Coates vs. West, and the Sicilian Defence: Never Make Your Move Too Soon

“The Sicilian defense is the most effective scoring response to White’s first move” — Grand Master James “Black Knight” Taylor

“To my mind there is quite a straightforward explanation. In order to profit from the initiative granted by the first move, White has to make use of his opportunity to do something before Black has an equal number of opportunities of his own. However, to do this, he has to make ‘contact’ with the black position. The first point of contact usually comes in the form of a pawn exchange, which leads to the opening of the position. … So the thought behind 1…c5 is this: ‘OK, I’ll let you open the position, and develop your pieces aggressively, but at a price — you have to give me one of your center pawns.’”

— Jonathan Rowson, Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently About Black and White

The late James “Black Knight” Taylor teaching inner city children chess

What has the game of chess to do with the apparent and very public falling out between Ta-Nehisi Coates (age 42) and Cornel West (64), two of the most important living Black intellectuals? In a recent and escalating disagreement between the two, West, the elder, finally called Coates “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.” West said this because, he argued, Coates, a wildly successful author and speaker on the topic of the black freedom struggle, had omitted “… the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America…”.

Coates struck back by deleting his Twitter account, leaving his 1.25 million followers (yours truly being one) in the dark, and it was on among Black academics and intellectuals, not to mention White social and academic observers, most of whom seem to have felt obligated to choose a “side” in this disagreement which, in the digital age, was instantly elevated to the level of celebrity death match.

Dupont Circle’s chess university in session

As Grand Master Black Knight once said during a chess match at Dupont Circle in DC, at the place where he often played and instructed, having built a chess university of the street, and given birth to an intellectual street agora that over a span of decades developed a sort of public lectern for street academics without portfolio, because chess is a very cerebral game, involving algebra, logic, and a certain self-discipline, “Think.”

“Don’t made your move too soon,” Black Knight would often say to an opponent or student (quoting the punchline title of a BB King blues), and one day he explained to me the Sicilian Defence (yeah, it’s commonly spelled in the British style), which was an epiphany to me, the fact that chess is a near-perfect allegory for the strategy required to achieve racial balance, if not justice. That wasn’t what Black Knight had in mind in the beginning, at least not consciously, but it was suddenly clear to me and now it applies to this recent “feud” between two black men who possess great minds. Did Coates (who is young enough to be my son) make his move too soon by cutting the Twitter feed? Did West (closer to my age) make his move too soon by reacting so cuttingly to what he perceived as Coates’ “sin of omission”?

I dunno. It’s none of my business. I didn’t come here to choose a side. I admire and respect both men tremendously. I came to learn — and to “think.”

I’m not even going to include photos of the two men, much less one of those sensational stitched together, false-confrontational graphics that make them appear to be facing off in real time. That didn’t happen and it doesn’t matter what they look like. It’s their ideas that matter, especially for the human race.

Has the intellectual and academic community, especially the black part of it, made its move too soon in choosing to make this overly public disagreement into a celebrity death match? I think so, but again, it’s none of my business what people think. I am just gratified that they think. I do wish everyone would back off a little, though, chill, listen, think more and argue less. Like an onion, none of these layers is my business and the disagreement between Coates and West is nobody’s business except perhaps as an opportunity to learn. Lord knows the two of them have enough valuable intellectual wares to consider taking home.

Meanwhile, the Sicilian Defence, as described by Jonathan Rowson (a White guy) in Chess for Zebras, and as simplified at Dupont Circle on summer day many years ago by Black Knight, suggests that Coates and West might be missing a bet: the logic of chess in how black might best overcome white when white gets the first move (via coin toss in chess, by accident of birth in life), because they are both dedicated to the same goal, and they both are a hell of a lot better educated (formally) and even more privileged (access to the lectern of academia not available to inner city kids, James “Black Knight” Taylor or the homeless, the old and the poor with whom I have enjoyed some of the most provocative and inspiring agora experiences, time and again over many decades at Dupont Circle, in Meridian Hill/Malcom X Park, “Piss Park” in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, or on the steps of the former Tower Records in Foggy Bottom where members of The Bridge Club — homeless men who lived beneath the P Street Bridge — used to congregate to talk and collect spare change).

I think the previous paragraph may contain the longest parenthetical run-on sentence in history. If so, I wrote it. Remember that. Faulkner’s got nothing on me.

That is another university, one that cannot be bought except, as Blake wrote, “…with the price of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children. Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy…” and that is where a great deal of my understanding of the struggle for Black freedom has been acquired — and of course my brief association with Col. Hassan’s Black Man’s Army of Liberation, in the 1960s, along with one other nominally white guy (only I was asked to leave because according to Col. Hassan I was “too militant,” and he was right, at least for his purpose). No, I didn’t get much out of my formal college time, which is why I left it there, looking after me like a jilted lover (art studies).

It may be worth mentioning at this point that the guy who taught me to play chess (taught me the moves assigned to each piece and the basic stratagem) subsequently beat me 144 times in succession. (He was also my mixed martial arts instructor, and no, he did not beat me 144 times in that discipline. Just FYI).

Please do not leave with the impression that I think university of the street is superior to the Halls of Ivy. I don’t. I wish to almighty God that every child and man out there had the opportunity to become a Ta-nehisi Coates or Cornel West. We’re not there yet, but the autodidact, this one at least, finds no shame in that game. How it happened to each one of us is another story. I feel some shame that I didn’t do more with my opportunities, because I was white, had it all over me, but not inside me. I did not fail, however. I succeeded via a different path, with different instructors. And just as I had some very spirited discussions and debates with my (always white) teachers and instructors both in public school and in college, I have had some pretty intense conversations with the men at Dupont Circle, at the Malcom X Park Drum Circle, at Piss Park, and, when it was still in business, outside Tower Records. My tuition was pocket change, and I got more than a bargain. Add books and speaking appearances by people like Coates and West (and yes, I am old enough to be able to include James Baldwin and to have been sent by Col. Hassan to meet with Stokely Carmichael, where things went slightly surreal), and my education is unending.

Note: I grew up two blocks from what is now routinely referred to as Malcom X Park, where the Sunday Drum Circle has been held most every week since the day Malcom was murdered and had to pass what became “Piss Park” for three years on my way to and from elementary school, and have returned to both over the past 30 years or so on a regular basis to attend “classes”).

So for those of you who feel you are championing some grand intellectual cause of black liberation by choosing up sides in this non-event between Coates and West, please reconsider, think about backing away from the chalk line drawn on the sidewalk, and just hide, watch, listen and learn. And for the love of God don’t brush off Mr. Wendal (or any “crazy old black man”) who approaches to ask for spare change while engaging you in a discussion of something relating to gentrification, the neighborhood, the current celebrity death match, or something that happened on that particular corner 50 years ago. Give what you feel comfortable giving, but take, also, the wisdom offered in exchange. If you feel you don’t have time for that, consider also how you are living your life, because you may have made your move too soon.

Another note: Grand Master Black Knight died of cancer in August of 2014, but his legacy lives on. DC locals and visitors can see it by visiting Dupont Circle on any day the weather isn’t prohibitive to chess, and in doing that you may come away a little more enlightened, or at least perhaps learn to play chess — and how to execute the Sicilian Defence. You never know when an epiphany like that might change your life.

Check — and double check.

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.