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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates

Mary Wood is teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates' memoir, Between the World and Me, in her AP English Language and Composition class in Chapin, South Carolina, reports Hannah Natanson in the Washington Post.


Last year, two students complained the book made them ashamed to be white, violating a state rule against causing students “guilt, anguish or … psychological distress” on account of their race, she writes.


"Lexington-Richland School District Five officials forced Wood to stop teaching the book; later, they sent her a letter of reprimand." Some wanted the teacher fired.


This year, following school policy, Wood got permission to teach Coates' book from the new principal, a Black man, writes Natanson. She gave parents a chance to review the curriculum and offered to opt out any child whose parents objected to the book. Finally, "she had assigned a conservative voice pushing back on Coates."


Superintendent Akil E. Ross, who is black, wrote in a statement that teachers can assign controversial material as long as they “expose students to all sides … in a fair and unbiased manner” and adhere to “content standards.”

(Wood) told her class they would spend the next few days listening to a recording of the book, while each student took notes. After that, they would conduct independent research to develop their own arguments. They could agree with Coates, disagree with him or land in the middle.

(I wonder why the students can't just read the book on their own. Isn't listening to a recording a waste of class time? Or is the goal to avoid giving them copies to take home?)


Anyhow, the teacher's approach seems sensible enough. However, I suspect Wood could have done better in finding countervailing opinions. She countered Coates, a very powerful writer, with a clip titled Systematic Racism: A Myth by the Institute for Youth in Policy, which is made up of 18- to 25-year-olds. There are much stronger voices.


As a 23-year-old philosophy student at Columbia, Coleman Hughes challenged Coates' case for reparations at a Congressional hearing on reparations in 2019, notes the New York Times.


A writer and podcaster, he's just published a book, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America. (Yes, he's black.) Here's a review.


Erec Smith, a black professor at York College, is a much more powerful critic of Coates' racial essentialism. George Leef's reviews Smith's new book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition, which argues against adopting a victimhood identity.


Thomas Chatterton Wiliams' 2019 memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White, explores his biracial identity. He's an eloquent writer.


As a teenager, convinced that "one drop" of black ancestry made him wholly black, he writes, “I consciously learned and performed my race like a teacher’s pet in an advanced placement course on black masculinity.” He grew up, married a white woman and has blonde children. Here's a review of the book.

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13 Comments


del_varner
Feb 13

It is interesting to see how Coates had been subtlely moved into the culture. If you notice in Denxel Washington's Equalizer movies he gave a copy of a Coates book to a young black man, and in other case was reading a Coates book. This is not by chance.

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linda.g.oc
Feb 07

Am I the only one who wonders if the reason that the class listened to the audio book , rather than reading the book, was that the class was/is unable to read the book? I am aware of teachers admitting as much; not only about books, but poems, essays and news articles.

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linda.g.oc
Feb 07
Replying to

I remember a regular commenter on the WaPo education page, who identified himself as an AP English teacher in Prince George’s County, MD (far from high-performing) and said that all students in the county were required to take an AP course ( “thanks” to Jay Mathews’ Challenge Index) He said most were put into AP US hx or English and that most of his “AP students “ were unable to read the material. I think he said most were around 5th-grade level - and that was at least 20 years ago. Having lived in that area, I believe it and doubt that anything has changed.

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Jim Daniels
Jim Daniels
Feb 07

Coates is such a mediocrity. He's a terrible writer and not a particularly original thinker. But, right on cue, white progressives fawned over this flavor-of-the-month and bestowed every award on him and helped pay for his expensive brownstone by buying his screed. I guess Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, and Hurston are too difficult for your average teacher these days to convey their timeless and well-written themes written during times when oppression was far and away more than a bourgeois poseur like Coates will ever experience.

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superdestroyer
Feb 07
Replying to

Go Tell It on the Mountain -1953

Invisible Man -1952

Native Son - 1940

Their Eyes Were Watching God - 1937


And one's only response is to attack a typo. Who is really low brow? Maybe black AP students should read at least one book that comes after all of the civil rights laws were passed.

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rdiethrich
Feb 07

John McWhorter's "Woke Racism" would be an excellent antidote to Coates!

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Heresolong
Heresolong
Feb 19
Replying to

This was where I was headed.

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