The black nihilism of Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates has profited from the very thing he is intent on destroying: the American Dream.
The past few years, ever since the publication of his celebrated books Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017), have been superlatively successful ones for Ta-Nehisi Coates. He has been hailed as the pre-eminent black intellectual of his generation, awarded a National Book Award, a MacArthur Genius Award, and courted as a public speaker by major college campuses across the country.
It is only in America, however, where a poor black boy who grew up in a crime-infested area in West Baltimore could become the man Coates became and achieve the status he did. He is living proof that the American Dream is alive and well, and he is a living refutation of the apocalypticism, resignation, indignation and hopelessness regarding the American experience that informs his misanthropic imagination.
His black critics, most notably Thomas Chatterton Williams, Melvin Rogers, John McWhorter, Spencer Overton and Randall Kennedy, have criticised Coates on several fronts. The common strand in their criticism lies, however, in the racial reductionism of Coates’ vision and his hyperinflation of what he calls white supremacy as the single causal explanation for black oppression and suffering in the United States. His call for blacks to disengage from civic life is hailed as morally irresponsible and his bleak analysis of race relations without viable solutions betrays the vision not of a moral intellectual, but of an analytic journalist steeped in the terrors and fears of his own childhood, suffering as he did at the hands of violent blacks, but which he transplants on to white society in general. Reading Coates, one gets the impression that the psychology of fear he attributes to black people is a projection of his own personal psychological make-up: he is deathly afraid of his own race, but, out of a sense of racial shame, finds it easier to blame white people for the endemic black-on-black violence to which he was systemically subjected to as a child, beginning with the beating inflicted on him by his own father. This is a rather unfair burden for white people in general to have to bear on behalf of a man who fetishises his personal demons.
Coates is deeply wedded to an amoral view of the world and, more importantly, to whites’ incapacity as individuals to hold deep moral sentiments about the lives of black people and their suffering. As such, even his most ardent liberal white supporters will feel unease reading his words. Coates despises them for simply being white; he hates them as part of the ruling ‘majoritarian pigs’ he describes in Between the World and Me who create the policies and racial infrastructures that rule, like laws of nature, the doomed lives of black people.
In indicting white America as a country ruled by majoritarian pigs, he feels no sympathy for the heroic white or even black firefighters who died in the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11 attack on the US. He writes that they were not human to him; rather, they were menaces of nature; they were the force, the comet, the storm which could, with no justification, shatter his body.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has emerged as the most racist and misanthropic public intellectual of any race in the 21st century, whose hatred of life and of white people is veiled under a pseudo-sentimental appeal to some nebulous form of struggle. It is a struggle ensconced in no moral vision, no sense of the redemptive hope and inclusive unity and charity that are part of America’s moral identity, and that are necessary for America to progress morally.
Coates, as some of his critics, such as philosopher Cornel West, have pointed out, cannot possess a moral vision because he fetishises white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. West, writing in the Guardian, argues that it is Coates’ narrative of ‘defiance’ that concerns him most. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic, and little more than a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It prompts crocodile tears from neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.
Of all the black critics attacking Coates, however, West is the least credible and the most resoundingly hypocritical. Lambasting Coates as nothing more than a mouthpiece for the neoliberal black elite, and finding it difficult to forgive his younger successor his support for Obama, West emerges as bitter and mean-spirited, failing to acknowledge that the very neoliberal capitalist system for which he professes such hatred is the same system that has rewarded him and all the other welfare scholars penning anti-American invectives in the American academy. This is the only country in the world I can think of that pays its intellectual destroyers, such as Coates and West, as handsomely as it does.
