There is a very delicate and sophisticated similarity in the terms used by bell and Coates. bell states, “celebrity”, while Coates states, “public intellectual”. Yet, they are really saying the same thing, with Coates fumbling around for approval from his audience of White males instead of just saying what really matters. By “public intellectual”, Coates means, ”academic”, or more to the nuance here, “one belonging to the academia with stature”. By “foremost”, what Coates is pointing to is Harris-Perry’s celebrity due to her affiliation with MSNBC. She, as bell hooks states, is a celebrity, by and far because of her platform on MSNBC. It would have been most accurate of Coates to have just stated, “Melissa Harris-Perry is a celebrity academic”. And she is. He is not wrong. Her status as a professor at Tulane coupled with her relationship with MSNBC and the audience she reaches truly places her in a position to be envied by whatever names Coates’ White debaters might have to proffer.
Once again, in the discussion of “celebrity”, we are most often rewarded by narrowing our piercing eyes on the element of social capital. Here it would be wise for me to attempt to define and organize the discussion of exactly what I mean here by “social capital”. I would like to start this process by quoting Angela Hattery from her book, ”Prisoner Re-entry And Social Capital”:
“…there are two key aspects to social capital: social networks and the resources that are embedded within these social networks that an actor can access. Breaking it down even further, for readers who may be unfamiliar with this concept, social networks are comprised of the people with whom one has sufficient relations to be able to ask advice or seek assistance. Social capital theorists often distinguish between what they refer to as ‘strong ties’ and ‘weak ties.’ Perhaps counterintuitive, it is better to have social networks comprised of many weak ties than those comprised of just a few strong ties. Strong ties are those relationships we have that are very close: with parents, spouse/partners, other relatives, long-time friends, and so forth. Weak ties can be thought of more in terms of acquaintances: the other parents we see at our children’s weekly soccer games, colleagues at work—especially those with whom we rarely socialize—members of our congregation or temple, and so forth.”
Now, I’ve quote at length Ms. Hattery’s understanding of “social capital” for the sake of a more robust comprehension in laying down the foundation for my particular argument here. I would extend what she has written here to not only the connections one has built relations with, but also include the relations that those you have relations with have relations with(Say that out loud three time, three times as fast…). In essence, when I state that we should consider the social capital of Ta Nehisi Coates when consider his use of “public intellectual” vis-à-vis celebrity, what I am suggesting is not only to consider his words as an appeal from a colleague, or possible friend at this point, but also consider that, hey, Ta Nehisi Coates is no longer that freelance writer slash intern banging away articles for exposure. Coates now has a fairly sizeable audience and a certain respect at The Atlantic. Furthermore, given his relationship to Whites in a corporate structure, that relation to US Blacks that seek to assimilate such as DuBois’ Talented 1/10, and you have a graph of social capital that MSNBC might not want to overlook.
Celebrity is social capital in the same way that perception is social capital, in fact, perception might be considered capital.