Imagining a New America
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. His books include Between the World and Me, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, and the novel The Water Dancer. He’s also the current writer of the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America.
Krista Tippett, host: “And so we must imagine a new country.” These are words of the poet, journalist, prophet of our times, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This hour, he’s with us in a conversation that is joyful and hard and kind, direct and soaring and down-to-earth all at once.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. We spoke at the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival before an audience of 1,500 people. It was a beautiful cross-section of humanity, black and white, young and old. The Rockefeller Memorial Chapel was brimming with energy. And the technology didn’t play along, so we ended up adding an extra microphone as the conversation began.
Ms. Tippett: OK, so we’re gonna — it feels kind of old-fashioned, which is kind of refreshing, maybe. So do you like holding a microphone?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I actually have three microphones.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I know. I know. You have to forget about the other two.
Mr. Coates: Because what I have to say is so powerful that it requires, evidently, three microphones. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK, it’s an honor to be here with all of you and with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I always start my conversations, whoever I’m speaking with, asking about the spiritual background of your childhood. I wonder, one thing that — you’ve written a lot about your childhood. You’ve written, for example, that you didn’t have “Christian optimism,” you had “physicality and chaos.” If I ask you about the spiritual background of your childhood, where do you start? Where does your mind go?
Mr. Coates: Well, the first thing I think about is an absence of it, because the African-American community — obviously, the black church is so important. It was important for my cousins, and it was important for my grandmother. And it was so absent in my house. This is probably not the way to think about spirituality, but as a child, what I understood is that people got gifts on Christmas, and I did not. So there was this absence: “OK, these people are religious; I’m not.”
Having said that, I grew up, as I think about it — I grew up with a heavy sense of what I would not call ancestor worship but I would call ancestor reverence. So there was a strong sense that the people before you had sacrificed, and they were the reasons why you would be there. I can remember being a child and going to various political events in the African-American community, and there was this whole tradition of saying libations where you poured water into a plant, and the plant representing the earth and folks who had gone back to the earth. And you would say names, and those names could be anybody from Malcolm X to Toussaint L’Ouverture to your Aunt Grace to whoever it was who you felt had somehow sacrificed for you to be there. And it wasn’t until — see, this is why you have this job, because it wasn’t until you asked that question [laughs]…
Ms. Tippett: It’s a great question, isn’t it?
Mr. Coates: No, it is a great question. It’s a great question. You’re shaming me as a journalist. But it wasn’t until you asked that that I connected that to — because I talk about that, actually, a lot, in my writing.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and here’s something you wrote in your new book, in We Were Eight Years in Power, which is really fantastic. You wrote, “I can somehow remember all that I did not allow myself to feel walking away from that unemployment office and through the Harlem streets that day, just as I remember all that I did not let myself feel in those young years, trapped between the schools and the street. And I know that there are black boys and girls out there lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America, some of them treading and some of them drowning, never feeling and never forgetting.”
And that’s spiritual background too.
Mr. Coates: Why?
Ms. Tippett: That’s — [laughs]
Mr. Coates: No, I’m serious. Why? I’m not trying to…
Ms. Tippett: Because I feel like that feeling, or not allowing ourselves to feel — that “Bermuda Triangle of the mind” — to me, it’s inner life, which is just a way to talk about spiritual life. It may not be the way everyone defines it.
Mr. Coates: I think about that, and I talk about this in Between the World and Me. And I guess as highfalutin as that might sound — why, I don’t know any — I think about neurons when I hear that. And I recognize that when I’m writing, I’m doing something else. I’m talking about it like — that sentence would not sound the same if I said, “Certain neurons in my brain fired. And then…” That doesn’t quite convey the feeling.
It’s so funny. I don’t mean to say it’s not spiritual. It’s just not as — when I write, it’s not what I think about, which does not mean it’s not there, I guess, but it’s not the process. It’s interesting that you receive it that way, though.
Ms. Tippett: One thing where you are writing and thinking these days takes off a little bit — and in some ways, your career — from this — that place, and in that same season that you were in that Harlem unemployment line, the campaign was starting for Barack Obama, who would become the first black president. I want to talk about — the problem of the color line, which was language of W.E.B. Du Bois, is just a thread that runs through. It’s been your fascination. Do you remember when you first read that, or…?
Mr. Coates: Read Du Bois, or when I became first aware?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, well, when you read “color line” and how that — when that captured your imagination. What happened?
Mr. Coates: Well, I had to read Souls of Black Folk at a very, very young age. I probably was 9 or 10. My parents — there was this book I had, and for some reason, it had Up from Slavery, Souls of Black Folk, and, I want to say, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, in the same book. You have to understand how I was raised. There were just books everywhere. And in my house, about 90 percent of those books were either by or about black people or the black diaspora in some respect.
Ms. Tippett: Your father was a librarian.
Mr. Coates: He was. My father was a research librarian. And he had loved books, so that sort of thing, it would’ve just been around. And I read it — and then at the same time, I gotta say, I didn’t get it. It’s probably only in the last five to eight years, [laughs] as I articulate in that book, that I got it. I didn’t understand blackness and whiteness and white supremacy as central to American history. And I had people around me that said that. They would say, “This country is built on our back.” But I would wonder, “Why? How do you illustrate that? What does that mean?”
And I guess — and now I’m getting to the answer to your question [laughs] — it probably was actually during my studies of the Civil War that I got it, that what he meant by it being the problem of the — not just a problem for black people, not just something that people should not do, but a thread that ran through all of American history during that period. And thinking on that, he probably underestimated.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, he said the problem of the 20th century was the color line, and for you, the color line shape-shifts, but it doesn’t go away, and it’s with us in the 21st.
Mr. Coates: Yeah, and it probably was the problem of the 18th, 19th, 20th, and hopefully not 21st — but not looking like that.
Ms. Tippett: You talked about neurons a minute ago, and I do feel like one frontier we’re on, of advance, is understanding our brains better and that in fact the color line is in our heads. We change laws — you go through this history of the Civil War and Reconstruction and how betrayed the promise of those events were, because we didn’t change ourselves, ultimately.
Mr. Coates: Yeah, and I think that’s hard for people to accept. I guess the place, in terms of the book, that I most recently encountered it is the implicit idea that President Obama was prone to repeating: that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. That sort of notion of destiny — I don’t know how you measure that against the very human practice of repeating brutality over and over again.
And beyond that, what about the people who — what if you don’t believe in humanity as this kind of collective but believe that every individual life is a unit, in and of itself, and when that life is snuffed out, that arc is over, and so people who were lynched are not a part of a long-term historical process — that in their minds, that’s their life, and history ended the minute they were snuffed out? So this kind of providential understanding makes them bricks in a road in order to give it a happy ending, in order to say it was all worth it.
But I maintain it was never worth it. It was never just. It was never right. The process is never — it’s always wrong. It’s always wrong, and I think there are a lot of things implicit in that that devalue — I would probably say not just the lives of African Americans, but the lives of people who live underneath of the boot.
Ms. Tippett: And actually demean the lives of white people too …
Mr. Coates: Yes.
Ms. Tippett: … if not in the sense of being on the other end of violence in the same way. You say this — you’re really fascinated with the Civil War. You’re really a student of the Civil War. You say something interesting I’ve never heard anybody talk about in this way before. It’s one of these very simple truths that someone suddenly puts words around, and you see it: that there’s this — you say, “And for black people, there is the burden of taking … the Civil War as Our War.” Even that piece of our history is a history of white people. I don’t know.
Mr. Coates: The trouble with this book is, I don’t remember everything I wrote.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK. All right.
Mr. Coates: I can say something — I can dance. I can still dance. [laughs] No, because it’s like eight pieces that I wrote over the course of eight — and I did reread all of those pieces when I was writing, I guarantee you. But I just — I don’t remember everything.
Ms. Tippett: OK, I’ve been there. OK, so the story — so where we are and what you’re writing to — and you’ve become a voice of this — is this shocking thing that I think so many of us have woken up to: that 50 years after the civil rights movement, 50 years after the March on Washington, even in the years of a black president — how do you say it? Well, also, just that you grew up — Between the World and Me was really — a dominant theme of that was the fear — fear in your body, for your body, for your children — and the vast energy that consumes. And what you said is, we suddenly — some of us suddenly saw that young black men and women were not safe on our streets, not safe in their own neighborhoods. And one thing you said is, “It’s the cameras that are new, not the violence.”
