for The Atlantic on Obama, reparations, and incarceration.
But perhaps his real genius lies in indulging his hunger for knowledge. At first, I chalked this up to remarkable humility. If there was a book he hadn’t read or a concept he hadn’t mastered, he simply said so—and then asked to have it explained. That’s rare in life, and rarer still among writers with public profiles, who more often assume a pose of studied omniscience.
In time, I came to understand it less as self-denial than as a kind of intellectual greed. He wanted to know. And if that meant rendering himself vulnerable, confessing ignorance, opening himself to abuse, listening more than talking, or even wading through his own blog’s comments section—well, it was not too high a price to pay for knowledge.
And he’s insisted that his readers be similarly open to considering insights, whatever their origins. He plucked the term at the center of his latest cover story from Dungeons & Dragons, titles posts with quotes from Megatron and Wu-Tang, and for his next act, will give us a year in the life of T’Challa.
As this mixing of high and low suggests, he has never listened when told what he cannot do. He paid no heed to critics crying that reparations are impossible and mass incarceration irreversible, or that comics and hip-hop shouldn’t be taken seriously. Once, told by some readers that “conversate” isn’t a word, he went and found the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Of course it’s a word,” the editor said. “The question is, is it acceptable.”
Stretching the boundaries of the acceptable—there’s a kind of genius in that.
Yoni Appelbaum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.
See also in ClassWise: