Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates is very clear on his role: Dig for the truth and get out of the way. “If you are going to be a writer you have to write into the wind. You have to say, ‘I’m prepared to do this and give my all, even if only 20 people read the book.'”
Many thousands have embraced Coates’ Between the World and Me, which caught fire immediately upon its July release and topped the New York Times bestseller list. It is a National Book Award finalist and earned a jacket blurb from Toni Morrison, who crowned Coates the successor to James Baldwin. “I’ve been writing for 20 years—all of this is recent,” he said. “I liked what I was doing before this happened and I’ll like what I’m doing when this goes away.”
Sitting across from City Club of Cleveland CEO Dan Moulthrop, Coates said he works hard not to be distracted. His focus is “to map out and discover” the cumulative narrative of racism: Why have we not grappled with 350 years of government-sanctioned plunder of black communities?
The 40-year-old Baltimore-born writer took inspiration from James Baldwin’s short 1963 book, The Fire Next Time and wanted Between the World and Me to deliver that same punch—inquisitive, lyrical and haunting, all in a quick 150 pages.
His goal with Between the World and Me, he told the audience gathered at Cleveland State University, was not to “speak for all black people” but instead to “speak to something in all Black people.”
When asked what white people could do to eradicate white supremacy, the newly named MacArthur “genius” said that the burden of creating an equal society lies on the shoulders of those who maintain it. “The first step is to not ask black people what to do. You then are throwing it back on me to figure out a problem you caused. If I have my foot on someone’s neck and I say to you, how do I get my foot off your neck, well, you’re doing it.”
One woman asked Coates about his phrasing of race—”people who think they are white,” “people who think they are black.” He answered, “There’s no real consistent notion of race across time and geography,” mentioning Brazil’s racial constructs and the shifting classification of Italian immigrants over time. “Any definition of race always depends upon power.”
Watch the conversation in the video below:
When a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates watched his 15-year-old son Samori slowly stand up and walk into his own Baltimore bedroom to cry.
As Coates recounts this story in Between the World and Me, he writes that he followed his son, but did not hug or console him: “I did not tell you it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”
Originally conceived as a collection of essays on the Civil War, Between the World and Me arrived four months ahead of its scheduled publication with a more urgent focus. Coates writes about the physical and psychological toll of being black in America, in the form of six letters/chapters to his son. Publisher Speigel and Grau bumped the release date up in response to the massacre of nine churchgoers in Charleston, as Between the World and Me “spoke to this moment.”
But the rush to get the book on shelves didn’t preclude Toni Morrison: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” Morrison had written. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
If Coates record-breaking 2014 reporting in “The Case for Reparations,” an Atlantic article, can be considered an intellectual appetizer, Between the World and Me serves as the entree.
Inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates has delivered a work that is as authoritative as it is inquisitive. Why can’t we, as a nation, come to terms with what we have wrought? Why do we constantly discuss “race” when we need to be eradicating racism? And perhaps most importantly, will we get it right anytime soon?
The Baltimore native connects his son’s disappointment in the Wilson non-indictment and the incident that hastened his own disillusionment with the American criminal justice system. In 2000, a Prince George’s County officer shot and killed Prince Jones, a Howard University student and friend of the author. This scorched Coates’ soul and psyche and he spends a sixth of his book writing about Jones.
He frames Jones’ slaying as an exemplar of what can befall the black body even in the best case scenario: a young man with a bright future, educated at some of the nation’s best schools, nurtured from birth toward greatness, bleeding to death outside his fiancee’s house in a case of mistaken identity. “Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears,” Coates writes. “And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good could be forever bound, who then could not?”
Jones’ death is part of the reason Coates avoids shackling his son with “twice as good” generational mantra of black folks everywhere: “It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered….It is the raft of second chances for them and twenty-three-hour days for us.”