Mr. Coates: Yeah, no, I think — well, I think technology has always played this role. For instance, it’s not like the first time John Lewis and those marchers were beaten, crossing that bridge — that wasn’t the first time it happened. It was just, suddenly you had news cameras. It could be seen.
Ms. Tippett: But that was an amazing story, actually, how everybody was watching the same channel back then. And what movie — it was some movie —
Mr. Coates: Oh, I have no idea. You probably know it better than me.
Ms. Tippett: It was a movie about Nazi Germany, and then that people started being beat on this bridge in Selma.
Mr. Coates: Did they cut the movie, and then they showed it?
Ms. Tippett: And they cut through to the movie, and they showed Americans not being treated like people.
Mr. Coates: Wow. Wow.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right.
Mr. Coates: I didn’t even know that. But that wouldn’t have been possible, 20, 30 years before. It was the technology that suddenly made it visible. And I think it’s the same thing here. My previous book, Between the World and Me, is about a friend of mine who was killed by the police. There were no camera phones. There was no Twitter. There was no anything. And he just …
Ms. Tippett: And that was Prince?
Mr. Coates: Prince Jones, yes, yes.
Ms. Tippett: And when was that? 2000 — early 2000s?
Mr. Coates: Fall of 2000, he was killed. And he was just swallowed into the abyss with all the lives of other black people who had been snuffed out in similar ways, just were forgotten. And now people can see it.
The question remains how much that actually changes, though. Philando Castile was killed on camera. Nothing happened. Eric Garner was choked on camera. Nothing happened. No one went to jail. And so the question becomes, how much does this actually change?
Ms. Tippett: And I told you before we walked out here that I’m not gonna ask you to be optimistic.
Mr. Coates: OK, but now you are?
Ms. Tippett: No, I’m not, because I see that everywhere you go, you’re telling this truth, and then white people want you to say, “OK, so where can we find our hope?” And I was watching you on Colbert recently — somebody saw that? He really wanted you to give hope. Here’s what I find — when you write: “Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me.”
Mr. Coates: Well, I believe that. I don’t remember when I wrote it, but it’s true. [laughs]
I do believe that.
Ms. Tippett: You don’t have hope. Or you don’t want to use that word, because that word —
Mr. Coates: No, no, no.
Ms. Tippett: But you are — there’s a focus. There’s an energy …
Mr. Coates: You know what it is? I don’t actually think I’m that singular in this. I don’t know — and I don’t know if there are journalists here, but you have to understand: That’s my training. I was trained as a journalist. Journalists go out and look for things that are wrong in the world, and then they write them. And it is not the case that your editor says, “OK, that’s a cool story, but there’s no hope at the end.”
That’s not a thing editors say to journalists, which is what I am. And so it’s not so much that I even object to hope. It’s just that the thing I do, that’s not a criteria for. You know what I mean?
Ms. Tippett: It’s not your calling.
Mr. Coates: No, I mean it’s just not what I — and there are other things that influence me. I was — before that, I was hugely influenced by poetry. Poets are not asked to be hopeful.
When I was in college and I did go to school, I was a history major. That had a huge influence on me. If you want to be depressed, you should go to the University of Chicago’s history department.
So I’m not sure why I get the question — not that you asked the question.
Ms. Tippett: Where I find you to be closest to what I think other people are wanting from you, when they want you to be hopeful, is when you write and speak about Malcolm X.
Mr. Coates: Yeah, he gave me hope. He did, he did.
Ms. Tippett: You talk about — he presented, more than anybody else, the possibility of what you call “collective self-creation.”
Mr. Coates: Right. Well, you know what? I would listen to his lectures, and I just felt free. It’s not “hope” like — I think what people want is, “Tell us that we’re going to get past this.”
Ms. Tippett: That it’s going to be OK.
