Twenty Minutes with Ta-Nehisi Coates
September 26, 2017
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Ta-Nehisi Coates needs no introduction. The Atlantic’s national correspondent began his three year stint as NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute Distinguished Writer in Residence this month. His first public appearance for the school was as the inaugural speaker for Skirball Talks, a new talk series hosted by the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts featuring visionaries across disciplines. Coates will alternate between teaching an undergraduate and a graduate journalism class each semester, beginning with an undergraduate class next spring.
Before his talk, Coates sat down with WSN in Skirball’s green room, where he delivered declamations on protests in the National Football League, what motivates him to write and his time abroad in Paris.
Washington Square News: Why did you take a job at NYU?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I taught at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] sometime ago in 2012, and I was actually at [City University of New York’s] Journalism school in 2014, and it was a deeply, deeply rewarding experience. Talking about writing forced me to be able to explain why things worked and why things were beautiful. If you practice long enough, you will begin to do certain things intuitively, which is good, but then you forget why it’s good. There’s nothing like having to explain that to somebody who is just trying to learn — that’s the first reason. The second reason is I’m very much a product of folks who took time to educate me on how to write and how to read and how to report. The second thing is the basic debt to pay that back. The third thing is I think like anyone else I have certain ideas about how a practice should be undertaken, and I think that maybe some of those ideas are valuable and I look forward to the opportunity to pass that on.
This is going to sound small, but I don’t think it’s small — I don’t think journalists pay enough attention to beautiful language. I’m sort of biased in this way because I actually started off as a poet before being a journalist, but one of the things I always try and accomplish in my writing is not merely the act of being factually correct and putting together a factually convincing argument, but putting together a haunting argument — putting things together in such a way that you remember. I want you going to bed thinking about it, I want you to wake up thinking about it and go through your week thinking about it. It’s not simply the information that carries that. It’s the tools with which you use to actually convey the information to the reader, and a large part of that is language. I think people miss all the time the role of language and beautiful language in convincing folks. We’re at this point right now in our country where there’s this obsession with: what facts can I get that will allow me to convince the other side of a particular point. But I don’t really think it’s enough to aim at the head, I really do believe you have to aim at the heart too. People have to feel it. The way the best journalists that I love — the Elizabeth Kolberts, Ian Parker, Ian Frazier, obviously my hero James Baldwin — what these folks had and have was language. Elizabeth Kolbert, don’t get me wrong, is a great reporter. Ian Parker is a great reporter don’t get me wrong. But they know how to deploy the English language in such a way to organize their reporting to make it do something more than simply get you to nod and say ‘that’s correct’ and then walk away.
WSN: What motivates you to write?
TC: I choose by the thing that does exactly what I just said — in other words, the thing that haunts me, the thing that I can’t stop thinking about, the thing that I go to bed thinking about and waking up thinking about it. That’s the thing that I should be writing about. That’s always the driving force.
When have the majority of Americans ever supported the protests of African Americans or any other minority fighting for equality? Never. It’s not like when Susan B. Anthony was arguing for women’s suffrage in the 19th century most men thought that was a good idea. The point I was making is that some of the very people these folks lionize, [Martin Luther King,] it’s not like most people in Montgomery, [Alabama] thought the bus boycott was a good idea — most white people didn’t think that was a good idea. The battle is for the future, and it’s quite clear to me that with these guys there’s no question about what people think these guys are doing right now. It’s about what their children and grandchildren are going to think about it. That’s the real question. And it’s quite clear to me that the historical pattern is that people find protest to be inconvenient or whatever and you know with some reflection they change their mind.
WSN: What’s something you need to believe to get you through your day?
TC: I guess that I’m being a good father. That I’m being a good husband. Those are probably the two biggest, the two biggest by far.
WSN: What book are you reading right now?
TC: It’s by this historian David Brion Davis. I was reading this on the train falling asleep, “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture.” Very good. A classic book for historians. He wrote this trilogy and I hope to get through all three of them, but right now I’m on the first one. I’ve got about 100 pages left.
WSN: Why do you write your stories with such an academic and scholarly bent?
TC: Because I was a history major in college. And I’ve always been very, very interested in history. When I was in school one of the things I noticed about journalism and journalists was how loose they often tended to be in their arguments and how poor their sense of history was. And that’s a thing that continues even today regrettably. I shouldn’t be a standout for that. That should be the standard. That should be normal.
WSN: What drew you specifically to history?
TC: Because it says why it happened. It says why it happened. I think oftentimes to avoid understanding why it happened people ignore history. History is your identity. What are you except the things that you’ve done, you know? That’s how we know you. Our country is the thing that it’s done. That’s who we are. When I’m writing about America in that sense history has to be there, it’s essential to any process of trying to understand or articulate or critique the present.
WSN: What have you learned from the past nine months? What’s come up that you haven’t expected?
TC: Nothing. I mean, there have been moments where I was shocked but not surprised. That’s not because I’m me, there’s no difference between what [President Donald] Trump is and what he said he was. There’s not any difference. It’s not because I knew it all. It’s only surprising for people who thought he was joking or who don’t take the rhetoric of white supremacy and bigotry seriously. That’s the only reason any of this would be surprising. He’s exactly who he ran as. You can’t accuse him of hypocrisy. You can’t say that.
WSN: What’s one thing we should do or gain from our college education?
TC: You should learn a second language. You should not leave college without having learned a second language. If you leave college without learning a second language, you’ve failed big time. It’s one of the few skills, one of the few tangible skills, whether you have a degree or not, that will always be useful and you have four years to really burrow in and lock in on that. There’s no excuse. There’s no excuse.
WSN: What was it like living in Paris?
TC: It was an incredible experience. It was a different pace of life. We only came back because my wife went to [medical] school. I think we wouldn’t have come back. We really, really loved it over there. You can feel a certain way about a country’s politics and feel a certain way about its culture you know. Obviously I don’t like the politics of the South, but when I’m in the South, there’s something about the culture that I really like a lot. It was kind of the same way in France. There were big problems with the politics, but the culture I loved. I loved how formal people were with their eating. I loved how people didn’t talk really loud in restaurants, how they look at you crazy if you did. I loved the thing that people don’t love about parisians which was how brusque they were. I never had any problems wondering what they thought. I always knew.
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