Not all in this book is grim. The most encouraging chapter centers on Coates’ undergraduate years at “The Mecca,” Howard University. Here he takes us on a virtual campus tour, leading up to the transformation many young adults undergo when they are learning on their own terms for the first time. He devours books three at a time and marvels that he’s walking in the footsteps of alumnae Lucille Clifton and Toni Morrison. Coates meets the woman he will marry, Kenyatta Matthews, a Chicagoan with a bit of wanderlust. (She inspired his first trip to Paris, where later this year, the couple and their son plan to relocate for a year.)
Read through my own lens as a black parent of black children, Between the World and Me is sobering. It offers no sense that the job will be made easier by magical conversations on how to navigate life safely in America. Coates’ parenting is blunt: “I have always believed that my job was not to hide the world from you but to guide you through it and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as a celebration or a wake.”
One nitpick: In certain passages, Coates meanders around a subject as if figuratively speaking, he forgets his son is in the room. The message is still there, but the receiver is not so clear. Other reviewers have called into question whether Between the World and Me is too male-centric. Buzzfeed editor Shani O. Hilton writes that she was disappointed that the “black male experience is still used as a stand in for the black experience.”
Nevertheless, this book is a masterpiece, and here is a postscript: I would still like to read that Civil War book. What does one of the most fertile and curious minds of our era have to say about our nation’s deadliest war? He gives us a tease here, but let’s hope a full-bodied work is still on the way.
Between the World and Me goes on sale Tuesday, July 14.
Shakyra Diaz, policy manager for the ACLU of Ohio, asked everyone in a crowded meeting hall who knew someone with a criminal conviction to raise a hand. Almost every person – mostly youth – lifted an arm overhead.
This was a respectable crowd – a City Club of Cleveland forum – and the arms aloft were eloquent. “The land of the free cannot be the land of the lock down,” Diaz said, and a junior at Gilmour Academy jotted the sentence in pencil on her program.
The note-taking at “A Conversation on Race” at the City Club youth forum was no accident. The urgency of police killings in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland had drawn a crowd. Panelist and poet Basheer Jones challenged the hundreds of high school and college students assembled: “There is more we can do. Come prepared to write things down. You won’t remember everything said today. Teachers, have their students bring their weaponry. An African proverb says: ‘Do not build your shield on the battlefield.’”
Diaz and Jones were joined at the front of the room by Jonathan Gordon, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, and Andres Gonzalez, police chief of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
“Cops, we don’t always get it right,” said Gonzalez, the first Hispanic chief of police in the Northeast Ohio County. “That’s true….A police department is only as strong as the community allows it to be. When the community loses faith in the department that is almost the beginning of the end.”
Diaz zeroed in on system inequity: Cleveland is the fifth most segregated city in the United States; Ohio is sixth in its incarceration rate; fourth for incarcerating women. “This country is number one in the world for incarcerating adults and children,” she said.
Gordon brought forward Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, “The New Jim Crow,” which examines a system that has now put more African Americans behind bars than there were slaves in 1850 before the Civil War. Jones stressed that the students in Collinwood and Glenville High Schools struggle in dilapidated buildings while the new juvenile detention center gleams like a “Taj Mahal.”
Metal detectors in schools condition students for prison, Diaz said, and schools that lack soap and toilet paper telegraph a lack of worth. All this connects, she said, to the Black Lives Matter movement.
When one student asked how to respond to those who claim they don’t see color, Diaz replied curtly: “That’s a lie. If you can see, you see color. What we shouldn’t do and cannot do is deny human dignity.” Echoing Ta’Nehisi Coates, who spoke at the City Club in August, Jones said, “The worst part about racism is that it creates self-hatred; some look in the mirror and don’t like what they see.”
Jones challenged the students to make sure their younger brothers knew more about the ABCs than Waka Flocka lyrics, more math than Usher. He stressed the importance of allies, noting that among the 30 Clevelanders he organized to go to Ferguson were Jews and Hispanics while “there are people in your community who look just like you who are working toward the destruction of it.”
Gordon underscored the importance of action, starting with the reformation of the Cleveland police department. He pointed to the good work of Facing History and Ourselves and the students at Shaker Heights High School who have battled racism. AutumnLily Faithwalker of Laurel School said she wished the panel, while strong, had focused more acutely on what exactly could be done.
Little is more urgent, Jones said. “If not addressed, these issues we are dealing with right now will be the downfall of our country.”
“All I want to see is some history of the housing there,” he said. “We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”
Policies on zoning, segregated public housing, bank redlining and federal subsidies diverted from black communities all did cumulative harm, Rothstein argues.
“Government policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics,” Rothstein writes. “White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.”
Rothstein calls for a more systemic lens to address decades of discrimination: “When we blame private prejudice, suburban snobbishness, and black poverty for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, walked to the lectern at the City Club of Cleveland and managed to distill two years of work on “The Case for Reparations” into an eight-word thesis: “What you have taken should be given back.” It’s time, he argues, for America’s moral reckoning with the legacy of slavery.
For Coates, 38, the spotlight has never been brighter. His 15,000-word article in The Atlantic, buttressed by original research, an extensive bibliography and film clips, broke the record for single-day traffic on the magazine’s website when it was published May 21.
Coates took comic Stephen Colbert’s jabs on “The Colbert Report.” At MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry invited Coates onto her eponymous show, while Bill Moyers provided an argument-expounding forum on PBS. But Coates, who brought to the City Club both father, William Paul Coates, and an iPad full of notes, was humble. He defined patriotism as “love of country” and pointed out that—just as his father loves him and his wife loves him—love rarely involves telling him what he wants to hear. Mature love, mature patriotism, means facing the things that do not credit the beloved.
Asked by an audience member what reparations would look like, Coates suggested that they could resemble the reparations the U.S. government provided the Japanese-Americans wrongly interned during World War II and the financial compensation made to Jews by the German nation after the same war. He stressed that housing and educational policies of discrimination and racism harm African-Americans to this day and that the same policies undergird white supremacy.
The Baltimore native arrived at the Atlantic in 2008 after stints at Time magazine and the Village Voice. Coates’ regular column at The Atlantic has become a hub of intellectual discourse on the web, where he has held court on everything from the NFL banning the N-word to President Obama’s reproach of young black men in a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Asked about the state of investigative journalism, Coates stressed that his magazine editors put substantial resources into richly documenting “The Case for Reparations” and creating a full multimedia narrative as well.
Coates insists on history. “You have to imagine a society where owning people is not just legal but our greatest intellectuals are arguing that it’s morally correct,” Coates told a silent crowd. “We have to learn to consider enslavement, in that time, as legit an institution as home-ownership is, in this time.” He called out Natchez, Miss., not New York City, as home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in 1860’s America. This is because it was the major hub for slave trading.
One of Coates’ admirable traits is his quick acknowledgment of his limitations. He told the audience that he had dropped out of college; he demurred from answering a question that he didn’t feel well-read enough to take on. He said that in June he started a seven-week French immersion class at Vermont’s Middleburg College. “I just wanted to go someplace where I was the dumbest person there. I was just bumbling around; I was making mistakes. Because it’s good to be reminded that it’s not about you.”
The best thing to come out of writing the reparations article was that “now I know,” Coates said. “And I can’t be lied to.”
Briefly, he mentioned protests in Ferguson, Missouri, aching to use historical context to uncover an accurate picture. He asked what police—who have used toxic language and intimidating displays of force on protesters and journalists—might have done before the eyes of the nation were upon them. He suggested that those in the audience with white bodies need not worry about a day when they would be shot dead in the afternoon and left in the street for four hours, as happened August 9 when Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. “All I want to see is some history of the housing there. We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”
Twice during his talk, Coates spoke of the mental and spiritual strain that accompanies being black in America, and his wonder at the continuing optimism of African Americans. He prescribed international travel. “Because this thing will consume you,” he said. “It will eat you. It will eat your soul. It will make you forget you’re a human being with particular likes and dislikes and things that make you different…You are more than a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s important, for our own mental health, to get out every once in a while.”
