Cornel West-Ta-Nehisi Coates beef is an episode of ‘Housewives’ we can’t help but watch

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On this week’s episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta The Real Intellectuals of Black Academia, the world tuned in as civil rights icon Cornel West took “Neo-Liberal Darling” Ta-Nehisi Coates to task over his book “We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy.”

Being one who’s never shied away from the critique of a “dear brother,” West took the opportunity to use various media platforms to drive home the point of how detrimental he believes Coates’ ascension into the white gaze could be to the Black community he’s long fought to protect.

All the makings of an exhausting week of intellectual acrobatics, lines were drawn in the sand, and millions tuned in for “what will happen next week?”

Let’s go back a few episodes.

‘I said what I said!’

Weeks ago, during a confessional a video interview with The Root, West criticized Coates’ comparison of Barack Obama to Malcolm X, among other things.

“You can’t have a Barack Obama viewed as a culmination of Malcolm X. You’re misleading a whole generation of people,” he said, adding “Ooohhh Brother Coates, You wrong as two left shoes on this.”

This was followed by an appearance on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen an interview in the New York Times where he doubled down (unprompted) on his feelings toward Coates again:

“Who’s the ‘we’? When’s the last time he’s been through the ghetto, in the hoods, to the schools and indecent housing and mass unemployment? We were in power for eight years? My God. Maybe he and some of his friends might have been in power, but not poor working people…I mention him because he is currently the darling of the white and black neoliberal establishment.”

West’s final collection of thoughts came by way of a 1000-word “I SAID WHAT I SAID!” op-ed for The Guardian entitled “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.”

West reiterates his earlier positions, while giving some expansion of thought: 

“In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of ‘defiance.’ For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.”

‘What you said was some bullsh*t!’

Kandi Coates humbly responded in a “and what you said was some b*llsh*t” type of way, with a 20-plus-tweet thread providing example after example where he had written about the contested points outside the book, in effort to not be boxed in to a statement frozen in time.

Coates’ book has been a topic of discussion since its release on Oct. 3. It has been heralded by whiteness, applauded and side-eyed by Blackness, and justifiably critiqued by all.

Coates isn’t as much the “thought leader” many pedestal him to be, as much as he is a storyteller seemingly trying to make his way through a new generational analysis on race.

Unfortunately, the more Coates responded on Twitter, the bigger a hole he dug for himself.

In a melt-down similar to that of the greatest reality TV show moments, Coates derailed, conflating the critique from West and Black feminists with the agreement of trolling white supremacist Richard Spencer. 

Coates opened the floodgates of fury, until he finally said “peace, y’all. I’m out. I didn’t sign up for this.” Officially exiting Twitter stage left.

#TeamCoates vs. #TeamCornel

Fans Social media influencers stepped up with valid analysis on both sides as the activist space tried to make heads or tails of the newest smalls vs talls old school vs new school rivalry (bell. Beyonce. Terrorist?)

West is the “Nene” in this battle of the liberals show, the original holder of the “peach,” and arguably “the most exciting black American scholar ever.” He’s the “You wouldn’t even have a seat on this show if it wasn’t for me,” and he is right.

A lot of what we know and understand about race and Blackness is because of the 50-plus years of work Dr. West has put in.

But every show has its fan favorite, and right now that is Coates.

Finding common ground

This event is eerily similar to two notable thought leaders: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Imagine them going back and forth in 140 280 characters or less.

Tweets, snippets of video and 1000-word op-eds have helped to diminish “critique,” reducing it to call-out culture and condemnation, with only few able to see past the fluff.

It’s a situation where two men could be very right and yet also wrong. Both are particularly wrong for using social media as the initiation and response vehicle for a conversation that is best suited in the presence of one another’s greatness.

JAY-Z reminds us that “Nobody wins when the family feuds.”

We are becoming consumed by the keystrokes and hashtags, often forgetting that we are all Black and human trying to navigate an increasingly stressful administration—being run by a reality TV star—with an attack on Blackness and hell bent on taking it back to the “good ole days.”

It will be interesting to see if Coates and West are able to sit down and handle their differences like the two grown intellectual men that they are, as opposed to the Housewives drama we’ve seen thus far.

Let’s just hope that, unlike Malcolm and Martin, it’s all televised in the form of a 4-part reunion special for all to see.

George M. Johnson is the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com.  He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.