To understand the critical acclaim of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s extended essay on race in America and my review of it, recall the combative exchange that took place in 1963 between the black writer Ralph Ellison and Irving Howe, editor of the magazine Dissent. Ellison takes Howe, and white liberals in general, to task for believing that black Americans’ racial predicament is so forlorn that the only path for the authentically black intellectual is to protest and agitate constantly. Commenting on the effects of such myopic beliefs, Ellison suggests that there is not much difference between a white liberal and a segregationist:
Irving Howe would designate the role which Negro writers are to play more rigidly than any Southern politician—and for the best of reasons. We must express ‘black’ anger and ‘clenched militancy’; most of all we should not become too interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through these that we seek our individual identities. And between writing well and being ideologically militant, we must choose militancy.
Coates’s argument is an updated version of Irving Howe’s, so much so that it seems to argue for segregation. As for the choice between writing well and ideological militancy, Coates and his liberal supporters prefer militancy.