Ta-Nehisi Coates & James Baldwin’s Influence

Are you planning to join us for class on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time ( Thurs, Jan. 21 from 7:00-8:30 PM at the Women’s Building)? If you haven’t signed up, we still have 3 spots left. Sign up today.

James Baldwin’s influence on modern American writers can’t be understated. Journalist, author, and 2015 MacArthur Fellow (“genius prize”) Ta-Nehisi Coates credits Baldwin among his most significant literary influences. Readers will find strong connections in style and substance between Coates’ recent work Between the World and Me and Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

Baldwin’s influence on Coates is described in the recent Atlantic article, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates: Baldwin’s Heir?  In the article, professor and author Dr. Eric Michael Dyson argues:

The James Baldwin comparison has got up the dander of the wooly madcap set; renunciations abound. Is it bad to want to be like Baldwin? When you want to be great why not emulate the greatest? LeBron wants to be greater than Jordan and Kobe? Beautiful, we’re the beneficiaries of the effort. Serena wants to cast her name beyond any other in tennis; Steffi who? Bravo. Kendrick Lamar wants us to mention his name with Nas and Jay Z? Pimp your butterfly. Coates wants to sing with Baldwin in the choir of black eloquence, and that’s a problem? That level of literary ambition is a good thing, or else what’s a prose heaven for? Coates did a daring thing: He took Baldwin’s conceit from the first and briefest section of The Fire Next Time, a letter penned to his nephew, waged a bet that the American public could absorb even more of the epistolary device, and wrote a book-length essay to his son. Recognize his risk; credit his chutzpah; applaud his intuition.

Other’s disagree.

Vinson Cunningham writes in his New York Magazine article Why Ta-Nehisi Coates Isn’t James Baldwin

There’s much beyond this brand of public relations to link Between the World and Meand The Fire Next Time — after all, the books share a perennially important theme: the abiding problem of the color line, and the cost of that problem to black and white Americans alike. But the differences between the two (leaving aside any tedious descent into which is better, a conversation better left to some middlebrow barbershop) are actually more revealing than the similarities. Despite Coates’s stated desire to write in Baldwin’s inimitable “way,” the two men actually deploy opposing styles — Coates the rapper, Baldwin the reverend — in a manner that has something to tell us about how the rhetoric and attitude of the fight for freedom have changed in the last 50 years.

We highly suggest reading both Baldwin and Coates to deepen understanding about Baldwin’s influence and come to your own conclusions.

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