I couldn’t care less about the substance of the most recent round of words between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you need or want to catch-up you can do so here. The gist is West did a drive-by on the title reference in Coates’ latest book, a collection of essays. There was a Twitter slam. West wrote something up in The Guardian.
What is marginally more interesting to me is a comment I saw on Twitter calling Coates the “heir apparent” of West’s intellectual tradition.
It seemed like a good moment to think about how wrong that it is.
This is first about genre. West is a philosopher. Coates is a writer. There really are meaningful differences between the two. They have different audiences, means, mediums, and voice. The best engagement between the two would take their best work in their chosen genres. West is a speech-maker and a sermon-giver. Coates is an essayist. I can’t for the life me figure out why either of them would engage the other in their opponent’s given domain, but I am just woman. What could I know?
I would go even further on their differences. Coates, if he must be nailed down and for my purposes he must, does literary prose. Because his subjects have so frequently dealt with politics and history we seem to forget that he isn’t doing politics or history, per se.
Similarly, West is now such a looming figure in the elite intellectual history of black knowledge production that we forget that what he is a superbly trained philosopher and theologian. He deals in rhetorical construction.
These two men are doing very different things. The only reason we would think of one is as the heir of the other is because they are black and talk about black people. That can be a useful heuristic but it isn’t in this case. The men are talking past each other in a media landscape that still cannot appreciate the diversity of black intellectual traditions and our agency as tacticians with actual craft.
Perhaps even the two men do not realize they are talking past each other. I could not know. I do know that I still wouldn’t step lightly to West in a debate like I would not step lightly to Coates in an essay.
There are a few examples of thinkers that transcend their genres, especially rhetorics and writing in the black intellectual tradition. Martin Luther King is the classic example. Malcolm X and Maya Angelou are others. They are exceptional even among exceptions. What is more likely is that people master their domains. Fannie Lou Hamer is a master rhetorician. Alice Walker is a master writer. I wouldn’t anymore put Hamer and Walker at odds with each other without thinking about genre than I would West and Coates.