When the Chicago Humanities Festival strayed out of the city and came to Evanston on Saturday, it brought along one of its highest-profile speakers: award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a 2015 MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellow, took the stage of Cahn Auditorium for his sold-out afternoon talk, structured as a conversation between him and WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore. He was one of four festival speakers that came to campus on Saturday, as part of the festival’s Morris and Dolores Kohl Kaplan Northwestern Day.
The talk focused on his most recent book, Between the World and Me, which became a #1 New York Times Bestseller shortly after it was published this past July. It was also recently announced as a finalist for the National Book Awards. Written as a letter to his teenage son, the book reflects on Coates’ experiences as a black man in America, particularly his upbringing in Baltimore, and the damage done by physical violence against black bodies, including over-policing.
Coates said that the book’s massively positive reception stunned him, and that he wasn’t quite sure why the book became as popular as it did.
“The sheer number of white people who have read this book is amazing,” he said.
Coates and Moore settled into easy conversation; after all, they had known each other since college. At the beginning of the talk, she commented on his sweater from Howard University, where she had been his editor when they both worked on the campus newspaper.
A Howard history professor who taught both Coates and Moore inspired a central image of Coates’ book: the destruction of black bodies. Coates said that this professor, a feminist labor scholar, often talked about the exploitation of black women’s bodies, but he only fully grasped the concept years after the class.
The book’s focus on the black body allowed him to talk about the visceral nature of white supremacy, he said, and the physical injury it causes.
He said that he was also influenced by James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, which was published during the civil rights movement and focused on America’s so-called “Negro Problem” during the 1960s. The book’s complex mixture of journalism, history, memoir and poetic language felt natural to Coates, like Baldwin was “freestyling” his arguments about race relations.
“Why does no one write like this anymore?” Coates said, echoing what he had asked his editors after re-reading Baldwin. When they said that he should try to write something similar, he began writing his first draft of his own book, toward the end of 2013. He clarified, however, that he wasn’t setting out to be the next Baldwin; rather, he wanted to write about his own experiences as a black man in America.
Part of writing about those personal experiences, he said, requires being candid about all aspects of his life. This includes his father beating him for disobedience, something journalists have consistently asked about during recent interviews. Coates said that these punishments reflected black parents’ anxieties about punishing their children’s misbehavior before police or gang members could harm or kill them. White people shouldn’t feel morally superior if they don’t resort to corporal punishment to discipline their children he said; they would do the same if they were in his parents’ situation.
“My job is to be honest,” he said. “My job is to contextualize what happens in the black community.”
When Moore remarked that Coates seems to be the only black writer that white people want to read, he said that it’s a matter of people’s own sincerity if they choose to read other works that talk about systemic racism. If they haven’t, he said, they’ve lost. But as he and his work have attracted more attention, Coates said that he worries for other black writers who deserve more praise than he does.
Apart from discussing Between the World and Me, Coates also talked about his award-winning article “The Case for Reparations,” in which he examines the ways in which the United States has been built on the plunder of black people and argues that reparations must be paid for damages done.
In addition to giving a brief synopsis of how American policy has historically denied resources to and extracted wealth from black communities, Coates talked about how he drew on a wealth of existing scholarship to write the article. Because so much of early sociological research was conducted in Chicago, he was able to cite a huge amount of data that painted a vivid picture of housing discrimination in the city. The long history of redlining and the racist formation of projects, he said, wasn’t hidden at all. There was so much data about the effects of segregation on black people, in fact, that he wondered why more hadn’t been done in response.
“Why is there a debate about racism in America? It's right there,” he said.
In the question-and-answer portion of the talk, Coates touched on his recently published Atlantic article about black families and mass incarceration, in response to a question about emerging bipartisan support in Congress to de-incarcerate America’s prison system. He said that he thought the buzz about these efforts was “over-hyped,” since the mechanisms for incarcerating black people at disproportionately high rates would still be in place. Furthermore, the U.S. would have to clear out prisons by 80 percent in order to return to pre-1970s levels of incarceration.
In response to the Q&A’s final question, about the effects of having a black president and attorney general, Coates voiced skepticism of any concrete benefits. For comparison, he said that Angela Merkel being chancellor of Germany did not mean that women experience less sexism.
He also said that models of black excellence, like President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, should not be the standard to which all black people are held, since so much luck was involved in their success.
“We will know that we have [equality] when black people have the right to be mediocre,” Coates said.