But the American left has, for a long time, had a very masochistic relationship with its left-leaning, anti-American black intellectuals, be he James Baldwin, a literary hysteric who sought to elevate his overwrought Baroque style to the level of timeless metaphysical speculation; or the tedious Toni Morrison, whose apocalyptic Black Holocaust depictions of black sufferings were designed, one supposes, to leave white readers feeling guilty about their historical transgressions; or the wealthy and academically pedigreed Cornel West, whom the neoliberal system has treated with utmost reverence. White liberals who read such writers have played moral deference to their literary patrons. These writers, like Coates himself, posit a cast of black sufferers who eternally remind a certain type of white reader of the centrality of the unending potency of his or her white agency and the never-ending destructive power it wields over black victims. If Coates stopped writing tomorrow, far-left liberals would cease feeling white and would have a serious nervous racial meltdown. There would be no racial Others in the room to make them aware of themselves as guilty white people, complicitous in a world of egregious social maladies – maladies that only they as social-engineering gods can fix. Therein lies, however, the cruel irony. Coates’ philosophy of hope as a specious lie, and his rejection of redemption and acts of contrition as salvational moments in an American conversation that could bring about something such as healing and authentic understanding, spits in the face of core republican values that Americans as a group hold. This steadfast belief in redemption and hope does not just form the core of American mores; it is the very aspirational value that gives moral and political coherency to the republic.
If white liberals, then, are moral masochists willing to wallow in white guilt and tolerate Coates’ admonition, it is only because they still have power to move the sensibilities and passions of a deeply fearful and angry black man. And that gives them a sense of their own potency. Coates’s moral sadism, therefore, is only temporary and is controlled by the extent to which white liberals, like good masochists, control the degree of their own pain. Like the aristocrats who reversed roles with the plebeians at the European Dionysian bacchanals, white liberals will eventually move on and forget about Coates. They will assume a mask of contrition, look to some hoped-for redemptive moment in the higher registers of their innocent conscience, and seek a more exalted fix. His accusations have made for interesting dinner talk among the cognoscenti and literati in liberal bourgeois enclaves, where some believe moral masochism and symbolic self-flagellation are signs of virtue.
Coates’ philosophy of a tragic America is, I believe, fast becoming tiresome. Americans are an optimistic people who believe that fate and destiny are theirs to control. A tragic sense of life is anathema to the spirit of who and what America is all about. Coates may not have realised it, but he and his doleful message died a natural death the minute he achieved the very thing he has spent his career condemning and despising: the American Dream.
Yet what is crucial to note is that Coates’ racial pessimism is tied to a larger philosophical movement known as ‘black nihilism’, of which he is not so much its architect as its sycophantic and ardent devotee. Black nihilism is an anti-philosophic movement, intellectually out of focus, and against – as its advocates state – philosophy, hope, metaphysics, epistemology, redemption, liberal democracy, free markets and even the grammar of liberation itself. Its best articulation can be found in Calvin L Warren’s essay ‘Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope’, published in the New Centennial Review in 2015.
Warren writes that black nihilism is a political philosophy that advocates an end to black emancipation through politics, and characterises any form of political hope as pointless. ‘Black suffering is an essential part of the world’, Warren writes, ‘and placing hope in the very structure that sustains metaphysical violence, the political, will never resolve anything’. Black nihilism, he continues, speaks of a ‘blackened world’ that will ‘put an end to the word itself’.
According to Warren, black nihilism is ‘anti-grammar’, and it resists the appeal to both liberal democracy and its political, social and emancipatory schemata on the grounds that to do so will reproduce the very metaphysical violence that is the source of back suffering. He writes in support of this claim that: ‘The politics of hope must actively refuse the possibility that the “solution” is, in fact, another problem in disguised form: the idea of a “solution” is nothing more than the repetition and disavowal of the problem itself.’
Black emancipation, Warren argues, is predicated on black nihilism, which in turn relies on world destruction. This world destruction is the destruction of, we may assume, whiteness; the very foundation on which anti-blackness has been systemically grounded. He writes that black emancipation is not an opening for future possibilities and political reconfigurations. This is because anti-blackness infuses the fabric of social existence, and so it is ‘impossible to emancipate blacks without literally destroying the world. Moreover, this means that black emancipation will not yield a new world or possibility for reorganisation – black emancipation becomes something like death for the world.’
The nihilistic thrust of this type of thought, articulated by Warren and Coates, is so irrefutably bankrupt that it rejects all categories on which human cognition and, therefore, man’s conceptual mode of human survival are based. Warren states that all philosophy, including metaphysics and epistemology, was created against the backdrop of the non-reasoning black who was thought to be situated outside of history, moral law and consciousness. Warren writes that for the black nihilist, anti-blackness is metaphysics; that metaphysics is unthinkable without anti-blackness because ‘it is the system of thought and organisation that structures the relationship between object/subject, human/animal, rational/irrational and free/enslaves – essentially the categories that constitute the field of ontology’. All social rationalisation, loss of individuality and economic expansionism and technocratic domination depend on anti-blackness.
Even epistemology, that branch of philosophy that validates and verifies human knowledge by justifying our beliefs, is a problem for back nihilism. For the black nihilist, the dominant epistemology privileges metaphysical forms of anti-black organisations of knowledge. Warren writes: ‘If we think of epistemology as an anti-black formation, then every appeal to it will reproduce the very metaphysical violence that is the source of black suffering. Nihilistic hermeneutics allows us to fracture epistemology, to chip away at its metaphysical science, and to enunciate from within this fissure.’ In Warren’s view, black nihilism shatters the coherence of anti-black epistemology and cannot be known or rendered legible through traditional epistemology. In other words: ‘Anti-black epistemology is somewhat schizophrenic in its aim. It at once posits blackness as an anti-grammatical entity.’
But where does this leave the black subject? Warren writes – and we see strains of this in Coates’ writings when he says that hope itself and the cognitive machinations out of which hope arises are doomed to failure – that metaphysics engenders forms of violence as a necessity, as a byproduct. Coates sees the American Dream in precisely those terms, as a species of metaphysics. He writes in Between the World and Me, that the dream ‘thrives on generalisations, on limiting the number of possible questions… the dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing’. It is, for Coates, the means by which people are seduced into thinking and acting white.
Warren takes this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, when he writes apocryphally and apocalyptically: ‘Thinking itself is structured by anti-blackness from the very start.’
This means that man’s mind, his mode of acquiring knowledge, his reason and thought, are to be rejected as forms of anti-blackness themselves. They are to be regarded as creations of white racists whose universal systems of thought corresponding to an objective reality applicable to all human beings who share a common mode of survival, as human beings, are nothing more than a social compact among white racists to exclude blacks from the human community.
The black nihilists have one thing correct. They and their adherents are outside the historical process and the moral law, denying consciousness and a conception of themselves as truly free subjects. But it is not Hegel, Hume and Kant who have condemned them to that station in life. It is they who have betrayed their own constitution as free radical agents, and committed spiritual suicide by negating their radical freedom, usurping their agency and repudiating the only world they have to enhance their modes of continued personal becoming and the creation of an abstract juridical and political personality.
The end-of-the-world coda should not be taken lightly. It is code for the destruction, I believe, not of whiteness, which in and of itself is an anti-concept denoting nothing and no one in the world. Since the world of the black nihilist is a crudely reductionist socio-economic and political world of white institutions created by white people tyrannising over the world of all black people, for the black nihilists to speak of an end to black emancipation in terms of an end of the world, is to speak in terms of an end to the white world. The death of the world they write of is the death of all white people. Coates, who to my mind is the most ardent of the black nihilists, wrote in Between The World and Me that in America the problem was not really with the police, ‘but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs’.
The black nihilists have declared the final answer to the problems of black suffering and black emancipation – an end to the world – which means an end to white people, and the white world and its institutions.
It is up to those against whom such apocalyptic judgments have been issued to find the response to this indictment. Their very survival depends on it.
Jason D Hill is honors professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author of several books, including: Becoming a Cosmopolitan Civil Disobedience and The Politics of Identity: When We Should not Get Along. His forthcoming book, We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People, will be published in July by Bombardier Books/Simon and Schuster. (Order this book from either Amazon(UK), or Amazon(US).)