Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledges his debt to historians

Historians in the News
tags: Ta Nehisi Coates

Thumbnail Image -  By Eduardo Montes-Bradley, CC BY-SA 4.0

In March, some of the country’s foremost historians gathered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University for a conference on "Universities and Slavery: Bound by History." Annette Gordon-Reed, Sven Beckert (who helped organize the conference), Craig Steven Wilder, and Adam Rothman were among the experts from more than 30 schools. More than 500 people attended, and the conference — which examined the delicate topic of Harvard’s profits from slavery — was covered in The New York Times.

And yet, for all the academic firepower in the room, the keynote speaker was someone who lacks a university degree of any sort and has no scholarly publications to his name. But such is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s standing in academe that he not only delivered the keynote but also sat down for a one-on-one session with Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust.

It is impossible to imagine any other journalist today being accorded the same privilege by professional historians. Coates occupies a unique position — a writer who has a huge and devoted readership both inside and outside the academy; who insists on foregrounding scholarly work in his popular writings; and who has a reputation among historians as, well, almost one of them. "I really think he should have been a historian," the University of Connecticut historian Manisha Sinha told me with a laugh….

"Marking the moment of awakening is like marking the moment one fell in love. If forced I would say I took my tumble with the dark vision of historian Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom," Coates writes of his arc. We Were Eight Years in Power deepens his acknowledgment of his scholarly inheritance with annotations of the ideas he explores. For example, he adds a note to his essay on mass incarceration that originally ran in October 2015: "Without the work of Khalil Gibran Muhammad, this section would not be possible." A paragraph follows on the Harvard historian’s book, The Condemnation of Blackness (Harvard University Press, 2010). ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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