The Conversation: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Written by Bwog Staff
The first issue of The Blue and White is still hanging around campus! In case you missed the issue in print, Bwog humbly hosts this edition of the magazine’s regular feature, The Conversation, in which it interviews notable figures around New York.
This time around, senior editor Claire Sabel, CC ’13, headed to the Hungarian Pastry Shop to chat with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, author of a memoir about growing up in Baltimore, and a Morningside local. In his book, he chronicles his own coming of age, and inheriting Consciousness from his father, a term he uses to mean a political and cultural awareness of of the black struggle in American history. Despite being a brilliant memoirist, Coates isn’t much interested in talking about himself, or his reputation, as The Observer recently phrased it, as “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.” Indifferent to labels, Coates instead describes himself as “profoundly interested in the force of racism in American history and in world history, the invention of racism, and how it exercises itself.”
The Blue and White: So you just wrapped up at MIT right? What were you doing there?
TNC: I taught a class called “Writing and Reading the Essay,” first semester, which was about, you know, writing, [laughs], and second semester I taught the advanced essay workshop, which was just more writing.
B&W: Had you taught writing before?
B&W: So what was that like?
TNC: I loved it! Actually let me change that [previous answer], I had worked in this Americorps program many many years ago, when I was young, like 19, 20. So I had taught in prisons, Norton Correctional Facility with some older cats, I had done workshops for high school kids, and that was the extent of it. So no, not like academia. I liked it a lot. I mean, MIT’s a little different, because they were really really hardworking, they were tough. In writing people talk too much about talent. I think talent is way fucking overrated. I should say it has almost nothing to do with learning. I mean, plenty of talented writers don’t ever become writers, and I think that toughness is much much more important, and I had a lot of tough kids there, and it made the job a lot easier. You know I had it easy, I really did.
B&W: Is it weird to be back in the other side of college having spent that long out of academia?
TNC: You mean having dropped out of college to now be teaching college? Yes.
B&W: What happened in between dropping out and becoming a recognized writer?
TNC: It’s pretty easy, I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I dropped out of college because I loved writing, and I could not believe someone would pay me to write. I really just tried to look for as many opportunities as I could to do the writing that I wanted to do. I didn’t have any other real skills, I wasn’t good at much else [laughs], but that’s cool because that focuses you. Other people have options, I had no other options.
The best advice I ever got, I was about 25, and I was applying for this fellowship at the New America Foundation, which I didn’t get. But the guy that was in charge of it said something really remarkable to me. And he said, “Look, the whole thing is this game is to not get knocked out. If you can stay up, and you keep doing this, until you’re in your mid thirties, what you’ll find is that being 25, there are a lot people that are competing with you, there are a lot of people that want to be writers. But by the time you get to age 35, many of those people will have gone back to school: they’ll have gone to get an MBA, they’ll have gone to law school. They’ll do something that is more financially rewarding.” Because people that go into this tend to be fairly well-educated, and people tend to want to be rewarded for being well-educated. Which I mean is understandable. The beautiful thing is that I was not well educated.
B&W: When did you became aware of the fact of your own story as something you wanted to share with people?
TNC: Well, I always had no problem writing anecdotes, and stuff like that from my life. I met with my editor in ’03, and … I have known him for 10 years, that is ridiculous … woah! We started talking about my dad and he said there might be a book there. And I tried various iterations of it, and it wasn’t coming together … I had always wanted to be a rapper. It’s really strange, this is like my pet peeve when people—the First Lady just did this—denigrate people for wanting to be a rapper. I wanted to be a rapper. What I loved was that these guys did these wonderful things with language, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to make people feel like I felt listening to Wu Tang, or Nas or whoever. I wasn’t doing that in the early drafts of A Beautiful Struggle, and it really really upset me. And I kept trying and I kept doing it over again, until a hit upon a voice that I thought was newer and different and really communicated the spirit of the times.
B&W: Are there other writers you feel are trying to do similar things to what you’re doing?
TNC: Well the master is Junot Diaz, I mean obviously. He’s the best at that. He’s probably the one I think of the most actually.
B&W: You tend in your writing to give things labels, with proper nouns [laughs], something like “The Horde” or “Consciousness.”
TNC: It’s always kind of funny. I mean it’s almost always mocking the concept of labels in and of itself, you know. I think I got a little bit of that from Junot.
