Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates

Recently, while teaching a course that focused on journalism and the importance of one’s employing an ethic of empathy, my students and I read and studied Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A national correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates is well known for his analytical and opinion pieces. His book, a letter to his 15-year-old son, is at once intimate and expansive, his attempt to explain what it means to grow up black in this world and, in particular, in the United States of America. He expresses his hopes and fears for his son, who is coming of age in a culture within which racism persists.

What does it mean, he pushes the reader to wonder, to have to tell your child, when that child is old enough to understand, that there are those who think themselves superior–and others therefore lesser–because of the color of their skin? Coates wants not only his son but all others who read his work to resonate with his belief, his deep and personal understanding, that the American Dream “rests on the bodies of black people.” 

At this moment in our history, we are witnessing the bold resurgence of white supremacists, among them Richard Spencer, a leading voice for the alt-right. Spencer, at a rally in a federal building in D.C. this past November, quoted Nazi propaganda and proclaimed that America belongs to white people. He and others extended their arms to salute Trump, shouting, “Heil, Trump!”

Every time I visualize this scene in my mind’s eye I am overcome with grief. And rightly so. But this I believe: Their voices will not carry the day. For now, though, their presence in this world stands as evidence of just how far the human race has yet to go to become a species defined by love, not hate. Most of us are smarter and better than Richard Spencer and his ilk. We’ll persist and we’ll triumph.

I hope my students enjoyed reading Coates as much as I did. I hope they found themselves empathizing with his feelings and his perspective. Empathy is never easy, but when, for example, a young white woman reads the work of a black man who is a father, an intellectual, a realist, and someone who has known the bottomless pain of oppression, she must be willing to open herself not only to feeling as he feels and to taking on his perspective as her own, but also to acknowledging her own biases and assumptions. Reading Coates becomes, if one lets it, a journey into self-examination.

I resonated with Coates’s perspective because I encountered in his words and in the deep love that motivated them our shared humanity. Coates’s book–his letter–is a call to our deepest, best selves. It is an invitation to become acutely conscious of the interior life of another human being and the history he represents. It is an invitation to understand and internalize his perspective by connecting and resonating with his concern, his pain, his hope, and most of all his love. It has taken up permanent residence in my mind and in my heart.


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Janet Blank-Libra

Janet Blank-Libra is a professor of English and Journalism at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., where she teaches literature courses (fiction and nonfiction), photojournalism, multimedia, ethics and law of the press, a variety of writing courses, and courses specific to the college’s honors curriculum. She has twice received teaching awards and recently finished a three-year appointment as the recipient of an endowed chair that the college calls “The Chair of Moral Values,” a position that allowed her to bring ethical issues to the attention of the community. In 2017 Blank-Libra published Pursuing an Ethic of Empathy in Journalism, a book she believes describes an ethic the best journalists employ naturally. Blank-Libra published in 2004 a chapter—“Choosing Sources: How the Press Perpetuated the Myth of the Single Mother on Welfare”—in Class and News, a book edited by Don Heider. That chapter became the impetus for Pursuing an Ethic of Empathy in Journalism.

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