Today, when folks in my part of the world (San Francisco) discuss innovation, they’re typically talking about an online platform that’s upending an industry. Tip-of-the-tongue examples include Airbnb and Uber.
But long before innovation became synonymous with tech, it was associated with remarkable writers who innovated through the stories they told, the arguments they made, and the ways they wrote. And if my regular readers will excuse my exploring some atypical ground in this post, I’d like to show you how author and MacArthur “Genius” award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates does this in his latest book Between the World and Me.
It is a beautiful book — tightly constructed, remarkably personal, and reverentially aware of writers past. Coates takes us inside his lived experience as an African-American father of a fifteen-year-old son. He shares stories of his growing up in Baltimore, attending Howard University in Washington, DC, living in New York City, and traveling to Paris. What makes Coates’ story so compelling is that he does many of the things our most impactful innovators do:
He deftly builds on the innovators who preceded him. Coates conjures the styles and stories of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Sonia Sanchez, and rappers like Nas and Ice Cube directly and indirectly by writing his own.
He employs a powerful metaphor – the human body, specifically the African-American body – to speak to a racially violent history past, present, and future.
He mines his heart-wrenching domain knowledge – his lived experience as an African-American father to a teenage boy – in order to share his fears, his anger, his hope, and his love.
He relies on compelling data – the number of African-American slaves, important dates in history, numbers of African-American youth shot and killed – that we cannot ignore and from which we cannot look away.
He leverages economies of scale through his books and articles, in order to reach as many readers, thinkers, and problem solvers as possible. He wants us to read, to learn, and to understand, in order to effect change.
In my haste to check out the latest app, the newest platform, or the biggest disruption, I can forget just how powerful our most innovative writers can be. I can overlook how they, too, are rethinking and reframing, in order to help us either see for the first time or see with fresh eyes, something that’s all around us. Coates won’t let us forget. Read this book.