B&W: At least in My Beautiful Struggle, Consciousness is definitely a real thing, and it’s important that it has a name, and it’s a place that you get to.
B&W: Do you still think about it in those terms? Do you still think of yourself as being Conscious?
TNC: All the time.
B&W: And do you think that what it means to be Conscious has changed, from growing up?
TNC: Yeah, from when I was kid, it was much more race-centered, African-American, Afro-centered. As an adult it’s been much more about being a thinking person. What does it mean to be a thinking person? Which I think about all the time, which I think about quite a bit. What responsibilities do you have. How do you proceed, how do you hold yourself? Yeah, I think about that all the time.
B&W: Are you trying to impose some kind of Consciousness on your son?
TNC: No. I mean, I talk about … no. Obviously I talk about being black, we have a big poster of Malcom X in the living room, but no, not too much.
B&W: How does your father interact with him? Is there a different generational thing going on?
TNC: See, the thing is, [my father] is going to be black in a way that I am not.
B&W: What do you mean by that?
TNC: Well, it changes. It changes. I didn’t have the experiences my dad had. My son just won’t have the experience that I had. We are aware people, so I guess there are a lot of conversations—I should change that—there are a lot of conversations in the house that he picks up on, so almost by osmosis, you know. I don’t think it’s as—he’s 12—so he’ll talk about things. So I know that he’s aware of things. But it’s much more passive, it’s the air that surrounds him, whereas I think my parents were much more didactic.
B&W: There’s a big difference in the ways we have a conversation about race between the interpersonal level, within a community, and then on a national level. And the way that we talk about race, especially at a national level, really doesn’t have much to do with the actual issues.
TNC: We are not prepared, as a country. We just don’t know enough.
B&W: Would you say that we just have to have more historical knowledge?
TNC: Yeah, I mean there’s the time thing, and I think part of the problem with racism and with power in general, is that power creates narratives to justify itself. So whenever you talk about race or black folks, people will often say to you, “Well, that’s in the past so why don’t we forget about it.” But no one says, “Let’s forget about George Washington”; no one says, “Let’s forget about the American Revolution”; no one says, “Let’s stop celebrating July 4th.” So what you find is that power rigs the game to put itself in a certain place, and then pretends as though it didn’t rig the game, rigs the history as though it didn’t happen.
That sounds really abstract. To make that really real for you: I’ve been doing a lot of writing about the New Deal, and about the wealth gap. You ask most folks in this country, very few people will tell you that the American middle class as we know it, suburban, primarily white, is a government creation. People don’t want to hear that, they think its dedication or hard work. I’m not saying it isn’t, but without government intervention, it would not have happened, and the intervention that happened for white people was very different than the intervention that happened for black people. But we don’t really know that. We like to think that the world we live in is reflective of some sort of deep natural something or other. It’s somehow natural for Harlem to be a ghetto, it’s natural for white people to want to live around white people and for black people to live around black people. You have to have a pretty entrenched ignorance of history to believe that.
B&W: Decisions were made to separate people.
TNC: That’s right, for specific reasons. There was an interest being pursued, it was not random, it was not arbitrary; we are the way we chose to be. Half the problem is not that the game is rigged, but getting people to face the history of the rigging. So we’re not really prepared for any sort of conversation about race, and on racism, which is really where the conversation needs to happen.
B&W: So how do we go about getting better prepared?
TNC: I don’t know. People may need to feel good about a state. We’re at a point where we can say, “Slavery was wrong,” right? Well that’s because everyone who held slaves has been long, long dead. Can we say there were racist aspects to the New Deal? Let me go further: Can we say that white supremacy made the New Deal possible? Probably not. Because the New Deal is within living memory of this country, so that gets harder. You get into existential questions about the nature of a republic. Can any state ultimately be really reflective upon itself? I don’t know. Absent some great military defeat—I mean I’m thinking about Germany.
B&W: One of the things that people my age, which is not that much younger, but a bit younger than you, haven’t figured out how to deal with yet, is the social movements of the ‘60s. In some ways they feel very close to me. Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights are intuitive, they don’t seem radical. I can understand how at the time they were radical, but it’s also far enough away that it doesn’t really touch me, I wasn’t personally involved. It was a generation away, and there’s a lot of complacency that comes with that.
