The Menlo Roundtable

Comfort Amid Chaos: An Analysis of Ta-Nehisi Coates and William Faulkner

An author speaks in the 20th-century and another in the 21st-century. One focuses upon fiction and the other non-fiction. One hails from a white slave-owning family in Mississippi and the other a black family in Maryland. And yet they come to the same conclusion: that literature’s self-reflective nature is beneficial.

This shared focus upon introspection between Coates and Faulkner establishes the connective tissue between two authors that are seemingly diametrically opposed. In Faulkner’s Southern Gothic canon, the author plumbs the cavernous depths of intergenerational trauma in the crumbling Old South through his 1929 The Sound and the Fury (1929), his As I Lay Dying (1930), his Absalom, Absalom! (1936), among others. In his 2015 work, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates synthesizes his contemporary experience of prejudice and the 21st-century manifestations of enslavement into an intimate, instructive letter to his son. Both Faulkner and Coates illustrate tragic realities, yet Coates’ analysis of the manifestations of racial injustice today helps guide readers to understand the sympathetic yet problematic characters that Faulkner evokes. In other words, in our contemporary society where the scar of enslavement perpetuates mass incarceration, police brutality, and general systemic racism, Coates supplies readers with an updated lens through which to view Faulkner’s account of the postbellum South, allowing readers to be wary that the ghosts of slavery’s past neither start nor end with white postbellum families.