May 24, 2016
Ta-Nehisi Coates decides not to move to Brooklyn
by Kait Howard
Earlier this month, we wrote about a new home that writer Ta-Nehisi Coates had purchased for $2.1 million in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. We covered the story—originally reported by the New York Post—as part of our ongoing series on author residences, focusing on the opulence of the purchase.
On May 9, four days after the Post story ran, Coates wrote a piece for The Atlantic explaining that he and his wife had decided not to move into the house out of fears about their family’s safety.
A number of things had made the couple uncomfortable. The Post had published the address of the townhouse. The seller’s broker had given an interview revealing when the family planned to move in. Coates wrote that reporters had even “rummaged through [his] kid’s Instagram account.”
Coates’s decision not to move following the intense media scrutiny of course raises serious questions about what kind of privacy public figures should be entitled to. In the Atlantic piece, Coates describes his anguish over the fact that his celebrity has made it impossible for him to bring his family back to the neighborhood he’d lived in in his twenties, and had dreamed about returning to. He writes, “It is true what they say about celebrity—people suddenly don’t quite see you. You walk into a room and you are not a person, so much as a symbol of whatever someone needs you to be.”
And he is frank about the seriousness of his concern:
[T]he world is real. And you can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety. That’s just the history. And you can’t really be a human being and not want some place to retreat into yourself, some place to collapse, some place to be at peace. That’s just neurology. One shouldn’t get in the habit of crying about having a best-selling book. But you can’t really sell enough books to become superhuman, to salve that longing for home.
What purpose is served when a public figure’s choice of residence is turned into a story? Are these stories generated by a crass media apparatus designed to feed the public’s hunger at any cost? Toward the end of the Atlantic piece, Coates describes struggling, recently, to write about politics, dismayed by people around him who seem “uninterested in questions and enthralled with prophecy…And when people want prophets, they will make you into one, no matter your strenuous objections. If the world wants a ‘Writer Moves to Brooklyn Brownstone’ story, it’s going to have one, no matter your thoughts.”
Coates is right: the journalists and bloggers writing about his purchase of property assumed a right to define the terms on which he would considered a public figure, without regard for his wishes or the safety of his family. The New York Post’s decision to publish the address was particularly egregious, and most outlets (ourselves included) let that intrusiveness pass without comment. We’ll still argue that it’s worthwhile to pay attention to how public figures spend their money, but that attention should tempered with an understanding that it might affect its object in unexpected and potentially undesirable, even dangerous, ways.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.