Fear of an Earworm

I'm halfway through the article "Fear of a Black President" by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the latest issue of The Atlantic.  It's an insightful and probing discussion of how Barack Obama's race has affected his presidency.  But the most memorable thing about the article so far, for me, is the author's name.

When I became aware of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a cultural critic a few years ago, I assumed the author was a woman.  There's something vaguely feminine about the prefix "Ta" and the ending "isi".  In the discussion of this latest article - I read about the article before I actually read the article - I learned that Coates is a dude.  OK, fine.  Filing away that fragment of cognitive dissonance, I dug into this important cultural artifact. 

Mr. Coates points out Obama's embrace of his race:  his unabashed blackness in preferring one rap star over another, in being photographed while a little black boy feels his hair.  These are cultural signals, and they're emanating from the highest office in the nation.  All previous emanations from that office signaled white culture.  Shades of white, from the Stepford-meets-Mad-Men Kennedy White House to the we-mean-business-but-we-horse-around-too presidency of Bush the younger, but all white.  Barack Obama is black, and the fact that he enjoys it and doesn't feel obligated to hide it is revolutionary for this nation.

How, then, does one pronounce Ta-Nehisi?  I'm pretty sure I've got Coates down, but ... tah neh HEE see? tah NEH heh see? 

I read, too, about Trayvon Martin's death and how the tenor of the national conversation about it changed after Obama addressed the issue.  All he said was 'if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon' and 'let's understand exactly what happened here, understand everything and investigate everybody'.  And suddenly what had been an uncontroversial tragedy became racialized political fodder. 

TAH neh hissy?

The name floated through my head while I chopped vegetables, while I drove to work.  It nagged me like an earworm, like a child's choir singing Go Tell It On The Mountain in my head endlessly.  Race relations in America faded into the background.

Some people have excellent visual memories.  My memory is audible.  To dial a phone number, I read it out loud to myself and speak it back as I dial (usually sotto voce).  If I just look at the number, no matter how long, I forget it by the time I've dialed the third digit.  I'm good at remembering how to pronounce words and names.  I need to know I'm saying it right.  It bothered me when my Chinese coworkers wouldn't even tell me if I was pronouncing the name of their damn city correctly (for the record:  Quanzhou = "chen-zo").  So it drove me nuts not knowing how to pronounce this name that was so foreign to me that I couldn't even deduce its gender.

Finally I had an idea.  Tennessee.  Whenever I think of this author, I am mentally going to pronounce his name Tennessee.  Like Tennessee Williams.  Or not so much.  But anyway:  problem solved.  LA LA LA LA LA LA LA.  Now I can go finish the article, and find out how Obama can be black in some ways but not others, unburdened by questions of pronunciation.

Gooooo tell it on the mooooountaaaaain....


  1. I get that too. A name or word that I don't fully understand will loop in my head until I resolve it. Ta-Nehisi Coates is often referred to as TNC for short so I use that in my head and bypass the whole extra cultural nomenclature issue. Everyone speaks acronym.
    Next project: learning to swear effectively in German.

  2. TNC works too. BTW, my fellow Cleveland blogger Jill (translationmusings.com) is a translator and could probably tell you all the German vernacular you need.

  3. Yup, I get this. I often have to decide how it (a word, a name) should pronounced too before I can move on. But how disappointing when you discover you've decided WRONG. And then, forever more, when you hear it said correctly it never sounds right. I guess we really do create our own reality. It was great to see you and Alice yesterday!

  4. It was great to see you too! I'm afraid Alice is sick too - she fell asleep immediately after we got home.