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The Paper Where Ta-Nehisi Coates Learned the Ropes

David Carr's Washington City Paper shaped two of America’s preeminent black writers

Andre Chung/The Washington Post/Getty

When I met Ta-Nehisi Coates, he was a Howard University dropout, recruited to Washington City Paper in early 1996 by its then-editor, David Carr, later the beloved media critic of The New York Times. After Carr’s death this winter, Coates wrote movingly of his days at City Paper and evangelically of its initiative to develop young writers of color.

As Carr’s arts editor from October 1995 to March 1998, I’d been part of the plan. And I’d always wondered how we’d done. In recent years, I’ve watched as Coates’s rhetoric grew into his outrage, as he found a platform at The Atlantic and began writing the words he was destined to write, words that would secure his reputation as a vital voice on race and produce two books, the most recent of which, Between the World and Me, comes out this week. 

Like any autodidact, Coates is very much a creation of his own devising. But it was at City Paper that he learned the ropes. The parameters of the job were clear. You had to ask a novel question about your surroundings, whether literal or cultural, and you had to answer it as best you could. There was no template, no method. You were free to make your own approach. “That was huge for me,” Coates said in a recent interview. “I can’t imagine myself here right now without City Paper. I just can’t. I don’t know what would’ve become of me. … I was not doing particularly well at Howard,” he continued. “I had not really done anything in my life up to that point that I’d been particularly successful at. Nothing really big.”

By the time he left, he had scrutinized the chest-thumping of hip-hop, analyzed the self-expressionists of D.C.’s slam poetry scene, and in a raw and rageful piece, torn Hilton Als to ribbons.

And while our black writers were teaching their editors about D.C. rappers who had to go to France to score a major-label deal or unsung stalwarts of jazz poetry or the uncomfortable metrics of the paper bag test, we were teaching them about the bullshit detector that was the pencil test. Only half-joking, Carr would line up the eraser of a No. 2 with the top edge of a printout of your story. The tip of the pencil would extend down into the opening grafs, perpendicular to the lines of text. Wherever the tip ended, that’s where the throat-clearing stopped and your lede began. You could hold a candlelight vigil for all the darlings we slaughtered.  

In May 1996, Coates helped recruit 25-year-old Howard graduate William Jelani Cobb. Now an associate professor of history and the director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, Cobb contributes frequently to The New Yorker. Whenever my Twitter stream blows up about Ferguson or Baltimore or the Confederate battle flag, half the time it’s Ta-Nehisi scoring all the retweets and favorites, the other half it’s Jelani.

Cobb had serious reservations about signing on with what in the mid-’90s was known in majority-black D.C. as a white paper, one that had famously dubbed Marion Barry “Mayor for Life” then worked the title without mercy and without fail. “What would people think?” Cobb wondered in a recent interview. “That I’d gone over to the dark side or something?”

But a story by Holly Bass about the failure of Black Entertainment Television to live up to its promise heralded an opportunity. If City Paper was now willing to tell the stories that black people were already telling themselves, what else was possible? Also, City Paper was paying. Prestige magazines did go after black writers in those days, but if you didn’t have parents who could support you, you were often out of luck. “I couldn’t make any of them work,” Cobb said. “I’m not sure about New Republic, but I’m certain about Harper’s, that it was an unpaid internship.”

Apart from paying them, what was it Washington City Paper did for young black writers? City Paper was also big on psychic income, derived not only from the stacks of newsprint accumulating on the black wire rack by your door but from the intellectual temperature of the office. “When I came to City Paper, the people struck me [as] in their own way incredibly free but incredibly serious,” Coates said. In part, he credits his later success to the example of City Paper’s one-on-one, conversational, explicitly pedagogical editing, which he rarely saw in later years, once he had followed his career to New York and Philadelphia, for abbreviated stints at The Village Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, and Time. “Compared to the broader field and compared to everything I saw after that, [City Paper] did something that I don’t even know exists anymore,” Coates said. “To take a 20-year-old kid through a piece and say, ‘Listen, this is why this is not working.’ People don’t really do that.”

The benefit of operating this way was that you knew what your standards were, both the paper’s and your own. But the price you sometimes paid for working at City Paper was a little chunk of your self-esteem. Cobb recalls sitting in on a rather awkward editorial meeting shortly after he’d started. I’ve obviously blocked the trauma, but Carr walked in, sat down, and delivered the verdict: “The back of the book sucked last week. What are we gonna do to make it not suck?”

Competition was one possibility. When I ran Cobb’s piece about the death of the Notorious B.I.G. side by side with one by another writer, I wanted to explore contrasting voices, sure, but I also considered the pairing a contest between colleagues. Whenever you enter the marketplace of opinion, the chaos of a thousand voices clamors to drown you out. I wanted our writers to be the signal, not the noise.

Perhaps unexpectedly, that challenge came with what Cobb saw as “the opportunity to fail.” But fail only once you’d done your utmost. Even after Cobb was out on his own, “it was Carr’s voice that would be in the back of my head”—make the follow-up call, find the new source, get the facts straight. “I think there’s a tendency for people to look at things that were early in their lives through the lens of nostalgia,” Cobb said. “Even adjusting for that, I still think of the City Paper as a foundational place for me.”

I have my own theory about why City Paper worked as well as it did, and it is this: Carr tried. He tried everyone. He tried Stephanie Mencimer, a white feminist from Utah, utterly fearless, with a moral compass that pointed true north. He tried Bass, a black feminist from San Jose, a poet, choreographer, and performance artist. He tried Michael Schaffer, a quick-witted Ivy Leaguer who knew way too much about Kiss and Van Halen. He tried Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a Nicaraguan diplomat's gay son, who dreamed of being a playwright. He tried Brett Anderson, a Midwestern governor and senator’s son. Kevin Diaz, an Italian-born Midwestern fiddle player. Jake Tapper, a future CNN anchor. Sean Daly, a future HSN game show host. 

Carr also inherited well and wisely from Jack Shafer, his predecessor as both editor and media critic (and a thoroughly humane commentator on the game of musical chairs that is the journalistic life). Among Shafer’s charges at City Paper were Katherine Boo, a future MacArthur genius, as well as David Plotz, Kara Swisher, and Clara Jeffery, the future editors of Slate, Re/code, and Mother Jones, respectively.

But it was Carr who created a replicable model to identify and cultivate the talent of young writers of color. And it was Carr who tried me. Me, whose grandmother preached at supper against the mixing of the races, used the words "niggra" and "pickaninny" when she was being polite, and boasted of bullying the little "colored" children in the math classes she'd once taught. Me, whose parents, from pinprick towns in North Carolina and Alabama, moved to Bell Labs New Jersey to escape the small-minded bigotries of the South. Me, a churchy kid who'd gotten married at 21, still a virgin, to the daughter of a Greensboro cop and a woman who never once flew on a plane, herself the daughter of a Virginia farmer who never once saw the sea.

That's who Carr tried when he needed someone to edit the criticism of two black men who would go on to be among the most prominent public intellectuals of the new millennium. He thought we had something to teach each other. He wanted my world to be wider too.

And if you’re worried that you’ll miss out on the next generation of Ta-Nehisis and Jelanis, perhaps you should ask yourself why your city looks nothing like your newsroom.