TNC: I think something horrible has to happen. Activists in the ’60s, they weren’t better people. There wasn’t something in their bones that made them more determined or better. They were determined by conditions: World War Two happened, and raised profound questions of inequality. You were talking about the massacre of 90% of an ethnic group, based on what? We fought against the people that tried to do that—not because they tried to do that, by the way—but because they were our enemies. That creates profound questions within a society that’s tolerating white supremacy, that’s tolerating systemic sexism. But what I’m trying to say is, actual events happened that made that happen, but people weren’t any better. It was just in a different time. When people are complacent, it’s for reasons.
B&W: People talk about Twitter activism, things that make you feel like you are reacting to the bad things, but in this way that is totally comfortable. That seems like a definitive trajectory, that the bad things are getting more and more removed, from Americans, at least.
TNC: I assure you that’s temporary. I assure you that will change.
B&W: You don’t sound that optimistic about the future in general.
TNC: I don’t know. How can you be optimistic? I mean, you hope for the best. But the worst probably happens. At the end we all die, we know that [laughs]. You know about the Civil War right? The North didn’t launch a war to free black people, the South went to war to protect slavery. It’s the same with World War Two. We didn’t go to war to save the Jews, we got bombed by Japan. And I’m not saying that America’s particularly worse than anyone else. Did you guys do a lot on the 30 Years War? There’s this great book by this historian C.V. Wedgwood, called The 30 Years War, have you seen this? It’s fucking incredible, I mean just like a novel, but it’s history, beautiful, you’ll love it. It’s a beautiful read. They’re fighting over nothing, they’re butchering each other. At the end of the book, she says the 30 Years War solved no problems, basically the poor and the lowest suffered the worst, it did nothing. They were descending literally into cannibalism. It’s very hard to be optimistic. I’m not cynical, I love being alive, I love human beings, but … you hope. I guess there are ideas that are around today that weren’t around before: the notion of women’s rights actually does exist. There have been changes that will liberate history for the better, maybe. I live in hope that it will be better.
B&W: That’s why I love history. It facilitates, and provides context for, being hopeful, while not being optimistic.
TNC: Yeah. At the same time, though, it’s like, racism is a modern invention. I mean racism as we know it today; there have always been concepts of race. People thought all sorts of things about people who were different than them, but the notion that it was concluded that there was this thing called “whiteness”; that having straight hair, or certain eyes equated intelligence. People don’t even think that in the early days of the colony of Virginia. Our phobias around interracial sex, these are modern inventions. And that is scary.
B&W: And history shows that in a really stark, clear way. I love [Columbia History professor] Barbara Fields formulation of that, which is “it’s weird.”
TNC: It really is.
B&W: It’s a terrain of thinking that you can take a step back from, and say, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
TNC: Right, right, right. If you think history began with the slave trade, then, yes, it makes sense. But you talk to people and they think, like, race is natural. It’s ridiculous! It’s absolutely ridiculous. And it’s as though black people and white people had never encountered each other before the slave trade—what we call black people and white people. And it’s like, what? Do you know that the Portuguese had been there, that the Moors had been there, that the Arabs had been there, that the Arabs had encountered black people in 700? Do you know anything about this at all? The answer is no. Even if you say, in American history, did you know that black people and white people were sleeping together in the early days of Virginia and it was not considered bizarre? It happened after laws were passed, and laws were passed for reasons of property. This is what I mean about power creating its own science and ideology to justify itself. You’re right, Barbara Fields is great on that. But we don’t get that, and we don’t want to get that, because it would create terrible problems for us. We would immediately figure out that if this world isn’t natural, that means somebody changed it, and made it this way, and thus we have the ability to change it back.
B&W: And nobody wants to be accountable.
TNC: No, because then not only can we change it back, but we kind of have to: it would make it morally right for us to change it back. Which is scary. So, like, if that’s the case, then what? What does that mean? If there’s nothing particularly special about it, then racism, the hatred of somebody based on the creation of a race is not special—fuck, that’s scary, that’s really, really scary. The Civil War really brought that home to me. You really start getting to what would make people do that sort of thing, you get to what slavery represented, and that is power. Again, it’s always power. It’s not just, ‘I hate you because you’re darker than me,’ but why? What does that justify, what’s behind that, what are you getting out of that? And you get to these questions of power, so that’s been really profound to me.
B&W: So are you writing, history? What are you writing?
TNC: We’ll see. That’s probably the best answer I can give you.