Hi there,

This week Democracy Now! is bringing you live, on-the-ground coverage of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, where you’ll hear the voices and analysis you won’t get anywhere else. In August, we’ll travel to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. Democracy Now! doesn’t accept corporate advertising or sponsorship revenue, and we don’t take money from any government. That means we’re relying on you. Can you donate $15 to Democracy Now! to support our RNC and DNC coverage—and so much more? Our generous triple match has been extended, which means your $15 donation is worth $45 today. Please do your part to help us air in-depth, substantive coverage of the conventions and the issues that matter most during the 2024 election cycle. Thank you so much—and remember, every dollar makes a difference.
-Amy Goodman

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.


Ta-Nehisi Coates on His Debut Novel “The Water Dancer,” Slavery & Reparations

StorySeptember 24, 2019
Watch Full Show
Media Options

Celebrated writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first novel, “The Water Dancer,” was released today. Centering on a man named Hiram Walker, who was born into slavery in 19th century Virginia, the novel is a “crowd-pleasing exercise in breakneck and often occult storytelling,” a review in The New York Times stated. Over the past decade Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the nation’s most celebrated writers. In 2014, he wrote a piece titled “The Case for Reparations,” which rejuvenated the push for the government to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. His 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” a National Book Award winner, was written as a letter to his adolescent son. In our New York studio, we speak with Coates about “The Water Dancer” and his attempt in his first novel to “get at American myth” that exists around race and reparations.

Related Story

StoryJun 19, 2024Rhiannon Giddens on Pulitzer-Winning Opera “Omar” About Enslaved Muslim Scholar Omar ibn Said
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The Water Dancer. That’s the name of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel, published today. It centers on a man named Hiram Walker, who was born into slavery in 19th century Virginia. A review in The New York Times calls The Water Dancer a, quote, “crowd-pleasing exercise in breakneck and often occult storytelling that tonally resembles the work of Stephen King as much as it does the work of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and the touchstone African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler.”

Over the past decade Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the nation’s most celebrated writers. In 2014, he wrote a piece titled “The Case for Reparations,” which rejuvenated the push for the government to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. Earlier this year, Coates testified on Capitol Hill about reparations. His 2015 book, Between the World and Me, was written as a letter to his adolescent son. It won a National Book Award. In addition to his nonfiction writing, Ta-Nehisi Coates began writing comics in 2016, authoring his own Black Panther series. Now he has completed his first novel, The Water Dancer, out today. It was just unveiled as the first selection of Oprah’s new Book Club.

We spend the rest of the hour with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Juan González and I spoke to him on Monday when he just came from meeting with Oprah.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi, welcome back to Democracy Now!

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations.


AMY GOODMAN: So, you have just come from talking with Oprah.


AMY GOODMAN: They just revealed this on CBS.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what this means to you.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I mean, I would love to pretend like I don’t care about the number of readers I have, I don’t care who reads me. But that’s actually not true. I think all or most authors, you know, want to be read. And while, on the one hand, I spent a lot of time, you know, crafting the story, and I would have — you know, the bottom line is for me to be proud of the story, for my editor to feel proud of the story.

The endorsement of Oprah, not just in terms of the readers, but to put me in the company of Colson Whitehead, who was just mentioned, to put me in the company of Tayari Jones, to put me in the company of Toni Morrison is just gigantic. I mean, this is my first novel, so I have all sorts of insecurities and feelings, you know, going on, and there’s this long tradition of journalists writing really bad novels. And so I was like living in the back of my head. And so, I just — I’m overwhelmed. I’m absolutely overwhelmed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, precisely on that, I wanted to ask you: As a journalist and as someone who’s written principally nonfiction, why did you decide to take a stab at a novel? What could you do there that you couldn’t do in your nonfiction writing?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, that’s a great question, and it’s multilayered, actually. So, the thing to understand is, I actually started working on this in 2009. So, what that means is that this book, at least in its inception, predates Between the World and Me, predates “The Case for Reparations,” predates the vast majority of the work in We Were Eight Years in Power. This is, in many ways, you know, one of my oldest published works. When I finished The Beautiful Struggle, my editor — which was my first book, it was a memoir — my editor felt like stylistically that, you know, I might be successful if I tried fiction. And so, I began, you know, working in that spirit.

