John Derbyshire On Maya Angelou, Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Whining Of Pampered Pets
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John Derbyshire On Maya Angelou, Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Whining Of Pampered Pets

The news of Maya Angelou’s passing arrived just as I was bracing myself to write something about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ big cover story in Atlantic arguing that the U.S.A. should pay reparations to American blacks. [The Case for Reparations, May 21, 2014]

Well … that’s not actually what Coates is arguing. Of the 57 occurrences of the word “reparations” in the Coates piece, numbers 38 through 53 (which is 16 occurrences, or 28 percent) refer to reparations paid to European Jews and their descendants by the post-WW2 German governments …

[Long digression] At this point you are hazarding a guess that I failed to read all the way through the Coates piece, as due diligence surely requires, and instead am just doing keyword searches for things to comment on. Could I really be so delinquent?

I certainly could. For one thing, Coates’ piece is very long: 15,768 words. That’s longer than the Book of Proverbs. I read at about 300 words a minute, so I’d have to commit almost an hour of my life to reading the wretched thing.

For another, it’s about a topic I have no interest in: American blackness.

I bear no ill will towards American blacks and would not deprive them of a jot nor tittle of their constitutional protections. I treat the blacks I encounter with proper courtesy and respect, and have publicly urged the nonblack youth of America to do the same.

It’s just that I’m not interested in blacks in the generality, and find their endless complaining tiresome. I don’t have to listen to it—you can’t make me—so I prefer not to.

And then, this Coates fellow. I don’t know him personally, have never met him; though I am told he once chided me for racism (A Quick Word on John Derbyshire, April 7, 2012)—good grief!

So far as I can tell from scanning his columns, all he writes about is blackness. Does even he find it that interesting? Obviously, yes.

There’s a narrowness, a poverty of imagination there. I count myself fairly limited in my interests—I know nothing about sport, or art, or TV, or celebrities—but in the past three months I’ve found something to say about consciousness, biohistory, literature, General Relativity, opera, science, Ireland, China, humanitarianism, eugenics, child-raising, Liverpool, Asian-Americans, psychology, poetry, Puerto Rico, global warming, genomics, robotics, and Intelligent Design. Meanwhile Coates has been droning on about blackety-blackety-blackness.

So my deduction is that Ta-Nehisi Coates is just another Affirmative-Action mediocrity grumbling ceaselessly about Whitey.

(I always assume that any black person in a well-paid position is an Affirmative Action hire. I shall cease assuming this, at least so far as new hires are concerned, when Griggs v. Duke Power is overturned and the stupid and odious doctrine of “disparate impact” is declared by the Supreme Court to be impermissible in legal arguments.)

Way I look at it, if God had meant me to squander my precious hours reading 15,000-word articles written by Affirmative Action mediocrities on topics of zero interest to me, He wouldn’t have given me the Ctrl-F key.

So no, I haven’t read all through the thing. Okay?

[End of long digression]

About these reparations: what does Ta-Nehisi Coates actually want? A one-time bounty for all blacks? Monthly checks? Forty acres and a mule? What?

So far as I can tell from Ctrl-F-ing on “reparations,” Coates’ only concrete proposal is that Congress should take up Rep. John Conyers H.R. 40 Bill:

To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes. [Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, Library of Congress.]

“Acknowledge … establish a commission … make recommendations …” It all sounds a bit Sir Humphrey–ish. What do the reparations people really want?

What they really want is for everyone else to find blackness as infinitely fascinating as they themselves find it.  This is clearer in the interview Coates gave to Bill Moyers, which comes with a full transcript. From which:

I think, one of the things is that we talk about race a lot, we do. So I think it’s wrong to say we don’t have conversations. No, we actually talk about it quite a bit. I don’t think we talk about it in depth as much as we should. And I think part of the problem is when you start talking about it in depth, when you start getting to a level where you say, listen, everything we are, everything we have is built on past sins. [Facing the Truth: The Case for Reparations, Moyers And Company, May 21, 2014]


“I know you’re all going to roll your eyes if I say we need to have a conversation about race, but you know what? We really do need to have a conversation about race! In depth! We don’t talk about race enough!

The dream of the Eric Holders and Ta-Nehisi Coateses is for us all to talk about race 24-7—although of course only in a vocabulary approved by them: acknowledging collective white guilt and sympathizing with the sufferings of blacks.

Personally, I’d rather pay the reparations, if I thought it would shut them up. It wouldn’t, of course:

One potentially undesirable consequence of reparations, as with other remedial programs, is that disappointing results might fuel open-ended or escalating demands for additional compensation. If reparations fail to change blacks’ situation, that might be taken as proof that the amounts paid are insufficient. [Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, p 129, by Amy L. Wax (2009).]

The rest of Coates’ argument, to the degree I am acquainted with it, consists of familiar charges about the dire effects of racism: the incarceration gap, the achievement gap, the wealth gap. All caused by white people!

Well, no. The incarceration gap is caused by the very high levels of black criminality; the achievement gap is caused by low average black IQ; the wealth gap is caused by a combination of the achievement gap and high black time preference.

The underlying cause in all cases is race differences in the genome. That’s my side of the conversation about race, anyway.

Some of Coates’ facts are dubious:

Forced partings were common in the antebellum South. A slave in some parts of the region stood a 30 percent chance of being sold in his or her lifetime. Twenty-five percent of interstate trades destroyed a first marriage and half of them destroyed a nuclear family.