When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates visited Cleveland on a frigid February morning earlier this year, he was blunt when asked about America’s trouble acknowledging race. “You can’t have America without black people,” he said. “Once you understand that, you understand that the black experience is at the core of what it means to be free.”
His latest treatise for The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” throws down the gauntlet on one of the most contentious subjects our nation has grappled with: how to make amends for 250 years of U.S. slavery. “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap,” he writes. “Reparations would seek to close this chasm.”
But more than simply attaching a monetary figure to the sacrifices African-Americans have made during their tenure in America, Coates, 38, is asking for a moral reckoning: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
Coates draws from the work of several Anisfield-Wolf winners in crafting his argument (he said that reading Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns was a defining moment for him). Coates’ strategically appeals to our patriotism: We are Americans and we deserve better from our public policy—and each other. His calls for a more just society are strengthened by noting (in great detail) the injustices of the past, incidents unlikely to be found in textbooks.
Coates appeared recently on PBS’ Moyers & Company to discuss his thesis. The entire segment is worth watching and sharing. Let us know your views.
At 38, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior correspondent for The Atlantic’s online property, has become one of the nation’s foremost writers on race and culture. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Coates (whose first name is pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) found himself on stage at the Cleveland Public Library before a large, diverse crowd that included students from the all-male Ginn Academy, a Cleveland public high school. The boys created a crimson line in the audience in their signature red blazers.
Despite the formal setting, Coates was quick to share his humble beginnings. Born in West Baltimore, he came of age in “the era where black boys died,” he said. Drugs and violence decimated entire communities, but Coates said his saving grace was his parents’ strict guidance. His father, Paul Coates, was a former Black Panther who encouraged his seven children to immerse themselves in African-American history. His father ran an independent publishing house, Black Classic Press, out of their basement, while his mother, Cheryl, worked as the breadwinner for many years.
In conversation on stage with Plain Dealer Book Editor Joanna Connors, Coates described a young Ta-Nehisi as bright but unable to focus in school or earn passing grades. But in a junior-level English class — which he was repeating his senior year — he came across a passage in Macbeth that worked as revelation: words, put in the right order, could be beautiful. He found the poetry of Shakespeare reminded him of his favorite lyricist, Rakim. Admitted to Howard University, he reveled in Zora Neale Hurston’s words. “She wrote about black people as I knew black people,” he said.
A series of writing gigs at The Village Voice and Time Magazine led him to The Atlantic. Coates rules his corner of the site like an unabashed totalitarian, seeing his role as a blogger as parallel to a dinner party host. He deletes comments he sees as adding nothing to the conversation and engages those that give him something to chew on. He is not afraid to be schooled, and readily admits he is nothing if not “insanely curious.”
“America says to its citizens, ‘Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete,'” Coates wrote. “The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract.”
The intersection of injustice and policy fuels many a blog post. Over the past few weeks, Coates has dedicated the majority of his space to understanding the outcome of the jury verdict given Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old white man who shot into a car outside a Florida convenience store. Inside the vehicle were four unarmed teenage black boys; Dunn killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
Speaking on Davis and Trayvon Martin, Coates said, “They were robbed of the right to experience the world, to allow the world to change them. They are frozen in time in their boyhood.”
As the father of a 13-year-old son, Coates said these incidents haunt him. Still, he doesn’t believe he is as strict a parent as his own father. He explored their dynamic in his debut book, 2009’s The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, and appeared to still be coming to terms with the current state of their relationship.
“I work hard to make my son accountable for his own dreams,” Coates said. “He talks about all these goals where he wants to play soccer for a German club or go work at Google. I’m telling him, yeah, that’s great, but are you practicing? Did you do your math homework? Being smart and talented is useless without hard work.”