But something else happened. Probably after “The Case for Reparations” or after I had done quite a bit of research and writing about the Civil War, it really became clear to me that you could make certain political arguments based on facts. You could have all the facts on your side. But for reasons that, you know, reside somewhere deep in the imagination, people will just say no anyway. You know, I mean, I think we see that with climate change denialism, for instance. But certainly, I saw that around the Civil War, that on some level facts did not matter, that people were attached to a deeper thing. And what I began to identify that deeper thing is, was myth. You know, many of the things that we were saying, it wasn’t so much that they were wrong objectively, but that they ran so hard and so counter to American myth. And so, in many ways, this is an attempt to get at American myth, to get at the things that reside much deeper than, you know, the sort of objective facts that I was writing about in other works.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you are now a storyteller. Tell us the story of The Water Dancer, starting with the title.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Sure. The Water Dancer is the story of Hiram Walker, who is an enslaved African American, who is the son of a slavemaster and the child of a woman who that slavemaster in turn sold off. He wants what I think most enslaved people wanted, what 4 million enslaved people in 1860 wanted most. And that’s freedom. The Water Dancer is his story of coming to understand that his individual freedom is actually tied to the larger vision of freedom of the community into which he was born, and refining that idea of freedom and figuring out that it means something much, much larger than anything he ever imagined.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But he’s not just someone who was born into slavery and his mother was auctioned off at 5, but he also has magical powers.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk both in terms of memory and in terms of —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — something called conduction? Could you talk about that?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, sure. Sure, I can. I’m trying not to blow the book.

AMY GOODMAN: You can’t blow it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: You can tell us the story —


AMY GOODMAN: — and even more people will want to read it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you. Thank you. So, I think the thing to understand is, like, for much of the research, I spent a lot of time reading slave narratives for this. And this is underreported and not really talked about as much as it should be, but magic exists, and it’s all through the world of enslaved black folks. When Frederick Douglass talks about his first escape attempt, he talks about one of his fellow enslaved African Americans giving him a root that will grant him special powers. You read it in the narratives of the WPA, people talking about putting graveyard dust in their shoes and how that would give them magical powers to avoid the hounds. So, I saw it in the literature, and it felt natural — to say nothing of, you know, Harriet Tubman, who’s in this book and felt like, in me, was a mystical figure. And so, my mind — I like stories like that already, but my mind immediately went to that, seeing that.

In the case of Hiram, this power of conduction, to move from one place to another, and, most importantly for him, to move from the land of slavery, the coffin of slavery, as he says, into the land of freedom, is deeply tied to memory. And he is a young man who has a photographic memory, who can remember everything, except the things that are most important, you know, and most personal to him. And it turns out that this power of conduction is actually tied to that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us the year and tell us the place.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes. So, in my imagination — 

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the plantation and the family.

TA-NEHISI COATES: In my imagination — I’m hesitant to pin it to a year, but in my imagination, we were in late Antebellum America, so I was thinking like somewhere between 1830, 1850s. We’re in Virginia. In my mind, we were in western Virginia, close to the mountains. I spent a lot of time researching at Monticello, actually. So there’s a lot of influence of both Thomas Jefferson, I think, you know, kind of in conversation with that literature, a lot of influence of some of the great research that folks are doing excavating the lives of enslaved black people at Monticello, you know, that’s in there. And so, I was trying to pull all of that together and just, you know, make it into some sort of coherent story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the setting of the plantation where he is initially raised, he’s the mixed-race son: His mother was enslaved — 


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and his father was the master of the plantation.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about — the conditions in that plantation are not necessarily as horrific as many people are accustomed to understanding of slavery — why you chose —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — to make it sort of a — it was still slavery, but it was not as oppressive, necessarily, as other plantations?

TA-NEHISI COATES: So, I would push back a little bit. I would say it was, but not in the way that we’re used to. I think that it’s not that you’re incorrect; it’s just that the lens is shifted. So, I think, traditionally, when we think about slavery, what we think about, what immediately comes to mind, is physical torture, being beaten, being worked to death, you know, all of the horrible things that actually happened. And actually, again, in the course of researching this and looking at the narratives, probably the most painful thing I saw that struck me was family separation, which was basically family separation for profit during that period, you know, totally legal, totally open, sometimes actually done by the state to settle estates. Jefferson, for instance, died in debt, you know, after living this lavish life. People were sold off, families were broken up, to pay off his debt.

And so, I focused much more on that than some of the more visceral aspects of slavery that we think about. And I guess that’s because that — like, when I thought about myself, when I put myself in that time, you know, I tried to imagine myself being sold off from my wife, my son being sold off from me. And that probably was the thing that got me a lot more than some of the other things we associate with slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Hiram’s relationship with his slave owner father and his brother Maynard.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, it’s a tough one. He starts from a place of deep — well, maybe not deep — definite admiration for his dad. He is clearly searching for some sort of parental figure. His mother is gone. He’s not prepared to face up to what happened and why his mother is gone and his dad’s agency in that, even though everyone around him is telling him what actually happened.

His dad is aware that he is a young man of particular intelligence, indeed even perhaps more intelligent than his white brother, who he has, you know, who’s obviously through another relationship, through a more legitimate relationship. But the white brother is the heir to everything, even though, in his qualities, he’s clearly not somebody who, you know, if the father had his druthers, he would choose. But that’s the situation. That’s the society that they’re living with.

