Ta-Nehisi Coates describes himself as “a black writer, and I write a lot about race,” and on May 8, at Butler University, he talked a lot about both race and writing.
He reiterated the case for reparations that he made in a much-discussed 2014 article in The Atlantic, and he said his goal when he writes is, “I want to feel good. I want to be at peace. I need to internally feel good about my writing.”
He told a 10-year-old white girl who asked what she can do to act against racism to listen and read. “I would be trying to understand more than I would be trying to act.” And he cited E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime as a book that particularly inspired him.
“It’s beautiful and literate, but there’s a lot of history in it,” he said.
Coates, who won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me and has found another level of fame writing The Black Panther and Captain Marvel comics, was at Clowes Memorial Hall to deliver the Indianapolis Public Library’s 42nd annual Marian McFadden Memorial Lecture. Rather than a lecture, it turned out to be a loose, freewheeling conversation between Coates and author Tamara Winfrey Harris.
Among the topics Coates discussed:
- The importance of libraries. Coates said that as a young man in a rough area of Baltimore, he found safety in libraries. He urged the audience “to support your library system.”
- What he’s learned about race over the years. “I didn’t understand how fundamental the black experience was to the American experience … If you don’t understand this, you really don’t understand your country.”
- He’s in favor of taking down Confederate soldier monuments. “I think we are moving in the right direction.”
- He doesn’t view himself any differently after receiving a MacArthur “genius” grant, the National Book Award, and other accolades, and he doesn’t think of himself as a genius. He compared praise for his work to hearing nice things about your children. “And then you remember every single thing your kid did wrong … As long as I don’t think of myself as a genius, I think I’m OK.”
- He said Between the World and Me went through three significant revisions. After one, he received a 2,000-word letter from his editor that he boiled down to this: “Brah, this is not it.”
- His next book, The Water Dancer, is a novel he’s been working on since 2009. He declined to talk about it other than to say “I hope you read it. I hope you enjoy it.”
- As a young man, he was influenced by comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, and hip-hop, citing Rakim, Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan as particularly important to him.
- “Even now when I’m writing, I listen to hip-hop because … when you write, what you try to do is pack the most emotion and feeling and information into the smallest amount of space. Rappers are really good at that.”
- He thinks he’s a better person for having quit Twitter. With 1.2 million followers, “you lose the freedom to be yourself.”
- How his fans should talk to Trump supporters. “I think a lot of times our dialogue assumes that there are people who are decent and good people and if we just gave them the right information and said it the right way, they would see it as you see it. But lost in that is the possibility that there are people—not to generalize—who don’t want to see it that way, and indeed have a vested interest in not seeing it that way…. All I can do is write and speak in a respectful but clear and candid manner.”
- Asked about reparations, he cited the 20-to-1 wealth gap between whites and blacks, and the need for “radical action” to repair it.
“It’s not just that black people have an infinitesimal amount of wealth compared to white people. It’s that because of segregation, black people only live around other people who have an infinitesimal amount of wealth. Their entire network is other people who have been stolen from, so you have been individually plundered, everybody who lives around you has been plundered—your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother was plundered, and their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were plundered too. So in every direction, it’s theft. And on the other side, what you see are whole communities of people who live around each other who have benefited from that theft.”