Mr. Coates: “Tell us it’s going to be OK.” So that’s one thing, right? But there’s a different kind of hope. There are people in the world who accept that their life ends in death, and that’s bad, but that’s what’s gonna happen. And then within that, they find joys and hopes in between: “Oh, I have the ability…”
So for Malcolm — to me, it was: I can speak about the world in a way that is reflective of my life and my community. I can do that. I don’t have to calibrate my speech. I don’t have to calibrate how I look. I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right.
And so that was big for me, as a writer. When I started writing, there was a school of writing that says: Given that the audience is obviously — when you reach to any size, is not gonna be majority-black — that you have to hold people’s hands. You have to explain to them. And the Malcolm influence on me said: No, you don’t. Write as you hear it. Write as you hear it.
And in fact, I don’t even think that’s a particular black thing, because if you’re black in this world, and you are gonna become educated on what is considered mainstream art in this world, mainstream traditions, nobody slows down for you. Nobody is gonna hold your hand [laughs] and explain The Brady Bunch to you. Nobody’s gonna do that. Catch up.
Catch up. Some people live like this. I know it’s not what’s around you, but some people live like that. Catch up. [indistinct] And that’s just how it is. You gotta be bilingual. You gotta figure it out. So if they have the right to talk and write like that, I have the right to write about Wu-Tang like that.
Audience Member: Yes.
Mr. Coates: I can do that. I can say, “Catch up. Catch up.”
You know what I mean? I can do that, and that’s a kind of freedom.
[music: “Think Differently” by Wu-Tang Clan]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, as part of On Being’s Civil Conversations Project.
Ms. Tippett: You use this phrase, “black atheism,” which I think means more than just atheism — that there’s something in those two words together. But part of that, for a while, included this certainty that nobody would take you seriously. And yet, you’re taken very seriously. How do you understand what’s going on that all these people are here — that white people like what you write and read your books and buy your books?
Mr. Coates: How do I understand it …
Ms. Tippett: Don’t hold our hands.
Mr. Coates: No, I’m not, I’m not.
Ms. Tippett: Tell it straight.
Mr. Coates: The truth is that I don’t understand it, but I’m gonna try to think my way through it. Perhaps it’s a simple answer, OK? I think white people are human beings … [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Thank you. [laughs]
Mr. Coates: White people are human beings. Because the question — and I admit, I’ve asked the question — presumes a kind of distance that may not be there, like there isn’t anything universal or humanistic in the black struggle that can reach other people. So I think white people are human beings. I think black people are human beings too.
I think the experience of black people in this country — as I was saying, in terms of Du Bois — runs right down the middle of the country. You can’t really talk about the country without it. But I also think it’s reflective of so many other struggles. At its root, it’s power. And I think that the struggle — even though this is the lens we see it through here, in America — is, actually, quite old. Obviously, there are particular details to it, but at its root, it’s not a particular thing. I think that’s it. I think that’s it.
Ms. Tippett: Ruby Sales, who is one of the civil rights leaders, said to me last year that a central quality of this moment we inhabit is a crisis of whiteness. You have this quote from James Baldwin that really stuck out at me: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other. And when they have achieved this, which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never, the Negro problem will no longer exist or will no longer be needed.”
Mr. Coates: No one will need it. No will need it. When I read that, that was like getting hit by a truck. It was so profound, because what he was saying was that there actually — there is no “Negro problem.” [laughs] And that’s how it’s always historically been talked — even that: “the problem of the color line.” No, there’s no problem of the color line. The problem is over here. It’s not us. We actually are quite human. It is — and I think what he is referring to — all of the things that a group of people do to remain in power, to hold that boot on somebody’s neck — as Jefferson said, “hold the wolf by the ear.” That’s how he talked about slavery, enslavement.
Ms. Tippett: And then there’s this irony that I’m so acutely aware of right now, as I’m talking to you. What is it? I just want to — see, I took all these notes. You write things like this — I can’t find it. It’s all over the place.
Mr. Coates: [laughs] Just pick one.
Ms. Tippett: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage.” And you are right. And I carry that in my body, in my white body. I carry that cruelty and that violence. And what do you say to people when they ask you that: “What do I do with my whiteness, the legacy of my whiteness?”
Mr. Coates: Excuse my language, but I tell them to do the same thing I do with the legacy of my nigger-ness. And that is: Work for a world where my grandchildren, and likely, great-great-great-grandchildren, are not niggers; and that they should work for a world …
Where their grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are not white.