And so, much of this book is him coming to terms with who his father actually is and what he actually did to his mother, and accepting that.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates. His first novel, The Water Dancer, came out today. After break, he’ll read an excerpt from his new book and talk about the issue of reparations. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! That’s Paul Robeson, “Go Down Moses.” I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the nation’s most celebrated writers. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I interviewed him Monday to discuss his first novel, The Water Dancer, just published today.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi, you begin your book by talking — by quoting Frederick Douglass: “My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators.” Could you start by reading a part of your book?


AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates is with us today. His book, his first novel, is called The Water Dancer.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I actually think that Douglass quote is quite appropriate to what I’m beginning to read. Story is a large part of this novel, and Hiram beginning to understand the story of African Americans who are resisting through escaping slavery is a big, big part of it. And so, at this point in the novel, he’s actually grappling, literally, with the written oral stories of escaped African Americans, and he’s beginning to understand his place in it.

“And in all of these words, and in each of these stories, I saw as much magic as anything I’d seen in the Goose, souls conducted as surely as I was from out of its depths. And I saw them coming up on railroads, barges, river-runners, skiff, and bribery coach. Coming up on horseback over hard snow and March melting ice. They were fitted in ladies’ dress and came up, in gentries’ clothes and came up, in dental bandage and came up, in sling and came up, in rags not worth the laundry lady’s washing, but came up. They bribed low whites and stole horses. Crossed the Potomac in wind, storm, and darkness. Came up, as I had, driven by the remembrance of mothers or wives sold south for the high crime of standing contrary before lust. They came up devoured by frost. They came up with tales of hard drinkers and overseers who took glee in applying the lash. They came up stowed like coffee in boats, braving turpentine, scarred and singed by salt-water anointings, guilt-racked for finding themselves so broken that they should bow before their own flogging, for having held their brothers down under the lash.

“In the stories that day, I saw them running out into the forest, clutching a Brussels carpet bag, yelling, 'I shall never be taken!' I saw them boarding ferries, singing low and only to themselves. …

“I saw them that day at the Philadelphia docks, praying, 'Hide the outcast, betray not him that wandereth.' I saw them wandering on Bainbridge and crying for all their dead, those who had taken ship for the final harbor from whence none shall return. All of them came to me, from the memories, all of them drawn up from Pandemonium, up from Slavery, up out of the jaw of the Abomination, up out from under the juggernaut’s wheels, singing before the sorcery of this Underground.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to — that whole motif of memory. There’s another section in the book where Hiram is in Philadelphia. He seeks out a mentor, who others call Moses; it turns out it’s Harriet Tubman. And at one point he’s walking with Tubman, and they’re over the Delaware River, and she says, “[M]emory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” In essence, is the power of Hiram’s memory — really represents what we, Americans here, lack in terms of our own understanding of the history of how our country came to be?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. Well, what I will say is, the thing is, like, conduction is — the power is always tied not just to memory, but, like, memories that maybe we would not like to talk about or deal with. It is the excavation of deep and often painful things that we would rather not speak of. And one of the themes in the book is the extent to which the enslavers are themselves actually enslaved by their inability to remember and to recall.

And so, you know, while I wouldn’t tell anybody how to read the book, I certainly would say that there’s some amount of allegory in that, in today, and how, you know, even those who are in power and are our governors are in fact enslaved by their inability to remember painful things that folks would rather forget.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Harriet Tubman. And she is a real figure in your fictional book, The Water Dancer. She also has the power of conduction, as you said. Talk about why you imbued her with this power and how significant she is for you.

TA-NEHISI COATES: So, you know, the thing to understand is, first of all, I’m from Baltimore, Maryland; Harriet Tubman was from Maryland. My family on my mother’s side is from the Eastern Shore of Maryland; Harriet Tubman is from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. And so, she was probably my earliest notion of like a superhero. You know? I mean, it really was. You know, there were these tales that they would tell us, you know, some of them exaggerations. But even when I got to reading and found out the kernel of truth, they were still these incredible tales. And I can remember when I was reading biographies, you know, when I first started getting the idea to include her in the book, even in the biographies, you know, you had this feeling that — you know, I don’t — well, yeah, I would say, of the supernatural, of something really, really incredible. And so, I just was attracted to that.

You know, I can remember reading in one biography that there’s — you know, they’re trying to track the trails that she took for some of these escapes, and the biographer says, you know, “I don’t know. I mean, some of these, we can’t track.” And anytime somebody doesn’t know anything in nonfiction, my mind and my imagination immediately goes there. And so, I just — you know, I felt like it was really, really important.

I will say one of the things I was afraid of and one of the things I had to tackle repeatedly was how to boil her down to an actual person and not have like a slab of marble walking through the book. And so I tried to do that. I tried give her humor. I tried to do all of these things. But yeah, she was probably my first notion of the superheroic.

