Local Washington was the setting for many of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ formative experiences. Coates was born and raised in Baltimore, Md., where he grew up with a black nationalist father. He later made his way down to Washington, D.C. as a student at Howard University and later as a writer at the Washington City Paper. Kojo sat with him in one of Washington’s most historic black churches to discuss how those experiences, and the election of President Barack Obama, led to his new book “We Were Eight Years In Power.”
- Ta-Nehisi Coates National Correspondent, The Atlantic; Author, "We Were Eight Years In Power," "Between the World and Me," "The Beautiful Struggle." @tanehisicoates
"Nice Of You To Join Us": Ta-Nehisi Coates' Two Trips To Obama's White House
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book “We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy” is a collection of both political and personal essays covering the time Barack Obama was president. Here is an anecdote Coates shared this week at Metropolitan AME Church about two times Obama invited him to the White House.
I had been writing some things about the president at the time. Some of those things were not kind to say the least. Which is my job and I don’t apologize for any of that. That was my job and I stand by all of it . . .
I went down to the White House. It was me and a bunch of other journalists . . . I’d come up on the streets so I kind of knew what this was, right? This was like “Say it to my face,” right? I wasn’t fooled but I was a little shook. He comes in, shakes hands with everybody, sits down, I sit down next to him . . .
So you get to ask a question, they go around, and I ask some really weak, moist question to the president. And he answered the question, and then he said . . . “By the way, Ta-Nehisi, I saw what you wrote the other day and it was terribly unfair. You’re a gifted writer but you know . . . ” And then he went off on me for what felt like an hour. And I know it wasn’t an hour but it really felt like that. So I left, went home, told my wife about everything and it was upsetting.
Then he went back and he gave another one of these speeches. I used to hate these speeches, you know, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” I hated those speeches. And he went and gave it again and I said, you know what? I’m not shook. Because they call you down, they think they’re gonna punk you and then you’re not gonna do what you’re gonna do, at least that’s what I was thinking in my head. So then I wrote it again . . . And I get another phone call . . . and they’re like “Can you come down tomorrow?”
So day of, I told my wife, I said, “listen, I’m going down again. But I’m not shook this time, I’m gonna go in, [I’m gonna] take it to him . . .” And Kenyatta’s like “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” She’s hyping me up . . . “What did Baldwin do when he met Kennedy? He went in there, he gave it to him. You tell him about it, baby. That’s you, baby! You got it, you got it!”
I got on the train and I BS you not, I had “Ballot or the Bullet” on my iPhone. I listened to that joint all the way down. I had Malcolm going, man, I said “[I’m gonna] do it.” I get down there and it’s raining that day. I get to Union Station, I catch a cab, the cab is snarled in traffic. I’m way, way late. And I get out the cab and I don’t have an umbrella. And I don’t have a suit on. I was in my mode, I was totally inappropriately dressed and everything . . . I’m ready now. I’m not shook. I’m late, I’m wet, but I’m not shook. I’m good.
So he says “Nice of you to join us” and keeps answering whatever question. So I sit down and this time it’s journalists from all across the board. And it’s high level, David Brooks-level people in that room . . . And they’re asking him about the economy, foreign policy, the environment, tax cuts. And he is taking every one of these dudes on in detail. I wish you could have seen it. It was a display of brilliance. And part of me, the black part of me, is like “Yeah! Get ‘em, get ‘em, get ‘em!” ‘Cause I’m watching this black dude do this thing, you know? But then the other part of me is like “I gotta get ready to do what I got to do.”
My time comes, right, so I ask him my question. And this time I’m actually overheated. I was like “You said you were going to do x, y, and z. And the ACA says . . .” and I’m running down statistics about Obamacare . . . He says “Hold up, hold up. Can I respond?” And he gives his response. And usually this doesn’t happen. Usually you get your response and you keep it going, but I said “Well, can I respond?” And he said “Yeah, please, please.” And I look around and all the white people in the room were . . . looking like, “Oh my god, these two black dudes is fighting, like they getting it in . . .”
You’re not going to beat the president. But we go back and forth and I leave and I’m thinking about this. And I’m thinking about how fortunate I was to be there and to take that case directly to the highest offices in the country.
And I call Chris Jackson up, my editor, and I rewound it, and I was telling him about reading Baldwin and I said “Yo, this is the moment. Not only is this the text that should be the inspiration. This is the moment and this book doesn’t exist . . .” He said “Listen, man. The road is littered with writers who tried to do The Fire Next Time. Just go Google ‘The Fire This Time.’ There’s a lot of folks who tried this who ain’t quite get there that don’t nobody remember.” And then he said “But I think you can do it. If anybody can do it, you can do it.” So we went off and five drafts later we didn’t quite do it but we got Between The World And Me.