“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare
your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates
By Connor Collins
On April 28, 2016, Phi Beta Kappa President Catherine White Berheide presided over the installation of the Society’s newest chapter at Oregon State University. The chapter then inducted memoirist and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates as a Foundation member, a special recognition only given in conjunction with the installation of a new chapter, selecting him for his accomplishments as well as his ongoing commitment to the arts and sciences.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in Baltimore in 1975 to William Paul Coates, a Vietnam War veteran, former Black Panther, librarian and publisher, and Cheryl Coates, a teacher. In 1993, at age seventeen, Coates enrolled at Howard University in Washington, DC, and although he left before graduating, he credits Howard for much of his success. “I wouldn’t trade what Howard gave me for the world. Howard trained me intellectually,” Coates said in an interview with Marcia Davis of The Washington Post. Howard also introduced Coates to his future wife, Kenyatta Matthews.
Coates dropped out of college to pursue his passion for journalism and worked for various newspapers, often writing about race and the experience of being black in America. When Coates was twenty-four, his son Samori was born. Soon after, he moved his young family to Brooklyn, New York. The Atlantic hired Coates in 2008. Since then, he has become a national correspondent at The Atlantic and has published two books, The Beautiful Struggle (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) and Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015).
The Beautiful Struggle examines the relationship between Ta-Nehisi Coates and his father, Paul, during Coates’ upbringing in Baltimore. His next book, Between the World and Me, examines the relationship between Coates and his son, Samori. Coates’ earnest attempts to guide his son through America’s troubled history of racial oppression propelled him to the number one spot on The New York Times best sellers list. Literary icon Toni Morrison recognized the same achievement and contribution to society that led Phi Beta Kappa to induct Coates as an honorary member. Her endorsement on the cover of Between the World and Me simply and succinctly states: “This is required reading.”
His new ФBK membership is part of a growing list of achievements that includes a National Book Award in nonfiction for Between the World and Me (2015), a National Magazine Award for “Fear of a Black President” (The Atlantic, September 2012), and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2015. Cecilia A. Conrad, The McArthur Foundation’s managing director, said of its winners in The New York Times, “We try to reach people who have shown evidence of exceptional creativity but show the potential for more in the future.” His poignant commentary on race and social equality explores many current and historical issues, while at forty years old, Coates has plenty more to offer.
Currently, Coates is the writer of an eleven-issue series of Marvel’s Black Panther comic about a black superhero first conceived in 1966. In his Atlantic article “The Return of the Black Panther,” Coates explains, “when I got the call to write Black Panther, I was less concerned with character conflict than with the realization of my dreams as a 9-year-old.” Between realizing his childhood dream to bring a famous comic book character to life, winning the McArthur Fellowship and the over-half-a-million dollars that accompanies it, and writing for The Atlantic, Coates exemplifies Phi Beta Kappa’s commitment to excellence in the arts and sciences. His achievements speak to the breadth of his work, which includes sociological, historical, political, and personal analyses of salient issues like structural inequalities and raising a child, while his unique voice highlights these issues for a national audience.
Connor Collins is a senior at Case Western Reserve University double majoring in political science and sociology. Case Western Reserve University is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Photo: Ta-Nehisi Coates at Harvard. Paul Marotta/Getty Images.