Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to father William Paul "Paul" Coates, a Vietnam War veteran, former Black Panther, publisher and librarian, and mother Cheryl Waters, who was a teacher. Coates' father founded and ran Black Classic Press, a publisher specializing in African-American titles. The Press grew out of a grassroots organization, The George Jackson Prison Movement. Initially the GJPM operated a Black book store called the Black Book. Later Black Classic Press was established with a table top printing press in the basement of the Coates family home. Coates' father had seven children, five boys and two girls, by four women. Coates' father's first wife had three children, Coates' mother had two boys, and the other two women each had a child. The children were raised together in a close-knit family; most lived with their mothers and at times lived with their father. Coates said he lived with his father the whole time. In Coates' family, Coates said that the important overarching focus was on rearing children with values based on family, respect for elders and being a contribution to your community. This approach to family was not uncommon in the community where he grew up. Coates grew up in the Mondawmin neighborhood of Baltimore during the crack epidemic.
Coates' interest in books was instilled at an early age when his mother in response to bad behavior would require him to write essays. His father's work with the Black Classic Press was a huge influence on Coates, who said he read many of the books his father published. Coates attended a number of Baltimore-area schools, including William H. Lemmel Middle School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, before graduating from Woodlawn High School. Coates' father got a job as a librarian at Howard University, which enabled some of his children to attend with tuition remission.
After high school, Coates attended Howard University. He left after five years to start a career in journalism. He is the only child in his family without a college degree. In the summer of 2014, Coates attended an intensive program in French at Middlebury College to prepare for a writing fellowship in Paris.
From 2000 to 2007, Coates worked as a journalist at various publications, including Philadelphia Weekly, The Village Voice and Time. His first article for The Atlantic, "This Is How We Lost to the White Man", about Bill Cosby and conservatism, started a new, more successful and stable phase of his career. The article led to an appointment with a regular blog column for The Atlantic, a blog that was both popular, influential and had a high level of community engagement.
Coates became a senior editor at The Atlantic, for which he wrote feature articles as well as maintained a blog. Topics covered by the blog included politics, history, race, culture as well as sports, and music. His writings on race, such as his September 2012 The Atlantic cover piece "Fear of a Black President" and his June 2014 feature "The Case for Reparations", have been especially praised, and have won his blog a place on the Best Blogs of 2011 list by Time magazine. and the 2012 Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism from The Sidney Hillman Foundation. Coates' blog has also been praised for its engaging comments section, which Coates curates and moderates heavily so that "the jerks are invited to leave [and] the grown-ups to stay and chime in."
In discussing The Atlantic article on "The Case for Reparations", Coates said he had worked on the article for almost two years. Coates had read Rutgers University professor Beryl Satter's book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, a history of redlining that included a discussion of the grassroots organization, the Contract Buyers League, of which Clyde Ross was one of the leaders. The focus of the article was not so much on reparations for slavery, but was instead a focus on the institutional racism of housing discrimination.
Coates has worked as a guest columnist for The New York Times, having turned down an offer from them to become a regular columnist. He has also written for The Washington Post, the Washington Monthly and O magazine.
Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic.
Coates is outspoken on Twitter,*twitter where he often tackles current events dealing with race relations in America and engages with many of his followers.
The Beautiful Struggle
In 2008, Coates published The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir about coming of age in West Baltimore and its effect on him. In the book, he discusses the influence of his father, a former Black Panther; the prevailing street crime of the era and its effects on his older brother; his own troubled experience attending Baltimore-area schools; and his eventual graduation and enrollment in Howard University.
Between the World and Me
Coates' second book, Between the World and Me, was published in July 2015. Coates said that one of the origins of the book was the murder of a college friend, Prince Carmen Jones Jr. who was killed by police in a case of mistaken identity. In an ongoing discussion about reparation, continuing the work of his June 2014 The Atlantic article on reparations, Coates cited the bill sponsored by Representative John Conyers "H.R.40 - Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act" that has been introduced every year since 1989. One of the themes of the book was about what physically affected African-American lives, their bodies being enslaved, violence that came from slavery, and various forms of institutional racism. In a review for Politico, Rich Lowry stated that while the book is lyrical and powerfully written, "For all his subtle plumbing of his own thoughts and feelings and his occasional invocations of the importance of the individuality of the person, Coates has to reduce people to categories and actors in a pantomime of racial plunder to support his worldview." In a review for Slate, Jack Hamilton wrote that the book "is a love letter written in a moral emergency, one that Coates exposes with the precision of an autopsy and the force of an exorcism".
Coates is the writer of the comic book series about the Black Panther for Marvel Comics drawn by Brian Stelfreeze. Issue #1 went on sale April 6th, 2016 and sold an estimated 253,259 physical copies, the best selling comic of 2016 to date.
Coates is currently working on several projects. These include America in the King Years which is a television project with David Simon, Taylor Branch, and James McBride about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, based on one of the volumes of the books America in the King Years written by Taylor Branch, specifically At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968. The project will be produced by Oprah Winfrey and air on HBO.
Coates is also working on several written projects, which include a novel about an African-American from Chicago who moves to Paris.
Coates says that his first name, Ta-Nehisi, is an Egyptian name his father gave him that means Nubia, and in a loose translation is "land of the black". Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt. As a child, Coates enjoyed comic books and Dungeons & Dragons.
Coates lived in Paris for a residency. In 2009, he lived in Harlem with his wife, Kenyatta Matthews, and son, Samori Maceo-Paul Coates. His son is named after Samori Ture, a Mandé chief who fought French colonialism, after black Cuban revolutionary Antonio Maceo Grajales, and after Coates' father. Coates met his wife when they were both students at Howard University. He is an atheist and a feminist.
- 2012: Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism
- 2013: National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism for "Fear of a Black President"
- 2014: George Polk Award for Commentary for "The Case for Reparations"
- 2015: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice for "The Case for Reparations"
- 2015: American Library in Paris Visiting Fellowship
- 2015: National Book Award for Nonfiction for Between the World and Me
- 2015: Fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation