On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The Washington region was the setting for many of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ formative experiences. A Baltimore native, a student at Howard University and a writer for Washington City Paper, Coates is now better known as the author of many books, including the award-winning “Between the World and Me” and the former national correspondent for The Atlantic. His 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” started a national conversation and was named the top work of journalism of the decade.
Coates joins us to discuss what this last year has meant for Black people in America, his own upbringing in the Washington region, adapting his written work for the small screen and crafting the newest Superman reboot.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Ta-Nehisi Coates Author, "The Water Dancer," "We Were Eight Years In Power," "Between the World and Me," "The Beautiful Struggle"; Former National Correspondent, The Atlantic
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. The Washington region was the setting for many of Ta-Nehisi Coates' formative experiences. A Baltimore native, a student at Howard University and a Writer for Washington City Paper, Coates is today known for his award-winning coverage of cultural, social and political issues and his many books. Joining us to discuss what this last year has meant for America and his own upbringing in the Washington region is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ta-Nehisi, thank you for joining us.
TA-NEHISI COATESSuch a pleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDITa-Nehisi Coates is a Journalist and the author of several books including "The Beautiful Struggle," "Between the World and Me," "We Were Eight Years in Power." In 2019, he published his first novel, "The Water Dancer." He's a recipient of the McArthur Genius Grant. If you have questions or comments -- so Ta-Nehisi, we have to start with the latest news. You're writing a reboot of Superman. What can you tell us about this project?
COATESI can tell you about this project, quite a bit in fact, which is that I'm writing a reboot of Superman. (laugh)
NNAMDII figured that would be all the information we can get from you at this point. Well, we don't have to talk specifics. But this isn't your first foray into the superhero realm. Tell us about your work on the Black Panther comic book relaunch. Why was this something you wanted to be involved in?
COATESYeah. No, it's not. So I was a huge comic book, you know, head as a kid. Loved comics and they were just important I think for expanding my imagination. Believe it or not a lot of my early vocabulary, because comics are such a sense of the mellow dramatic, they use these huge words. And so, you know, you're starting off -- I mean, this is seen as sort of junk literature, which actually being exposed to constructs and science, parallel, you know, realities, the idea of time space, all of that is sort of in there. So it had a very, very formative effect on me as a writer. And so when I got a chance from Marvel to do Black Panther and then later to do Captain Marvel, I mean it was a dream come true. It was a place that I never thought that I would be.
COATESAnd, you know, to continue in that vein on the big screen is pretty big. And I really don't mean to be cagey about the Superman thing. I just, you know, I think one of the things I've learned really through semi-high profile projects, like Black Panther and Captain America and the interaction with fans who are so essential to the success and the reception of the work is you really -- you just don't want to be louder than the work. You know what I mean?
COATESWhen it comes time for the work to be presented to the world, I really want to not have a situation where I have gotten in the way of the reception of the work. I want it to be received as it is when that day comes.
NNAMDIYou're known as a writer's writer, someone who really cares deeply about the craft. So tell us a little bit more about "The Water Dancer." This was your first work of fiction published in 2019. For listeners who might not know, what was this book about? And what inspired you to write a novel?
COATESYeah, it's a book about an enslaved man by the name of Hiram Walker, who's living on a Virginia plantation at the start of the book and has a pretty natural gift of memory. Hiram can remember every single detail about the world expect the thing that's most important to him and that is his mother. I started writing "The Water Dancer" -- the thing I always tell people is it seems like I switched from essays to fiction. But the fact of the matter is "The Water Dancer" at least in its inception and in terms of how long I've been living with it is older than "Between the World and Me," is older than all except one essay in "We Were Eight Years in Power."
COATESThat book really began almost immediately after my first. "The Beautiful Struggle" was published in 2008. And my editors and my agent at the time, you know, suggested that I give fiction a shot. And so it took 10 years. And it mostly took 10 years, because I had to figure out how to write fiction, which is not as you can imagine a simple thing. I mean, it may appear that way because of how things were published. But this is was not a situation in which, you know, after "Between the World and Me" I was like, "Oh, I think I'll try my hand in fiction."
COATESI had been trying to get "The Water Dancer" out for years actually. In fact, I was trying to get it out before "Between the World and Me," but I just hadn't figured it out at that point.
NNAMDIHow did you feel about the reception of the novel?
COATESOh, I was overwhelmed. I mean, I am overwhelmed. There's a long history of journalists or non-fiction writers trying fiction and not faring too well. And there's an even longer history of first time novelists not faring too well. And so, you know, I was just totally, totally overwhelmed that people seem to want to read it and were receptive of the story.
NNAMDIWell, it certainly went better than your early forays into poetry, didn't it?
COATESOh, yeah. Yeah, it did. It did. It did. It should, though. It should hopefully. You know, I was 20 back then. You know what's funny? I was at a party about I guess about a year and a half ago. It was a Howard Homecoming party before COVID and everything. And there's a guy there who knew me back in Baltimore when I used to be a rapper actually. And I was saying, "This is my man such and such. He knew me back in the day. I was trying to be a MC." One of my friends was like, "Ha, was he any good?" And the guy said, "He's a much better writer." (laugh)
NNAMDIIt's good to have people who have known you long enough not be that influenced by you. Exactly a year ago on this show we were having our very first conversation about the coronavirus. By then only a couple dozen cases had been reported in the Washington region. What are you taking away from this year and how has it been for you?
COATESWell, it's funny, because I started out -- I haven't really said this. But it was a very interesting situation, because when it first happened, you know, I was in a very, very different spot that I, you know, usually have been when these kind of catastrophes hit. My time in New York has just been a one crazy event after the other. You know, be it 9/11, be it the blackout in 2003, be it Hurricane Sandy. I mean, it's been just this constant just waiting on the alien invasion now. And for the first time in my life, you know, I actually had -- was in this relatively privileged position where I could of left.
COATESAnd had this long conversation with my wife about whether we should leave or whether we should stay. And ultimately decided to stay, because I think that's what writers are supposed to do at least in my head. You know what I mean? I don't want to make an assessment for other people. But for me I felt like as a writer there was something to actually staying and experiencing and trying to bear witness. And I actually thought, oh, okay. At the end of this I'll have some sort of essay or whatever.
COATESBut probably about I guess by summer I realized that I wasn't going to have an essay. And the reason I wasn't going to have an essay is because we're living in a time right now where as a good buddy of mine, Adam Serwer said -- writes for The Atlantic, D.C. native too by the way. As he said, this is a great time for writing. But it's not a great time for quote, unquote "writers." By which he meant this is not the moment for folks to chin stroke and opine. But it's a great moment for us to go out and do our job and find stories and listen to people. And so that's really -- and I can't say too much about this. But that's really what I'm in the process of doing, you know, in terms of COVID. Doing a lot of that.
COATESYou know, it's the same with this summer with Vanity Fair when I edited the issue. I really thought I was going to go to Louisville and come back with this long, you know, essay about the police and the Black community and everything. And at the end of the day what it turned out was what was most probably important was the voice of the folks that were going through it down there.
COATESSo I've been doing a lot of listening, Kojo. That's really the bottom line.
NNAMDIThat's my job actually.
NNAMDI"Between the World and Me" is a letter to your son. And at least on one level a meditation on Black parenting. Oh, by the way, I got to tell you a story. A couple of years ago, we were doing something called Kojo Popups. And one of the places I was popping up was in Ubers and Lyfts. And we picked up some young men in the vicinity of Howard University, and only one of them really agreed to be interviewed. The other was reluctant, and when we were taking the young man -- he was going downtown to a restaurant.
NNAMDIWe said, where are you going? He said, I'm taking my cousin who's a freshman at Howard University to lunch and I am a senior and I'm graduating. So I'm just going to school him a little bit. And as he was getting out of the Uber, he pointed out that his young cousin was your son. Okay. Who I never got to meet on that occasion.
NNAMDIYes. How has parenting been for you through this incredibly difficult year?
COATESNot as hard as it's been for I think my son. I mean, I don't -- it's not actually been difficult. I don't have kids at home. I think there are people who -- I mean, this goes back to what we just talked about in terms of listening. I mean, I think first of all, you know, I would not have wanted to be 20 or 21 right now. It's a lot easier to be 45. I'll tell you that and not have kids. I don't have school age children. I don't have to worry about that. I know that's been a struggle.
COATESI think about people who really are not quote, unquote "of means." You know what I mean? Who have kids that they've had to deal with and the challenge around work. Honestly, I've had a lot of time to reflect. I think it's obviously been difficult to not be able to see my son face to face much. That's been hard. You know, I miss him like any parent misses their child, but I think there are people who are way, way more challenged than me around that in terms of parenting.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Let's go to Chris in Northwest D.C. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISThank you, Kojo. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
CHRISYeah, this is huge. I just happened to turn the radio on and that Ta-Nehisi was your guest, today. I have "Between the World and Me" in a very close place right beside my bedside and I frequently refer to it, read back to it. And I have the Vanity Fair that he edited. And I really think this is a watershed time for people. I'm non-Black, but I've got two unpublished screenplays, which have multi -- you know, racial situations. And I've always tried to look at it.
CHRISI've been writing and I've had a lot of small stuff published over the years. And from a non-racial point of view I just think it's quite possible. Even before Black Lives Matter became a watch word, you know, that we could look at people from their own humanity rather than from their racial type cast. You know, of course, many times in books like Maya Angelou's work and stuff identify directly with an African American character. But when you're writing about characters who are Black, but it doesn't have to always say --
NNAMDIGot to interrupt, Chris, because we have to take a short break, but when we come back I'll have Ta-Nehisi respond to that because he says race is the child of racism not the father. I'll ask him to explain that. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates, Journalist and the author of several books including "The Beautiful Struggle," "Between the World and Me," and "We Were Eight Years in Power." In 2019, he published his first novel, "The Water Dancer." He's a recipient of the McArthur Genius Grant. Ta-Nehisi, when we took that break our called seemed to be suggesting that you can see past race into the humanity of people your writing about. He describes himself as non-Black and as I said seems to feel that he can write about a variety of characters of different races without necessarily seeing race, to which you say, what?
COATESI mean, I don't know that you need past race to see somebody's humanity. People are not the situation that they're in. You mentioned that quote from the book "race is the child of racism not the father." And the point of that -- you know, the reason that I wrote that in that way is to highlight the fact that race is a done thing. It's not something that is in somebody's bones. It's not something that, you know, is simply a matter of someone's, you know, hair texture or hue. It's a done thing. It's the result of a process.
COATESAnd so I don't need to see past the fact that somebody is, you know, say impoverished to see their humanity. I don't need to see past the fact that somebody's wealthy to see their humanity or to see past, you know, the fact that somebody is British or Japanese or South African of whatever. These are in fact part of the things that make us human in the first place. It's our differences, our uniqueness, the way we grapple with particular situation.
COATESYou know, I never saw -- or never quite understood how or why one had to see past the situation of being raced as Black in order to see somebody's humanity. So I'm not quite clear on that. I don't know that the two are in contradiction. I don't even see past like the Holocaust to see the humanity demonstrated by say Jews in that period.
NNAMDIIn "Between the World and Me" you write, "Americans believe in the reality of race as a defined and dubitable feature of the natural world. Race isn't the need to ascribe bone deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce and destroy them. Inevitably follows from this in alterable condition. In this way racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature and one is left to deplore the middle passage or trail of tears the one deploys an earthquake, a tornado or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men." I read that by way of explaining a little farther what you just said. Care to expand on it?
COATESYeah, I mean, this is like the sort of quote unquote "diversity analysis" of racism, which holds that there are different biological races that exist in the world. There's a Black race that comes out of Africa. There's a white race that comes out of Europe. There's, you know, apparently a Hispanic and Latino race that originates here in the Americas. There's an Asian race that originates in Asia. And what we need to do is to figure out how we can allow for all of these people to live together and be represented, you know, in the various corridors of power equally throughout society.
COATESAnd what "Between the World and Me" argues in fact is that that's not true. And historically that hasn't been true. That who we decide, you know, belongs to a certain race is all about power. And usually about, you know, an attempt to take something from somebody. What I mean by this is the description of, for instance, if we just take Black people. The description of who is Black and who is not is a description that varies across time and geography.
COATESYou know, I've said this before, but, you know, certainly sitting right now in New York City here in America, I'm an African American. But if this were -- I don't know 200-250 years ago and I was in New Orleans it might be something different. If I were in Haiti, it might be something different. If I were living in Brazil right now, it might be something different. And the reason for that is because race defers according to power and the need -- and the means by which usually you deprive people of things.
COATESAnd so our notion of race is heavily tied to the one drop rule. The one drop rule in turn was formulated in order to not intercede or not interrupt the ability of white men to exploit the bodies of Black women sexually and dilute the labor pool. So by which, you know, you could continue to rape Black women and not have to worry about freeing the prodigy of those encounters. And so you could have as many people as possible that could, you know, potentially be enslaved.
COATESOur history and our notion of who is Black is directly tied to that. There's nothing natural about that. You know, it has nothing particularly to do with how somebody looks necessarily. Only in so far as it enables you to take as much as possible. I think that's important to remember, because if it's done it means it can't be undone.
NNAMDI"Between the World and Me" was adapted for television. Can you talk about how that came about and what it was like adapting a book like that written in letter form for TV?
COATESYeah, it came about by me getting out of the way. That was the most important part. My dear friend Kamilah Forbes who I met in D.C. at Howard University --you know, I think a lot of authors when they hand their work over to be adapted they're deeply concerned that the work be portrayed on screen in the same way that it appeared on the page. And for me it was just much more important to trust the person that was adapting it and then let that person go and do what they did. You know, and having seen what Kamilah did -- originally when it was onstage and performed here in New York and then down in D.C. at the Kennedy Center, I fully trusted her to go ahead and adapt it on screen. And I just think she did a wonderful job.
NNAMDIHere is Maggie in Silver Spring, Maryland. Maggie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAGGIEHi, there. Thanks for having me. It's so cool to hear the both of you in conversation. Mr. Coates, my question is for you about "The Water Dancer." I am an AP Literature Teacher and in the class I taught Toni Morrison's "Beloved." I read "The Water Dancer" kind of on my own. And I felt like I saw a lot of connections between the two works. I was just curious, you know, what would you say to that? I feel like "Beloved" and "Water Dancer" are in conversation. But how often do you actually get to ask one of the authors themselves.
COATESSo, yeah. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that question. So the first thing I will say is things can be in conversation even if they aren't in direct conversation. So you take somebody like Toni Morrison, who lords over the field of modern American letters and, you know, a Black author and a Black woman author who lords over the field and is, you know, written -- I think what we would all consider the best novel about enslavement ever written. It would be impossible for "The Water Dancer" to not be in conversation with "Beloved." That's the first thing I would say.
COATESThe second thing I would say is, you know, having gone to Howard University I haven't you know almost literally walked in the footsteps of Toni Morrison. Again, it would be very hard for me to not -- like I would have to actively work to not be influenced by her.
COATESAnd the third thing I'll say is even despite that, even despite the passive influence I don't --There are very few writers whose ability to basically form sentences I admire more than I admire Toni Morrison. I just think, you know, -- and this gets lost. You know what I mean? Because I think because of her persona, because of how much her work ultimately meant to Black people particularly to Black women, I think because of those beautiful gray flowing dreadlocks she's sported and her lashes.
COATESYou know, people forget that the job of writing is really like laying bricks. You know what I mean? It's the job of just putting something together. It's a job of building things. And there weren't too many more immaculate builders than then Toni Morrison, so just the construction of sentences and the uses of language to paint a world and portray a world. There are not too many more people who are more influential on that.
NNAMDIMaggie, thank you very much for your call. We first have to take this short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is a Journalist and the author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Here is Rick in Florida. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKHello. How is everybody?
NNAMDIDoing well. Thank you.
NICKI read through Marvel Unlimited. So I'm six months behind, and I just wanted to know with all that you're doing are you still writing Captain America?
COATESI'm so happy somebody called to ask me about comics. Yes, I am. I was working on it this morning. I literally like before I got on the horn I was working on Captain America. Yeah, which has been, you know, obviously I really enjoyed Black Panther, but it's been very, very interesting to write Captain America. I said this when I first took on the task, because I think for a lot of people, it looked a little weird that I would write a comic book like that.
COATESBut, you know, like, writing is like acting, you know, you don't, um, go and write the character and try to make the character do, you know, what you would do or agree with you, you know, you try to really inhabit--inhabit the role, and think about how the character has been written and get a you know a strong take on him and then go in. And so I've really, really enjoyed Captain America.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Rick. Candace tweets: Can you ask Ta-Nehisi to comment about the state of newsrooms that are still not diversifying, in spite of all the outcry heard around the country? How can journalists create a revolution?
COATESYou know what? I'm kind of out of it. I really am. You know, after 10 really great years at "The Atlantic," I left. And, you know, I've seen, you know, some of the headlines and everything, but I am so happy to not be involved in some of these debates. I don't know what happened over -- well, I do kind of know what happened.
COATESI think over the past four years, I think, the very presence of Donald Trump really, you know, changed the nature of a lot of debates. And it's become much more -- I don't know, it's a hard world. It's a really, really hard world, and I'm just happy to not be in a newsroom right now.
NNAMDIYou wrote in...
COATESWhich is not to say I've given up journalism. I have not done that, but I'm just happy to be outside of this.
NNAMDIYou wrote in "The Case For Reparations": What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices, more than a handout, a payoff, hush money or a reluctant bribe. What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hotdogs on the 4th of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling patriotism, while waving a Confederate flag.
NNAMDII could go on, but I've got to ask you, what did you make of the January 6th insurrection and the images that emerged from it of conspiracy theorists and Confederate flag-waving white supremacists storming the Capitol?
COATESI thought it made sense. I mean, I thought it made sense. I mean, I think, look, if you convince the majority of one of America's two major parties that the election was stolen -- see, elections are how we, you know, resolve our politics nonviolently. And if you told them that the election for the highest office in the country was stolen, what do you expect them to do?
COATESYou know, and I think we lose sight of this. Like, you've breached a contract -- and I'm saying, you know, from the Republican perspective -- you breached a contract about Democratic governance, and you've tipped into dictatorship. Why would there be a nonviolent response to that? I'm just not really clear on that. And why would there be a nonviolent response, given what we've seen this summer, in terms of plotting the kidnapping of, you know, a governor in Michigan, literally shutting down, you know, the legislature in Michigan?
COATESSo, you have a party that -- you know, at least among its, you know, most zealous advocates -- fetishizes guns, and thus fetishizes violence. You had the President of the United States, at the time, repeat on the very day (laugh) mere minutes, you know, before the Capitol was stormed, that the election was stolen. I don't know what people expected to happen. You know, Rudy Giuliani said, you know, let's have trial by combat. Well, that's what happened. That's exactly what happened.
COATESAnd so, I think a lot of times, you know, we're shocked by things that we really shouldn't be shocked by. You know, a white supremacist who was President of the United States was telling his people that this was not a Democratic election. I don't know what the response to that would be besides violence. And so -- go ahead, Kojo. I'm sorry.
NNAMDIAre you surprised by Trump's continued dominance of the Republican Party?
COATESNo, absolutely not. Absolutely not. Look, I don't want to be mean, here, but I think there are people who are kind of deluding themselves, who believe that the racism and the bigotry, the Willie Hortonism, the going to the Neshoba County Fair and talking up state's rights, that the welfare queen aspect of our politics, the rumor-mongering about John McCain having a black daughter, the birtherism, the claim that Obama was a secret, you know, Muslim. I think there are people in our society who like to believe that that was somehow a sideshow, you know, for our politics.
COATESAnd what is being revealed now is, I think, something that the people who have, you know, been victims, you know, have been on the other side of that calculus have always known. No, this is the main stage. This is the main stage. You know what I mean? The fiscal conservatism, that was actually the sideshow. (laugh) That was a thing that you got. But the way you got people to show up, it was always the racists. It was always the white supremacists. It was always that.
COATESAnd, you know, that quickly was made apparent when Donald Trump defeated the entire field in a Republican primary in 2016, and at this very moment, retains his hold on the party. I mean, how else do you explain it? You know, if -- and I think I've written this before, if is the case, some argue that white supremacy is one of the core elements of this country's history and remains, you know, a powerful force in this country's politics to this very day, why would Trump, then, be surprising? Trump is the natural result of it. And so, no, you know, I think we've got a huge problem, here, on our hands.
NNAMDIIndeed, there are people who go back to President Regan's announcement of his candidacy in the 1980 election in Philadelphia and Mississippi...
COATESThat's right. That's right.
NNAMDI...that were the places where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were killed in the civil rights movement.
NNAMDIThat that sent a certain kind of signal that the Republican Party has been on that course ever since. You're saying, that's right. You agree.
COATESI totally agree. I totally agree. I completely agree. And, as I was saying, I think there are people who thought this was kind of a distraction or just something that, you know, really had nothing to do with the core messaging. And, you know, what they're finding out is notice, this was the core. This was always the core.
NNAMDIThe last time you joined us on this show it was 2017 and a very different transitional period, from Obama to Trump. Now it's Trump to Biden. How are you feeling in this moment, with Biden in the White House, compared to back then?
COATESProbably better than I expected to feel. Well, you know, I don't think it's any secret I've been pretty critical of Joe Biden. But this has been a reminder to me, you know, about something. And this is, like, why I hate doing any sort of prognostication. You get them so often wrong, you know. (laugh) But if you ask me about how I'm feeling right now, what has been a reminder to me is that, you know, a president is not nearly, you know, a set of individual beliefs. It's a reflection of their coalition.
COATESAnd so, the Democratic Party has clearly moved to the left as, you know, a result of, I would argue, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the emerges of people like Alexandria Oacasio-Cortez, a strong, strong protest movement in the streets represented, you know, most (word?) by Black Lives Matter. And just, I guess, you know, polarization is happening, at large. And so, you have a Democratic Party that's moved, you know, further to the left. And I think Biden's presidency, so far, is a reflection of that.
COATESYou know, a buddy of mine, you know, would often say that, you know, if you look at, you know, Joe Biden's career, he's exactly where the middle of Democratic Party is, and the middle of the Democratic Party is further left now than probably any time in, you know, my living memory.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to allow others into this conversation. Here is Teadross in Alexandria, Virginia. Teadross, your turn.
TEADROSSGood afternoon, Kojo. I've been a longtime listener. And thank you for having me on the show. I just wanted to say, first and foremost, to Mr. Coates, you know, there's a lot of areas of disagreement, but I'm trying to come at this in a respectful way, because none of us have these things figured out. But I think for me the major area -- the feeling that I have with Mr. Coates is the fact that he delineates, clearly delineates, neatly delineates racism to make it seem like it's about the left versus right, or Republicans versus Democrats, when the system of racism encompasses the whole of our governance.
TEADROSSAnd Democrats are just as comfortable as Republicans when it comes to these things. Obama bombed more brown folks than Bush did during his eight years in office. And even now to this day, during Obama's administration, during Clinton's administration, black (word?), you know, was decimated, and then when...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, allow me to interrupt for a second, because you seem to be saying that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a committed Democrat. He has written on all of these issues, and if you think that he is simply a committed follower of the Democratic Party, I'll allow him to respond for himself. Ta-Nehisi.
COATESYeah. I mean, I appreciate the question. I think that's not quite correct. I mean, I think if you read "The Case for Reparations," I mean, a large chunk of that is actually about the Democratic Party and the New Deal, and how they sold black people out in order, you know, to pass the New Deal. I think during -- not I think, I know during Obama's time, you know, I wrote about the drone killings, you know, on my blog at The Atlantic. I wrote, you know, very frequently about, you know, how Obama addressed African Americans.
COATESI was referencing earlier, you know, my critique of Joe Biden, you know, which I've been very, very public about. And a lot of that goes back to, you know, his role in mass incarceration and my feelings about that and how he handled that and being of that generation. You know, folks who had to, you know, endure that. And so, I don't -- you know, I have a set of politics. And when, you know, actions or laws or policies are passed, you know, I think, you know, in line with, you know, my particular politics, you know, by certain people, you know, I tend to say so. And when they're not, you know, I try to say so, also, you know.
COATESSo, no, you know, I think we are at a particular moment where the Democratic Party -- I'm sorry, where African-Americans have more purchase and more power within the Democratic Party than they probably had within any major party since, I would say, Reconstruction or so. So, you know, if you go to the South, you find, you know, basically the Republican Party is a white party, and the Democratic Party tends to be, you know, pretty diverse.
COATESBut I don't -- you know, I don't ascribe any particular -- like, I see the party as a vehicle. And the people who are, you know, in power, you know, whatever coalition that is, you know, can, you know, advance the policies to their advance. But I certainly don't, you know, see myself as one that's here to say, you know, the history of the Democratic Party was one of openness and, you know, antiracism.
NNAMDITeadross, does that answer your question? Teadross, are you there?
TEADROSSYeah. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
TEADROSSNo, I just wanted to add onto what he said about the fact that we have more purchase and power within the Democratic Party than in his lifetime. I vehemently push back against that, just because, you know, there's one thing to participate, but participation does not lead to power. What attention has Biden paid to any of our concerns, any of our issues since he's been in office? I know the first thing that he did was...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, Teadross, Teadross, we don't have a great deal of time. What is your own political posture? What is your own political posture? Do you vote?
TEADROSSWell, yes. Initially, I was a big-time Obama supporter. In fact, you know, I travel a total of 16 states (unintelligible)...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Okay But I do understand that you're disappointed in Obama, but my question was, did you vote in the last election?
TEADROSSNo, I didn't vote in the last election. I see elections for what they are now...
NNAMDIOkay. Gotcha, gotcha. Okay. Gotcha, gotcha. But thank you very much for sharing that with us. I do have to move on to Vivian in Falls Church, Virginia. Vivian, your turn.
VIVIANThank you, Kojo. My question -- I haven't yet read the book, but I was wondering if Ta-Nehisi has read Charles Blow's "The Devil You Know." And if he has any reflections on Mr. Blow's views of, you know, acquiring and maintaining power...
NNAMDI(overlapping) So, wait a minute, Vivian, Vivian. You're going to wait until you hear what Ta-Nehisi has to say before you decide if he read the book or not? (laugh)
VIVIANNo, I read the book. But I've heard some discussions that the author has given, you know, and I'd like to hear if he has any thoughts on it, if he's read it, what he thinks of, you know, how you acquire power in the states where, you know, these legislature are doing all these crazy things.
COATESYeah, no, I haven't. I haven't. I haven't, and I have to say, like, I resent when people who have not read my book -- I'm not talking about you. I'm talking about, you know, the person who would be sitting in my chair. But I do resent when people opine on my work, and they haven't read it yet. So, I haven't read his. It would not be justice to Charles Blow for me to opine on his work, having not read it yet.
COATESI do, if I could, just want to address the last question. I think there was a very poignant point made about what has -- and, again, you know, you can go back and look at my record. I was, you know, pretty critical of Biden in the primary. But we just, I mean, like just passed -- and this is one thing, this is one thing. We just passed an act which will offer a guaranteed income -- at least for this year -- for American families with children, regardless of, you know, income or whatever. That's going to be huge for black people. That's an actual thing. That's a very, very, (laugh) you know, real, tangible policy that just happened.
COATESYou know, in -- and that was -- and I think it's important to be really clear about how that happened. That would not have been possible without the political strength which black people showed in Georgia, organizers -- you know, most people know about Stacy Abrams and, you know, the election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. It was black people that did that.
COATESYou know, and I don't know how you look at that policy -- and I'm all for critique, you know what I mean, but I don't know how you look at, you know, a guaranteed family income and say that that won't, you now, matter. I've spent -- you know, not to talk too much about this, but I spent the past couple weeks, you know, interviewing black and brown people, you know, affected by COVID in East Elmhurst and corona, Queens. (sounds like)
COATESAnd I'm going to tell -- like, this matters, like, that money matters, you know. And, you know, just because you, you know, vote for somebody, I don't think that means that you no longer, you know, critique them or, you know, talk about what's wrong or what's right. But, you know, I don't think you have to be a Biden shill, you know, or a Democratic shill to admit that that's a policy that really, really will matter.
COATESI don't know how you look at, you know, a young parent struggling over the past year, what we've been through, and say the government is now going to send them a monthly check for the next year. And you look at them and you say, that doesn't matter, that that's nothing, or what has this person done. I think we've got to be really, you know, straight and grounded, you know, when we offer our critiques.
NNAMDIHere is Tim in Washington, D.C. Tim, your turn.
TIMYeah, it's a great pleasure, Kojo and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Man, it's been seven years, can you believe that, since the article in "The Atlantic" monthly "Case of Reparations," 2014. That article, I was really -- I've been reading "The Atlantic" for over 30 years now. But that article, I remember when it first came out. I was very surprised it was in "The Atlantic" monthly, because "The Atlantic" monthly paradoxically has a very long history of being one of the oldest magazines in America. And it has its own historical grievances with race in itself.
TIMSo, when it came out, I thought that was a strange paradox that they would actually put that in "The Atlantic" monthly. I was very surprised by that, but kudos to them. Has there been any other writers that have come along, that are up-and-coming, that can take your place at "The Atlantic" monthly? Thank you for that. Y'all have a good day.
COATESYeah, that's a really -- you know, I'll start with the top of that question. Yeah, I mean, you're very, very right. "The Atlantic" monthly certain it has its own, you know, disreputable history. It was a magazine that was founded on the cause of abolition. You know, but certainly, you know, over the course of its history, it has, you know, printed, you know, its share of, you know, disreputable stuff, you know, particularly on the issue of race and racism. So, I understand that, you know, in addition to a share of honorable stuff. I should be, you know, fair about that.
COATESOne of the things I do think certainly happened by the time, or the end of my tenure there is, you know, I came in basically as, you know, the only black writer there. And I never was particularly comfortable with that. (laugh) And one of the things that made me happy, after the 10 years after I left, was the fact that I felt like there were a number of people, you know what I mean, there who -- you know, I don't know if they could, you know, take my place in the sense that, you know, I don't even, you know, believe that we should, you know, necessarily be compared.
COATESWhat I'll say is there were a number of formidable black writers there by the time, you know, I left, whether it was, you know, Vann Newkirk or Adam Harris or, you know, Adam Serwer, who I think is just absolutely, you know, incredible. I think, you know, all these folks are, you know, incredible. Gillian White, who was in management by the time I left. There was a squad. There was a squad.
COATESSo, you know, I felt really, really good about that. I felt like, look, if I left, you know, this magazine is not going to have any trouble at all, you know, covering, you know, the kind of issues that I covered before. And I don't think it has. I think they've done, you know, a great job. Clint Smith, who just go brought in there. I know Ibram Kendi is writing for "The Atlantic" now. And so, you know, I felt great, you know, about leaving, at that point, because I felt like, you know, they had done, you know, such a good job of bringing folks in.
NNAMDIChris in D.C. emails: I have a few framed Ta-Nehisi Washington City Paper stories at home. I was commissioned by Washington City Paper to illustrate them. Can he comment on how his voice has changed since those City Paper stories, and how it has stayed the same?
COATESOh, man. Well, that was 25 years ago, so I hope I got a little better. (laugh) Yeah, it's been a second. I started City Paper in 1996. I was 20 years old, you know. And so, I hope I got a little better, but, you know, I have to tell you, I have never had a production process -- when you used to, you know, get a cover story in the Washington City Paper, it was a whole thing. You used to have to go out and buy beer for the whole staff and everything, and everybody would sit around and drink. And then they would order food, and you would eat it.
COATESYou would watch them, you know, go through the whole process of putting the paper together and putting the paper to bed. And working with the photographers, you know, working with the great Darrow Montgomery, you know what I mean, to get these, you know, beautiful, you know, pictures that we would have. I mean, it was an education.
COATESI mean, to not have even graduated from college, (laugh) you know, at that point and to be going through that. I mean, to be basically, you know, a 20-year-old, a 21-year-old and working journalist going through the entire process, the copy-editing process. You know, being under, you know, the tutelage of Erik Wemple, of, you know, David Carr, you know, having those great -- Brad McKee -- have great editors, you know, at that point. Having, you know, the colleagues.
COATESYou know, I had John Clow, (sounds like) rest in peace, you know, Amanda Ripley, Jason Cherkis. Having that, you know, squad of reporters around me, I mean, I could not imagine -- it was almost as good as going to college. I mean, there really are two institutions that formed me, and the first, obviously, being Howard University. You know, and the second being Washington City Paper and being in the city of D.C. itself. So, I guess I have to, you know, give the city itself, you know, its credit. That was just such a great time. I mean, it really, really was.
NNAMDIIn about the minute or so we have left, Rod tweets: What advice do you have for young graduates that have now to build back this country and this world better after post-COVID-19?
COATESOh, I'm sorry, I'm going to be very disappointing there, because, as I mentioned, I dropped out of school. So, I have very little advice (laugh) to give, you know, graduates. They probably know more than me, at that point in their lives. You know, they're probably more on the ball than I was. All I knew when I left, when I dropped out, was that I really, really wanted to write. Maybe that's important. Maybe it's important that, you know, if you can find something that you're deeply, deeply passionate about, you know, to find that thing and to, you know, try to do it in a just and, you know, humane way.
NNAMDIWell, it is my understanding, my knowledge that you have a child in college. It is my hope that he graduates.
COATESIt's my hope, too, but we'll see. (laugh) We'll see.
NNAMDITa-Nehisi Coates is a journalist and the author of several books, including "The Beautiful Struggle," "Between the World and Me" and "We Were Eight Years in Power." In 2019, he published his first novel, "The Water Dancer." He's the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. Ta-Nehisi, continue to try to stay safe and continue to do the work you're doing. Thanks a lot for joining us.
COATESThanks so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIToday's conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow on this show, the pandemic forced museums across the District to adapt in ways many could never have imagined. Visitors across the country now visit galleries and collections virtually. How are museums sustaining themselves and their connection to the public when relatively few people are coming through their doors? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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