I don’t think it’s — because what that question presumes is, “Well, is there some immediate action I can do to get out of this?”
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, no, this is generational, work of a lifetime …
Mr. Coates: Yeah, no, and there’s no immediate action that I can do to get out of this. What the realization is, is that me and you are here trapped together — that you’re as trapped as I am, that once you are aware, you’re in the cage too. It’s a different kind of cage; it’s a gilded cage, but it’s a cage.
It’s a cage. It’s a cage. No, it’s a real cage — and that there’s no real thing that will probably save you in this lifetime. But why should it? How long did it take to build this? You’re just becoming aware of a process that was going on long before you were born. So I think it’s natural that the first thing you say is, “How can I get out?” That quote about it being tradition — I’m not saying that for effect.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, no, I know.
Mr. Coates: No, I’m not saying you. I’m saying, as a way to answer your question: That is just another way of saying that from 1619 to 1865, it was legal to torture black people. It just was. It just was. That period is, in fact, longer than the period of freedom. And for 100 years after that, it was basically legal to lynch black people. That was fine. That was accepted. And in the period after that, it is now basically legal for someone with a badge, if they feel afraid, to kill you.
That compiles. It compiles over time. It has effects. And so the notion that you can just dance your way — that’s not gonna happen. That’s not gonna happen. If it took this long to get into this, it’s worth asking yourself how long it’s going to take to get out of it.
Ms. Tippett: You wrote a piece called “The Case for Reparations,” and I think that feels to me like it’s an important message you’re carrying. I just found this — just this sentence in your writing about that: “And so we must imagine a new country.”
I’ll just read a little bit more of this, because it’s very powerful and, also, beautifully written. “Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is — the work of fallible humans.”
Mr. Coates: Yeah, I mean that’s it. That’s it. [laughs] And what a lot of people want to do is, they want to live the drunken lie. I was working on that piece, and it was like — because what people will tell you is, “Well, I didn’t have any slaves. I wasn’t alive when this happened. My ancestors just got here.” And what became clear to me, reading that, is: OK, but you cook out on the Fourth of July. Your ancestors weren’t here. They played no role in that. They had nothing to do with it. You take off for President’s Day, but you had no part in that. Your ancestors weren’t here. There are a number of patriotic rituals that folks have no problem participating in, as long as they can get credit for it.
But they don’t want the debits, see: “I want the paycheck; I don’t want to have to write a check, though.” And that is a kind of — in the piece, I think I talk about it as à la carte patriotism. It’s like sometimes-friendship: I’m there when I can get some, but when it gets tough, man, I’m out. “I wasn’t there. I had nothing to do with that.”
But it’s like, either you’re in or you’re out. Either you’re part of it or you’re not. I was not alive during the Korean War. I had nothing to do with it. But my taxes go to pay pensions for folks to this day. It would not have been my choice to invade Iraq, but my tax dollars went to it. That’s the way a state works. So I think what people want is they want to be a part of the state as long as it gives them something that they like.
Ms. Tippett: I wonder — some of the ways I’ve processed this last few years and what happened is: that the election of Barack Obama, the election of a black man to president of the United States, was this magnificent accomplishment that actually, at the time, was celebrated — even by most Americans, and people around the world — in its magnificence. And that what we didn’t understand is that that would also surface all the unfinished work we have to do to be worthy of that accomplishment. And that’s what’s right out on the surface now. But I wonder — that’s how I’ve thought it through. And I wonder how you — I don’t know if you like that way I’ve phrased it.
Mr. Coates: No, I think that’s pretty good.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah? Oh, good. Oh, that makes me happy. [laughs]
Mr. Coates: You could do my job. You were eight years in power. You could do this. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: No, I mean you’ve said Obama’s rise offered you the chances to see that our theory of providence and progress that would continue — was to see that as the illusion that it was. So I would just …
Mr. Coates: Yeah, no, I think you’re exactly right. I think people saw all the celebration and all the good feeling that was generated, and they never considered there were other people who were feeling a different kind of way.
All of these questions go back to the question of patriotism, right? And I don’t know a country that’s done this yet, but let’s take Americans at their word. Let’s take the country at its word. It says it’s exceptional, it says it’s different. So let’s try to do something different.
You have to love your country the way you love your friends, the way your spouse loves you, right? The people who love you don’t blow smoke up your backside. They don’t do that. They tell you hard truths. They love you, but my wife, if something’s going wrong, she’s going to tell me. Something’s going wrong, I’m gonna tell her. That’s the nature of the relationship. Don’t mean I don’t back her; don’t mean I don’t support her. But when is love between individuals this kind of uncompromising never-questioning? That ain’t no love. That ain’t no love that I would tell my kid to identify in his partner, in his friends.
The question really is, can you get to a place where — and I don’t know how you do this, but can you get to a place where citizens are encouraged to see themselves critically, encouraged to see their history critically? I don’t know, but that strikes me as what’s necessary.
[music: “Ein Kleines Lied” by Arovane & Hior Chronik]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. This episode is part of On Being’s Civil Conversations Project, an evolving adventure in audio, events, resources, and initiatives for planting relationship and conversation around the subjects we fight about intensely — and those we’ve barely begun to discuss. To learn more, visit civilconversationsproject.org.
[music: “Ein Kleines Lied” by Arovane & Hior Chronik]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with poet-journalist-prophet Ta-Nehisi Coates in a live event, as part of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival. The crowd of 1,500 submitted questions, and there was time for a few, read by artistic director Alison Cuddy.
Alison Cuddy: So the first question is: “How has your Howard experience continued to influence you?” And it’s signed, heart shape, H-U-underscore-underscore-exclamation.
Mr. Coates: Oh, you clearly didn’t go to Howard. That is not how you say it. [laughs]
It had a tremendous influence on me. I didn’t know there were black people who liked Marilyn Manson. I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t know there were black people who had so much money that their parents sent them to school with a car. I didn’t know that existed.
To put this in perspective, Howard was the first place where I encountered open LGBT people, period, of any race. It was the first place I saw that. I could walk up on that yard and find people who were deeply into politics. I could find folks that were interested in marketing. I could find folks that were gonna be doctors one day. I could find folks that wanted to be in musical theater.
It was all the — there was 10,000 black people in one spot. And they were beautiful — I mean just physically beautiful people. You have to understand what that means when you grow up in a culture where black people are not depicted as beautiful. It’s just not there. There is a subconscious message that is communicated in the culture that “This is what’s beautiful; this is what’s elegant; this is what’s intelligent; this is what’s sophisticated — and this is white. It’s not you.”
And for four years, man, I just got shot with the antidote to all of that. And so when I left — sans diploma — but when I left, I thought I could fight anybody, you understand? I felt like I had no fear of anybody having — went to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, UChicago — I didn’t care. I’ll fight anybody. I felt so armed and confident. It’s the seed of why I write sentences like that. I don’t care. I don’t care, because I know it’s a group of people who I came of age with who know exactly what I’m talking about. It was incredible. It was the seed of everything.
Ms. Cuddy: “What advice would you give on how to best teach history in a way that is honest and accurate?”
Mr. Coates: I have no teaching advice at all. I was a terrible student. I failed my way through high school. I don’t know how I got into Howard University, but I failed my way through that too. I just — I don’t know. I have horrible advice, in terms of teaching.
Because one of the things that annoys me is, people act like they know everything.
Ms. Tippett: That’s right, yeah.
Mr. Coates: “I’m just gonna stand up, I’m gonna answer every…” — no, you don’t know. Come on, be clear about what you know and what you don’t know.
And I don’t — come on. [laughs]
Ms. Cuddy: All right: “I’m 17 years old, and my generation does not know how to deal with the older generation’s stubbornness and unwillingness to change …”
Mr. Coates: Oh, God. Jesus Christ.
Ms. Cuddy: “… even though they are in power. What advice do you have?”
Mr. Coates: Can you repeat that question?
Ms. Cuddy: It’s a good one. “I’m 17 years old, and my generation does not know how to deal with the older generation’s stubbornness and unwillingness to change even though they are in power. What advice do you have?”
Mr. Coates: OK, I’m gonna talk about what I don’t know. And listen, here’s the thing that happens. Here’s the thing that happens. You are well-researched and knowledgeable about one thing that you’ve been thinking about a long time and you’ve been reading about a long time. That does not make you well-researched and knowledgeable about all things. For instance, that question right there. There are people, activists who spend their lives grappling with that and have spent their lives grappling. I’m a writer. I prefer solitude. I prefer to be alone. I prefer some distance from struggle. I like that. That’s my joy. That’s my life experience.
Because I think there’s this tradition — I get this title, “public intellectual,” and I don’t like it, because what it sounds to me is, like, people who B.S. They’re smart about one thing, and so they play into this notion that they’re smart about everything else. I have not struggled with that at all.
I haven’t. I haven’t, and so for me to answer would be to pretend as though I had. If you want to ask me about writing, I can — up one side, down the other. I got you. I’m with you, because I’ve struggled with that. I was thinking about it on the plane today. I can’t address things that are not things that I’ve actually struggled with. I’m sorry. I really apologize. Are there two more or something?
Ms. Cuddy: There’s one more.
Ms. Tippett: Don’t worry about it. There’s one more.
Mr. Coates: This is not going well. [laughs]
Ms. Cuddy: It all comes down to this one, Ta-Nehisi. So this is not a question about hope, but it may be related, and it’s from North Shore Country Day School’s middle school teachers. So it’s back to teachers.
Mr. Coates: Uh-oh.
Ms. Cuddy: “How can we help our students remain optimistic under this administration …”
Mr. Coates: Oh, my God. Oh, my God! Are you serious?
Ms. Cuddy: “… when we ourselves are struggling?” So …
Mr. Coates: Why would I know that?
I’m gonna try. I have to try. [laughs] “How do you help your kids?” So I probably reject the premise of the question.
If I were in your class, and I put myself back there, I don’t think, even at that age, I was looking for hope from my teachers. I think I was looking for enlightenment from my teachers. I think I was looking for exposure. I think I wanted to see other things about the world. I think I wanted to be exposed to different worldviews.
If I were a kid right now, I guess I would want to understand, why did they kill Eric Garner? Why is that OK?
And the answer doesn’t have to — I don’t need you to make me feel good about that, but I need to know what happened. I just — I need — and people deeply underestimate the freedom that comes from at least understanding. It’s one thing to be terminally ill, right? That’s bad enough. But to not understand what’s happening to your body?
And that’s kind of the position I found myself in as a young, black — I didn’t understand why, when I walked out on the street, and say there was a girl I liked that lived across North Avenue — why do I have to bring seven other dudes with me to go see this girl, and when I cut on TV and see The Wonder Years, Kevin Arnold can just take his bike and go see Winnie Cooper? Why?
What — I understand why, in terms of the dudes, but what specifically is the process that — so I probably would want to be pointed — not even would want the answers: Give me the tools. Arm me. Allow me to be able to understand why. That probably would be more important to me. That’s not hope. That’s not hope, but I think that’s the sort of perspective I would’ve come from, at that age.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, with poet-journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, as part of On Being’s Civil Conversations Project.
Ms. Tippett: “Hope” is not your word; it’s not what you offer. But I’m really struck with how you really care about beauty. You’re passionate about beauty, and you’re a poet.
Mr. Coates: I was.
Ms. Tippett: You were. But I think you write poetically.
Mr. Coates: Thank you.
Ms. Tippett: Right? And you work at that.
Mr. Coates: I do.
Ms. Tippett: I love the way you write about that, or — I don’t know if I saw an interview you gave, where you — I once talked to a scholar of the Hebrew prophets, and he said the prophets are also always poets, because you have to speak in language that is disarming and that reaches people.
I was really struck, at the beginning of your new book, We Were Eight Years in Power — you wrote about the process. You said that this was created from articles that had been written. And you said, “But I also had an urge to make something new of them. This book is made in this way, because I enjoyed the challenge of doing so. If I can communicate half of that joy to you, then I will have done my job.”
And again, I just — I feel like that joy that we’ve also experienced tonight is so much who you are, rather than — yeah, as I said, when Between the World and Me came out, there was this idea of you as “angry.” So I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud here as we finish, but I don’t know what this sparks in you.