That is at odds with the most data-rich analysis of American slavery:

That the interregional slave trade resulted in the destruction of some slave marriages is beyond dispute. What is at issue is the extent of the phenomenon. Data contained in sales records in New Orleans … sharply contradict the popular view that the destruction of slave marriages was at least a frequent, if not a universal, consequence of the slave trade. These records, which cover thousands of transactions during the years from 1804 to 1862, indicate that more than 84 percent of all sales over the age of fourteen involved unmarried individuals … It is probable that about 2 percent of the marriages of slaves involved in the westward trek were destroyed by the process of migration. [Time on the Cross by R.W. Fogel and S.L. Engerman, p. 49(1974).]

Coates’ chronology of real-estate issues ignores the fact that no force known to physics is great enough to prevent nonblacks fleeing a neighborhood when blacks arrive in quantity.

Coates also seems to argue that

These real-estate passages need to be read alongside Steve Sailer’s much deeper and more insightful accounts of the same issues—in the same city—here and here on Steve’s blog on the Coates article (from which I took both those links) also has a long comment thread which includes most of the skeptical things you can say about reparations.

Black people get reparations through record entitlement spending and government employment. Nearly 21 percent of the nation’s working black adults hold government jobs, as compared to some 17 percent of white workers.


Forget reparations. I’ve been paying them all my adult life. We’ve been shoveling money at them for fifty years. They’ve had their reparations.


So I’m supposed to pay J’Shizzle for something that didn’t happen to him that I didn’t do?


300,000 Union dead. New amendments to the Constitution. Reconstruction. A decade of Civil Rights. Busing. Equal employment opportunity legislation. Disparate impact legislation. Nope. America hasn’t done any soul searching whatsoever about the legacy of not picking their own damn cotton.


Won’t the reparations issue be a problem for the Democrats and threaten to crack their coalition? I can’t see Asians or Mexicans supporting a policy that gives the biggest piece of the spoils pie to blacks.

And so on. (Although note that Steve’s comment thread there suffered a brief Flash Mob attack from Coates supporters.)

And then, Maya Angelou. I first heard that name in 1993, when she read one of her “poems” at the Clinton inauguration.

It was a quite sensationally bad poem. I remember being shocked by how bad it was. With the whole world watching, this is how the U.S.A. presents itself to the world? With this semi-literate gibberish?

Perhaps I was still somewhat naïve about American public life.

Across the wall of the world, A River sings a beautiful song,

What does that mean? What is this wall? The Great Wall of China, or what? And wouldn’t the river sing over the wall, not across it?

The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Isn’t the horizon, like, horizontal? So how can it lean? Don’t you need to be somewhat vertical before you can lean?

It goes without saying that none of the formal devices of English verse, developed and refined across centuries, were employed by Ms. Angelou. She probably thought them unacceptably white. Her contribution to the 1993 Inauguration was formless, meaningless babble.

I have never read her autobiographical bestseller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. From what I can find out about it on the Internet it seems to be another exercise in white-hating sex-obsessed black solipsism … but possibly the references I found were all biased.

A friend contributes the following observations:

I’ve always suspected she’s a fraud, and the Wikipedia entry rather proves it, admitting that she manufactured material for her autobiography: “The details of Angelou’s life described in her seven autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tended to be inconsistent … “Angelou wrote a total of seven autobiographies. According to scholar Mary Jane Lupton, Angelou’s third autobiography Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas marked the first time a well-known African American autobiographer had written a third volume about her life. Her books “stretch over time and place,” from Arkansas to Africa and back to the U.S., and take place from the beginnings of World War II to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. … “Angelou’s use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and development of theme, setting, plot, and language has often resulted in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction. As feminist scholar Maria Lauret state, Angelou made a deliberate attempt in her books to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Scholar Mary Jane Lupton argues that all of Angelou’s autobiographies conform to the genre’s standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme. Angelou recognizes that there are fictional aspects to her books; Lupton agrees, stating that Angelou tended to ‘diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth.’” Who knew that autobiographies were supposed to be true? This is Wikipedia, mind you, a friendly leftist source.

In short, another Affirmative Action mediocrity.

For fifty years now we’ve been giving breaks to blacks, and not just Affirmative Action sinecures like those enjoyed by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the late, but equally talentless, Ms. Angelou.

We abolished federal Civil Service exams because blacks couldn’t pass them. Our colleges turn away nonblack kids so that less well-qualified blacks can be admitted.

We shower public money on bogus claimants to farm-loan discrimination. Our media observe exquisitely sensitive protocols in reporting black-on-white misbehavior, while inflating the flimsiest allegations of white-on-black misbehavior to the level of national crises.

We gut admissions exams for police and firefighter jobs so that blacks can be hired, and pay extravagant compensation to applicants who failed the un-gutted exams. We likewise gut standards for college debate, replacing structured, reasoned argument with incoherent squawking.

We have pretty much dismantled our civilization in an effort to accommodate blacks.

And still they complain.

The Ta-Nehisi Coateses, Eric Holders, and Maya Angelous seem, in their impenetrable narcissism, to hear their own voices as the groans of an oppressed race from under the iron heel of White Supremacy.

Those voices sound to me more like the whining of pampered pets.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire's writings at can do so here.
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