This weekend, MacArthur “Genius” award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates set foot onto Northwestern campus for a presentation titled Between the World and Me, referencing his most recent book of the same name. He spoke at the Chicago Humanities Festival, in conjunction with the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities to a crowd of over 1,000 at Cahn Auditorium.
However, not many Northwestern students were in the audience.
Coates, according to CHF Artistic Director Jonathon Elmer, seemed like the perfect fit for this year’s festival, being “a figure of rising national prominence on questions of race in America.”
“It seemed he was speaking very directly to the question of citizenship,” Elmer said, and Coates’ recent work has been applauded by critics for that very reason. "Between the World and Me," along with his Atlantic piece dealing with black families in the era of incarceration, address issues that have dominated recent news coverage such as police brutality and the need for prison reform. Most of Coates’ work tends to focus on the question of what it means to be black in America, touching on the history of slavery, violence and the institutional racism towards African Americans that plagues our society.
When asked about the impact of bringing such an influential author to NU, Assistant Director of the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities Thomas Burke, who helped organize the event, hopes the program will spark meaningful conversation about these issues between students.
“We are always excited to facilitate lively humanities discourse on campus,” Burke said in an email.
However, due to the size of the event, many Northwestern students weren’t able to attend, which may make this discourse harder to initiate.
“There has been tremendous interest in the Ta-Nehisi Coates event,” Burke said in an email. “In fact, his event was sold out even before his MacArthur award was announced, so you can probably imagine the number of people we’ve had to turn away — when ticket sales began, it would have been difficult to predict just how popular the event would be."
Since the event was held in conjunction with the Chicago Humanities Festival, tickets were available to the public and there were not tickets reserved explicitly for students, although students could buy tickets at a discounted rate. However, due to the popularity of the event, tickets sold out in less than an hour and most NU students weren’t lucky enough to snag one.
“I definitely feel like the school should have reserved more tickets,” said School of Communication senior Theanne Liu, who won a ticket to the Coates event in a lottery through the Center for Civic Engagement. “I feel really fortunate that I got to attend, but I definitely wish that more students, especially students affiliated with the Multicultural Center or the Black House […] could have had tickets reserved for them."
The Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities has received similar complaints. “We’re aware that some students are disappointed they won’t get into they event, but at the same time we’re thrilled that we’ll be providing an experience with Coates to an audience of 1,000 plus,” Burke said in an email.
Due to some of the backlash surrounding the scarcity of tickets, Burke said in an email that the Alice Kaplan Center for the Humanities “will think about these issues as we move into the future,” hopefully finding a way to make next year’s events more inclusive to the student body.
However, for students missing out this year, not all hope is lost.
“We do want everyone to know that the Humanities Festival will be taking video of the event and posting it in its entirety on their website as soon as it’s edited,” Burke said in an email.
So, although many students were not physically in attendance Saturday, the organizers hope this digital access to Coates’ words of wisdom will still serve as an opportunity to prompt an important dialogue on campus, extending Coates’ reach far beyond the doors of Cahn.
And maybe next year, we’ll get a seat.