On Oct. 23, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, spoke at the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University. He spoke about his best-selling novel “Between the World and Me” where he writes a letter to his son about what it’s like to be black in America.
I had no idea who Ta-Nehisi Coates was, nor had I ever read his infamous article “The Case for Reparations” I just saw that the article was 63 pages and cringed at time that could be spent elsewhere. All I knew was that this guy was nicknamed “The GAWD” and called a genius by admirers on his twitter feed.
When I read “The Case for Reparations,” I was impressed by the complexity of Coates’ arguments. An article that poses a controversial idea, it highlights the disadvantages that blacks have had throughout the history of America and how they affect blacks today. He argues African Americans should receive reparations and said, “Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors, America will never be whole.”
The amount of research that went into his argument was impeccable. What made it so profound was its eye-opening truths. He provided solutions for problems you knew were the causes of black crime and poverty but were too complex to pinpoint.
When he spoke at IU Bloomington, he wasn’t self-glorifying or pretentious. He wasn’t selling his books in the lobby or shelving out accolades. This is the same man who has received praise from the Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison who said “Between the World and Me” is required reading. A man who recently received a “genius” grant from the Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation worth $625,000. The same man who is writing a Black Panther comic book for Marvel.
Wearing a gray suit jacket and jeans, he started his speech by explaining his failures and encouraged aspiring writers to never give up.
“Don’t quit. Don’t ever quit,” said Coates. “That confrontation with failure is what writing is…. The terror of failure never goes away. It is the job. Reconcile yourself with that fact. Keep going, and don’t go to business school.”
He mentioned that while working on his book “Between the World and Me,” he had written it several times before his editor thought it was good enough to publish. I constantly wrestle with the fear of failure when I write. I’m feeling it now as I write this story. I avoid writing for that very reason, fear to the point of stifling my creativity and self esteem. Knowing that someone as accomplished as Coates experiences failure gives me hope for my career.
Ta-Nehisi Coates explained the history behind “Between the World and Me,” how it was inspired by the death of a friend.
He met Prince Jones at Howard University. A guy admired by Coates for his strong faith, they became friends. Some years later, Coates read in an article that Prince Jones had been shot and killed, killed at the hands of police officers for being mistaken as a criminal. The officers were never prosecuted.
Ta-Nehisi made a point to say that Prince’s mother, Dr. Mabel Jones, worked hard to provide for her son so that he could lead a better life. She followed all the rules of being an outstanding citizen. She was the daughter of sharecroppers. She was the first to complete high-school, the first to go to college. She became a neurosurgeon. But none of that mattered. Her son was killed simply because of the color of his skin.
Coates said, “The difference between being black in America and being white in America is that there is no level you can rise to at which you can be immune to the fear that your child will be mistaken as a criminal.”
In the eighth section of “The Case for Reparations,” “Negro Poverty is not White Poverty,” he touched on this very topic when he quoted Billy Brooks:
“You ain’t Shit. You not no good. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You not going to get an education. We are sending your ass to the penitentiary.’ They’re telling you no matter how hard you struggle, no matter what you put down, you ain’t shit. ‘We’re going to take what you’ve got. You will never own anything, nigger.”
Being a black woman in America, this quote connected so many ideas about poverty and crime in sixty-eight words. The reason a lot of black crime happens is because of institutionalized racism and years of oppression. Young people turn to economic alternatives, like selling drugs, because they’ve seen their parents do everything right only to get screwed. They’ve seen friends get shot and killed for no reason.
What Ta-Nehisi Coates wanted people to take away from “Between the World and Me” is “what the rate of racism in this country means, what the rate of white supremacy in this country means.” He told the audience that he could throw out statistics, talk about topics such as the wealth gap and crime rate in this country, but to him those topics are abstract.
“I wanted you to feel it,” said Coates. “I wanted you to know what it meant to be flesh and blood and have to respond to all of those forces that seem abstract but in fact are not.”
At the end of his speech, Ta-Nehisi Coates opened the floor to questions. Roughly twenty people lined up on either side of the Musical Arts Center where mics stood to facilitate the Q&A.
The questions being asked of Coates were broad topics that no one person could answer in one sitting, let alone thirty seconds. Convoluted questions that addressed things like intersectionality and neoliberalism. Concepts, at that moment, I needed to google.
Coates told it like it is; regardless what students asked, he didn’t sugarcoat anything.
The first question Coates was asked was, “Where do we go from here?” Taken aback by the ambiguous question, he responded bluntly and challenged persons asking the questions to narrow them.
The last question came from Sean, a graduate student and aspiring writer.
Sean said that he’s always wanted to write about race social justice issues, but has had trepidation about possibly offending people with his arguments. He asked Ta-Nehisi Coates how he avoids offending people when writing about social justice issues. Coates responded without hesitation: “I just don’t care.”