Mr. Coates: Well, I always try to do two things in the nonfiction, and that is, A) I do want the argument to be logically correct and to be on-point, but that’s not enough. It’s not enough for you to read that and walk away and say, “Hmm. That seems correct.” The writing should be haunting. I use that word a lot. You should really feel it in your bones. You should be disturbed, the way I was disturbed.
When I was doing the last piece in the book, “My President Was Black,” I was not sure who was gonna win the election. But I wanted folks to feel something about that piece. I just didn’t want it to be a “correct” piece. So I would play Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” over and over again. And there was something so beautifully wordless in that song — this longing. The lyrics are actually really simple, but it’s the way he mixes this beautiful falsetto that Marvin has, this raspy soul piece that he has, and he pulls it all together in such a way that you’re like, wow — like, “My wife is right here, but I miss her too.”
“I feel like you left me.” He says, “When you left, you took all of me with you.” “Yeah, that’s how I feel. I feel that right now, even though you’re right here.” And I wanted people to feel that. I wanted them to feel — watch that footage of Obama and Michelle and feel, “When you left, you took all of me with you.” You should feel that.
It should be in you, when you read that piece, because I — there was a kind of sadness that I could see among all the black people I knew — all of them. And I’m not saying it wasn’t a sadness among other people, but this is just, you get to the general by the specific, and the specific I knew were the black people I was around, and they knew. And they knew this, even if Hillary had won: that the last eight years had been something that they had never expected; that it was a beautiful thing to be represented in that way. And that’s — I’m talking about separate from policy, whatever policy disagreements I have.
But we, as black folks — we always gotta defend somebody. And that was a feeling about so many public black people. And you gotta defend hip-hop. I love hip-hop, but it’s like you gotta defend it. It’s always an argument. And you never had to defend Barack and Michelle in that way. You didn’t have to do that.
It was liberating. And again, I just want to be clear. I’m talking about — I got my policy differences, which is something else. But as a public image, you didn’t have to apologize for them. You didn’t have to do any of that. They never made you hang your head. You were never ashamed. And when that went, it was a particular kind of sadness that came, and I was trying to drill [laughs] as much of that sadness in there.
It’s not enough to just have the facts right, but you gotta get all of that in there, and that becomes word choice and sentences and going over the sentences, over and over and over and over again.
Ms. Tippett: Thank you.
But I think what that — words that are poetic and that disturb — that what that makes possible that is actually really rare, has become rare in America, that I think we’re trying to relearn — is disturbing, and yet you stay with it. Right?
I think that’s why white people love your books and why they’re good for us …
Mr. Coates: Let’s just really quickly — just really quickly. Let me just see that for one second. I just want — white people don’t love my books. [laughs] I just want to be clear.
Ms. Tippett: We don’t have time. [laughs]
Mr. Coates: The people who read books is a minority. I just want to be really clear about that. There are a lot of white people who don’t love my books. That’s why you had to go through security on your way in, by the way. Let’s just be clear.
Let’s just be clear. [laughs] Let’s not get carried away.
Ms. Tippett: OK, now we’re threatening to take an unacceptable detour, here at the end.
Mr. Coates: [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Why you have become a voice in this moment: because we do, some of us, a lot of us, I think, do want to be telling these hard truths and feeling them in our bodies, and so there is an art to being able to articulate that so that it can hurt, and it can be shameful, and it can be disturbing, and yet we can keep listening and keep thinking about it.
Mr. Coates: I hope so.
Ms. Tippett: OK. Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much. Thank you for coming.
Mr. Coates: Thank you.
[music: “Be One of Us and Hear No Noise” by Metavari]
Ms. Tippett: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. His books include The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and, most recently, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. He’s also the current writer of the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America.
[Editor’s note: We Were Eight Years in Power will not be Mr. Coates’s most recent book for long. His first novel, The Water Dancer, will be out later this September.]
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, and Colleen Scheck.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Alison Cuddy, Tiffanie Beatty, Kait Samuels, Heidi Hewitt, Rina Ranalli, Zachary Williams, Brian Johnson, Alexa Perlmutter, Rory Frydman, Claire Liu, Joe Berusch, and Gautam Srikishan.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
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