What’s the Difference between a Slight and a Tribute? The Case of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison
The New York Times Magazine has a new feature where notable people list the 10 books they would take “if they were marooned on a desert island” and Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of Between the World and Me, opted in. His picks run the gamut, from Edith Wharton to Tony Judt. But among those picks is not the person who gave his book a ringing endorsement and the sort of imprimatur that gives a book on race the feel of authenticity and authority: Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.
On one Facebook page people are clamoring for answers — or providing some of their own. Possibly, conclude nearly all, Coates is a turncoat: after achieving the requisite liberal establishment nod of approval, he has shown his true colors. Moreover, says some, it could mean he’s tacky: forgetting to acknowledge a literary icon who has endorsed you is bad manners. Or he’s falsely literary. Even worse, it’s just plain cynical, calculated publicity: Get the endorsement of the reigning literary light of African-American literature, and instantly make your career as a burgeoning black voice. Cynicism aside, this list appears to be a combination of the personal and professional: Coates has listed those influences that helped him achieve his personal vision and the essence of his craft. Ultimately, though, Coates already gave Morrison the best tribute: By honoring her place as the clearance for anybody who has something to say about the black condition. You’ll notice it on the front flap of Between the World and Me.