Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Sad About Having a Best-Selling Book and a Brownstone
Ta-Nehisi Coates is sad.
Well, maybe he’s shocked. His most recent piece in The Atlantic states repeatedly how shocked he is that his book Between The World and Me received prestigious accolades, that white people read it, and that his life is forever changed. He seemed less shocked about the handsome royalties that came with the book’s sales, though, because he recently purchased a brownstone in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, his old haunt as a younger, broker man. He coyly refrains from disclosing how much that brownstone sold for, but, according to the New York Post, the gorgeous dwelling’s asking price was a cool $2.1 million. The pictures of the brownstone feature parquet floors, detailed ceilings, and crystal chandeliers. It has all the charm of nineteenth-century housing while boasting modern renovations. Prospect-Lefferts Gardens is also a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Since the famous Park Slope and Williamsburg neighborhoods are prohibitively expensive, lesser-known areas of Brooklyn are starting to feel the pinch. Currently, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens is home to lower-income—and, not coincidentally, darker-skinned—families that are doing their best to hold onto their neighborhood that is being sold out from under them by the square foot.
The purchase is sentimental gesture full of meaning: Coates wanted to buy the house for his wife, who stuck by him when times were hard. But it’s also a gesture full of glaring irony. Isn’t Coates famous for talking about housing inequality for blacks in America, the effects of white flight, and the perils gentrification? Doesn’t buying that house contribute to the problem by making it harder for his friends and neighbors to stay? Wouldn’t Brooklyn’s elite want to pay a lot more money so they can casually mention they live near Ta-Nehisi Coates?
Coates is bemoaning that “you can’t go home again” and that “[o]ne shouldn’t get into the habit of crying about having a best-selling book.” Indeed not: a bit of humility is expected, but self-deprecation is gauche. I guess the saying “more money, more problems” applies best here, but what a problem to have! Oh, to have name recognition and respect from others in your chosen field, in addition to being flush with cash!
Coates isn’t just in the top one percent. He’s probably in the top one percent of one percent of writers in the canon of American literature. His books will be assigned in high school alongside To Kill A Mockingbird and will be required reading in many colleges. But Coates still goes out of his way to voice his discomfort, and frames his newfound celebrity status in the context of his race: “…you can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety.” It may be time to point out that Coates is a man, and his positions, while provoking, are not as controversial as many other stances that are taken by many other journalists. There are plenty of black female writers and activists who tackle controversies such as abortion, violence against women, and sexism. They do so in public, without a security detail. Some journalists willingly risk their safety and their lives to tell the truth. It’s not easy being black and a writer, but Coates has it better than most black writers and is pretending that he doesn’t.
Finally, Coates has the luxury to do something that most people, writers or otherwise, do not have: the ability to take his money and move somewhere else. Money represents more options, and Coates’s money he can live anywhere he wants, and he seems to be. A few months ago was living in Paris, taking French lessons, and now he plans to move his family back to New York. He’s living the high life, and while I’m sure it has problems of its own, it takes a certain lack of self-awareness to complain about this to the readers who buy your books.
Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria is assistant managing editor at the National Interest. Follow her on Twitter @marjorieromeyn.
Image: Sean Carter Photography/Flickr