Celebrating Black Humanists and Allies: Ta-Nehisi Coates

In honor of Black History Month, we’ll be profiling an important contemporary Black humanist (or humanist ally) in a different field each week during the month of February. This week, we profile humanist journalist, novelist, and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in Baltimore, MD on September 30, 1975, to William Paul Coates (a book publisher, librarian, and member of the Black Panthers) and Cheryl Lynn Waters Coates (a teacher). He was one of seven close-knit siblings and half-siblings. He attended public schools in the Baltimore area and then went on to Howard University, which he attended for five years before he left, without graduating, to become a journalist.

His first job as a reporter was at the Washington City Paper and he also worked at Philadelphia Weekly, the Village Voice, and Time magazine, before settling at The Atlantic in 2008. It is at The Atlantic where Coates made a real name for himself, garnering a national reputation as a columnist and blogger on issues including race, politics, history, sports, and music. He rose to senior editor with such feature articles as “Fear of a Black President” and “The Case for Reparations”. He has also written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other newspapers and magazines.

“The Case for Reparations” focused on the need for reparations to be paid to Black Americans as a result of systemic racism in the United States, especially in the form of housing discrimination and “redlining”. Coates testified in the House of Representatives on the issue in 2019. Last month, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced H.R. 40, which would create a reparations commission. Later this week, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will again hear testimony on the subject.

Coates, who has been called “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States”, is the author of several books of non-fiction. His first book, The Beautiful Struggle (2008), is a memoir of growing up in Baltimore. The follow-up, Between the World and Me (2015), examines our nation’s history of exploitation and racial inequity in the format of a letter to the author’s son. It earned Coates a National Book Award, NAACP Image Award, was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Review of Books, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His third book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017), is a collection of essays about the Obama Era that was named among the best books of the year by multiple sources.

He is also the author of the novel The Water Dance, published in 2019, and several Marvel graphic novel series. He writes Black Panther, beginning in 2016, with illustrator Brian Stelfreeze, along with a spin-off, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, co-written with Roxane Gay. In 2017, Coates worked with poet Yona Harvey to launch a third series, Black Panther and the Crew. Coates is also a current author of Marvel’s Captain America.

The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as the MacArthur Genius Award) in 2015, Coates has taught writing and journalism at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and New York University, where he is currently a distinguished writer in residence.

In 2013, he wrote in The Atlantic,

I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely.