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“Between the World and Me”: Ta-Nehisi Coates in Conversation on Being Black in America

StorySeptember 07, 2015
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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, “Between the World and Me,” has been called “required reading” by Toni Morrison. “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Morrison said. “Between the World and Me” is written as a letter to Coates’ 15-year-old son, Samori, and has been compared to “the talk” parents have with their children to prepare them for facing police harassment and brutality. The book is a combination of memoir, history and analysis. In July, Coates came to the Democracy Now! studio to talk about the book and his upbringing in Baltimore.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the new best-seller, Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his teenage son, Samori. Ta-Nehisi is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, social issues. He received the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” which he joined us in May to talk about. His book, Between the World and Me, is called “required reading” by Toni Morrison. She writes, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates,” she writes.

Well, in July, Juan González and I had a chance to sit down with Ta-Nehisi Coates, before he moved with his family to Paris, to talk about Between the World and Me and his upbringing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the book, you talk about the influences on your life, and specifically when you first began reading Malcolm X and the enormous influence he had on your life, and also the fact that your father was a member and a leader of the Black Panther Party, and the influence that those movements, of Malcolm and the Panthers, had on your consciousness in your upbringing.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, they had a tremendous influence. These are my first sources, you know, of skepticism, the notion that one should be skeptical of the narratives that one is presented with. That’s the first place I learned it.

One of the things that’s really, really present in Between the World and Me is, I am in some ways outside of the African-American tradition. The African-American tradition, in the main, is very, very church-based, very, very Christian. It accepts, you know, certain narratives about the world. I didn’t really have that present in my house. As you said, my dad was in the Black Panther Party. The mainstream sort of presentation of the civil rights movement was not something that I directly inherited.

And beyond that, you know, I have to say, that just as a young man and as a boy going out and navigating the world, the ways in which the previous generation’s struggle was presented to me did not particularly make sense. And so, notions of nonviolence, for instance, when I walked out into the streets of West Baltimore, seemed to have very, very little applicability. Violence was essential to one’s life there. It was everywhere. It was all around us. And then, when one looked out to the broader country, as I became more politically conscious, it was quite obvious that violence was essential to America—to its past, to its present and to its future. And so, there was some degree of distance for me between how—my politics and how I viewed the world at that time and what was presented as my political heritage.

And instead, I very much gravitated, you know, to my dad’s sort of political activism with the Black Panther Party, and really to Malcolm X, who, you know, I would argue, influences this book, who had a very, very pragmatic, tactile view of America and of history. You know, I can remember in “Message to the Grass Roots” him saying, you know, “Don’t”—you know, he’s critiquing nonviolence, and so he says, “Don’t give up your life. Preserve your life. It’s the best thing you have going. And if you’ve got to give it up, make sure it’s even-steven.” And some hear that as braggadocio, but for me, it was a profound claim about the value of your body, that your body is the most essential thing you have, and it should not be sacrificed because these folks down in Mississippi or Alabama are out of their mind. Preserve your body. And that, to me, was just so beautiful and so real. It was not esoteric. It made perfect sense to me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you say he was the most honest leader.

TA-NEHISI COATES: He was the most honest man. He’s the first honest man I knew of, somewhat. You know, I knew other honest men, but, you know, in a bit of hyperbole, he was the first honest man—he was the first person I heard, and it matched what I saw when I walked outside. It matched what I saw when I opened up my history books about the country. It just seemed, you know, when he says—you know, when Malcolm says, if violence is wrong in America, then violence is wrong—that is such a, you know, essential critique, that should be levied, as far as I’m concerned, before any president that stands up on Martin Luther King Day. Either violence is wrong, or it’s not. You know, one has to justify it. And so, that was just profound to me.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the fear, living in fear.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, I mean, and this—you know, to tie this into the previous question, life in Baltimore was, is and will be for some time quite violent. I can remember, as I talk about in the book, being a young man coming out of my elementary school, seeing what should have been just an after-school yard fight and seeing one of these boys pull out a gun, and being very, very present at the age of, say, 11 years old that children were walking around with the ability to end the lives of other children, are going into middle school, and having an entire ritual totally devoted to making sure I was safe—you know, concerns about what I was wearing, concerns about who I was walking to school with, concerns about how many people I was walking to school with, concerns during lunchtime about where I was sitting, where I was spending my time—and at the same time being aware, dimly aware, that somewhere out in the world the majority of Americans did not have to carry that fear with them, you know, and then eventually understanding how that was connected to our politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of your childhood, I wanted to go to Marshall “Eddie” Conway, the former Black Panther leader in Baltimore, Maryland, who was released from prison last year after serving 44 years for a murder he denies committing. For years, Eddie Conway’s supporters campaigned for him to be pardoned. Democracy Now! interviewed Eddie Conway less than 24 hours after his release. I asked him about his experience writing a memoir in prison called Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.

MARSHALLEDDIECONWAY: I think at some point I realized I was getting older, and I realized that I had a lot of experiences and a lot of history of things that had happened, and they hadn’t been recorded. And I think they would have been lost to history, and they would have been lessons that had been learned through organizing in prisons that other people could have used. So I think at some point I sat down, and I started writing, and I tried to capture what it was that we had tried to do during those turbulent years that George Jackson was organizing in California and Attica occurred in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eddie Conway, again, less than 24 hours after his release from prison, where he served 44 years. Can you, Ta-Nehisi Coates, talk about Eddie Conway’s presence in your life, even behind bars?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, it’s a little emotional for me, and I’ll explain why. When people hear the term “political prisoner,” especially on the left, it becomes a kind of abstraction. Folks are aware of injustice, and they’re aware that there are folks in prison who are in prison, you know, largely because of their activism. Eddie Conway is central to my first memories. My parents used to take me to, when it was open, the Baltimore city penitentiary to see Eddie Conway—I was talking to my dad about this recently—from the time I might have been one or two years old. I mean, literally, my first memories are of black men in jail, specifically of Eddie Conway. That was a huge, huge, huge influence on me, I mean, when you talk about like this notion of—just going back to your question, Juan—of violence, knowing that that was present.

And, you know, I had this conversation with my dad recently. I asked him; I said, “Well, why did you take me into a prison? Why would you take a three-year-old, four-year-old child into a prison?” And my memories of this are mostly of being bored and seeing the gates and, you know, the kinds of things that children will remember. And he said, “I wanted you to see the face of the enemy. I wanted you to see what you were up against.” You know? And so, in many ways, everything I’ve done as a journalist, up until and including this book, really begins like right back there. You know, it’s very difficult for me to imagine myself here right now without those experiences.

And let me just say how happy I am that he got out. You know, at some point in my mind, I probably began to conceive a world in which he would die in prison, and I’m happy he didn’t.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another part of the book. I mean, the whole book is impressive, but to me, one of the most impressive aspects of it was your description of life at Howard University—

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and your description of the importance of Howard University in the intellectual life of the African-American people in the United States. Could you elaborate on that, what Howard meant to you? And obviously, you say you didn’t spend much time in class; you spent it all in the library devouring all kinds of works. But if you could sort of give us a sense of that, for those who are listening and watching, of what the Howard experience meant to you?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, one of the things that—you know, this theme of the book of living under a system of plunder and about surviving and how you deal with that and how you struggle against it, within that are the beautiful things that black people have forged, you know, even under really, really perilous conditions. For me, Howard University is one of the most loveliest, for me personally.

To try to explain this, Howard is one of several historically black colleges and universities, is, I think, rather unique in terms of its size and in terms of its scope. It is a beacon point, the Mecca, as I call it, as it calls itself, you know, in the book, for the entire black diaspora around the world. And so, to come to Howard University at the age of 17, as I did, and to see black people from Montreal, to see black people from Paris, to see black people from Ghana, to see black people from South Africa, to see black people from Mississippi, to see black people from Oakland, to see biracial black people, to see black people with parents from India, to see black people with Jewish parents—you know, things that I had not encountered in West Baltimore—to see black people who took semesters off to go to other countries and live, to see black people with deep interests in other languages, it was tremendous.

And really what it showed me is, even within what seems like a narrow band, which is to say, you know, black life, is in fact quite cosmopolitan, is in fact a beautiful, beautiful rainbow. And to see all of these people, you know, of all these different persuasions, and to have that heritage—you know, Toni Morrison went to Howard. Amiri Baraka went to Howard. Lucille Clifton went to Howard. Ossie Davis went to Howard. And I was aware of that when I was there. Charles Drew went to Howard. Thurgood Marshall went to the law school. Being aware of that and having all of that brought to bear, again, it’s one of those things that I can’t really separate from my career as a writer.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi, you actually met with President Obama twice.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about these meetings, how you prepared for them, what you said to him? When was it?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, one of them was—interesting that you ask that after that question. The first one was after I levied quite a bit of critique of his Morehouse speech, which I was not a fan of and am not a fan of now. I think that the president—I thought then, and I think now, that the president has a tendency, when it’s convenient for him, to emphasize that he is the president of all America, and then, when it comes to issues of morality, to deliver a message that the president of all America has no right to deliver. The president of all America, the bearer of the heritage of America, the bearer of policy of America, which has—you know, for the vast, vast majority of its history has been a policy of plunder towards black people, has no right to lecture black people on morality. That’s my position. You know, I understand an African-American man wanting to have a conversation with young people. But as the president of America, as far as I’m concerned, you give up that right. You know, if there cannot be direct policy towards black people, then there should be no direct criticism towards black people either.

Having said that, I wrote the piece, and probably within a day, I got a call to come to the White House. I was not sure why. They didn’t say, you know, what it was about. And I was there with a bunch of other reporters. And I asked him a question that was semi-related, and he sort of answered and then immediately launched into an attack on my piece. And I left that meeting quite disappointed, not disappointed in him—you know, he did what I expected him to do—but disappointed in myself. I felt that I had not been particularly challenging. You know, I have to tell you, you sit in a room, it really—it’s the president of the United States. You know, it’s the guy with the launch codes. And he’s, you know, just an extremely intelligent person. I had watched him joust and answer all of these questions. And it takes some amount of courage. I mean, those are the facts. The second time, I probably was a little bit more challenging.

AMY GOODMAN: What did your wife tell you on the way to your second trip?

TA-NEHISI COATES: My wife said, “What would James Baldwin do?” And she was recounting—actually, she was not just—you know, she was recounting the encounter he had had with John F. Kennedy. That’s what she was thinking about. It wasn’t just a sort of blithe “What would James Baldwin”—she was recounting how James Baldwin had gave Kennedy hell. You know, she said, “What would he do?” And I arrived to this meeting. All the other journalists were in suits. I was not in a suit; I was in jeans. I was late, and I had been rained on. It was not, you know, propitious circumstances.

But, you know, even in that meeting, I was deeply concerned about the liberal and the progressive notion that one should pursue policy based on class and not really deal with race. And I was concerned that as the ACA was playing out, as Obamacare, as they call it, was playing out, in fact, there were whole swaths of people in the Southern states who were being left out, and, you know, a majority of those people were black people. And this is a tradition with class-based policy that goes all the way back to the New Deal. So I thought it was very, very important to try to directly challenge as much as possible. You’re not going to beat the president. You’re just, I mean, in that situation, just not, but as much as possible to raise questions about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to the man you have been compared to, James Baldwin. Let’s turn to his book, The Fire Next Time, dealing with issues of black identity and the state of racial struggle. In this speech, he speaks in '63 in Oakland, California's Castlemont High School.

JAMES BALDWIN: I think the other reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that I am throwing these suggestions out to you tonight is that in this country, every black man born in this country, until this present moment, is born into a country which assures him, in as many ways as it can find, that he is not worth the dirt he walks on. Every Negro boy and every Negro girl born in this country until this present moment undergoes the agony of trying to find in the body politic, in the body social, outside himself/herself, some image of himself or herself which is not demeaning. Now, many, indeed, have survived, and at an incalculable cost, and many more have perished and are perishing every day. If you tell a child and do your best to prove to the child that he is not worth life, it is entirely possible that sooner or later the child begins to believe it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s James Baldwin speaking in June of 1963, that audio from the Pacifica Radio Archives. In this last minute we have with you, Ta-Nehisi Coates, where have we come in more than half a century?

TA-NEHISI COATES: I think there’s been some progress. I think if people like me appear impatient, it is with the fact that, you know, we are talking about a system that has basically been in place since 1619. Progress is good. But until we live in a country in which white supremacy has been banished; until we live in a country where one can look at prisons, if we are to have them, and not see an eight-to-one ratio; until we can look at a country and not see black men comprising roughly 8 percent of the world’s imprisoned population; until we can have a situation in which I can turn on the news or come on this show and be able to discuss other things besides Sandra Bland being threatened with being—to “light [her] up,” as he said, over a turn signal; until we have a situation in which a Tamir Rice, you know, who’s out playing, is not effectively committing a lethal crime or a crime that threatens his life; until we have a situation where Kajieme Powell, for the mere fact of being mentally ill, is not shot down in the street; until we have a situation in which a John Crawford, who was shopping in Wal-Mart, is not shot down and executed in a store—progress is nice, but it’s to be noted, and the struggle continues after that.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me. To see our whole interview, you can go to our website at

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