AMY GOODMAN: You also write about the White family, who also was based on a real story — 


AMY GOODMAN: — the William and Peter Still.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you researched this, how you knew them.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. So, there’s a great book on the Underground Railroad by a gentleman by the name of Fergus Bordewich that is just absolutely, absolutely incredible. And in that, he pulls source material from a book that William Still published contemporaneously in the 19th century. It was basically like a volume of all the enslaved folks who had escaped through Philadelphia.

And, I mean, some of these, it’s just incredible stuff that you read about. I mean, some of it I was alluding to in the last reading, as I said, people stuffed in boats, you know, and folks putting in turpentine to try to smoke out, or whatever, to expose the slaves, you know, people on the tops of carriages, people on the tops of railcars. I mean, just crazy, crazy stuff, you know? And that just — it just excited me.

I feel like a lot of times African-American history is presented in a kind of “eat your vegetables” sort of way. But if you read the accounts from the time, I mean, these folks, I think, have a great sense that they are involved in a great adventure. You know, obviously nobody likes being enslaved, but you can almost see them, like — you know, when I was reading Williams Still, I felt like he was pointing back at me, saying, “Can you believe this stuff? Can you believe this?” You know what I mean? That’s how I felt, you know, reading it. And so, I was naturally attracted to him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hiram’s power in the book is closely tied to water.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, it’s The Water Dancer, is the title of the book.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about water in this story?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. I mean, for this, this goes back really old for me. When I would hear stories about the transatlantic slave trade, about the Middle Passage, there were all these stories about people that would leap off the boat into the water. And there are some rather beautiful renditions of this, of people reporting, you know, “These folks actually leaped off. They seemed like they were dancing among the waves.” I think I quote somebody towards the end of the book saying that. I was thinking about that, and I was also thinking about these myths within the African-American culture of people flying. You know what I’m saying? There was these notions that these people that leaped off the boat didn’t actually drown or go to the sharks; they actually flew. And so that was the immediate thing I thought about. The very idea of the Middle Passage, it felt natural to use water.

I was probably pulling some from my own biography, going back as a kid to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, you know, and we would very often go to the beach. And it’s something to be on the land where your ancestors were actually enslaved, and the ocean is right there. You know, the ocean is like 10 miles away. And so, water was always, I think, in the back of my mind. And so, again, it just felt natural to pull from that when it came time to tell the story.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about magical realism. Several novels that deal with slavery, like Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, like the late Octavia Butler — and I encourage people to go to Democracy Now! to see our interview with her right before she died — have long used science fiction as a means to deal with these subjects. Why do you think it lends itself to this subject matter? I mean, you’re also a writer of comic books.


AMY GOODMAN: You write the Black Panther series.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t — you know, I don’t know if it’s — that’s a great question. That’s a really, really great question.

OK, so I’ll just speak for myself. I felt like, in nonfiction — and this is not to say I’ll never go back to it, but I felt like I was coming dangerously close to repeating myself. I felt like the methodology through which I was exploring stories, which was to go out and do the journalism, you know, do the historical research, analyze, synthesize, tell you what I thought — probably shortly after We Were Eight Years in Power, you know, and when we got our current president, I felt like I can’t do this anymore, like I can’t keep doing the same thing.

And when I came to fiction, it was the opportunity, I felt like, you know — and even though the novel was in the process by then — to talk about these things, but in a much more layered way. You know, I felt like I had much more sort of control. I felt like it could apply to other things. I think — thinking back to myself as a young person and a comic book fan, I think the imagination is very, very important, you know, when you come from an oppressed class. I think when I was maybe about 22, 23, maybe a little older, I read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. And the way in which he just interpreted African-American history with these two different schools, I just — I thought, “Wow! I can’t believe somebody did that.” I didn’t even know this was possible within fiction. And so, I probably was inspired by stories like that. It just felt like the natural way to go.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Another novel use of words in your book is when you’re talking about slavemasters and slaves, the Quality and the Tasked. Could you talk about that, as well?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, sure, Juan. That actually goes back to your earlier question about how slavery is actually presented in the book. So, as I said, you know, I started this book in 2009. And one of the things my editor immediately said to me when I told him what I was going to do, he said, “Listen, you’re going into territory people have written about quite a bit.” And so, I think any time you write a book — this is true even in nonfiction — you’re writing about a theme a lot of times that folks have tackled. You have to make it yours. You have to figure out: OK, what is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s vision of, say, police brutality in 2015 to make into Between the World and Me? How do you not just sound like some dude who read some James Baldwin and decided, “I’m going to go write”? Same thing here. How do you sound like — you know, how do you not sound like somebody that read Beloved and said, “Hey, I’m going to try to do that”?

And so, a large part of that is not just rendering enslavement, but rendering my vision of enslavement. And part of rendering my vision of enslavement is figuring out a vocabulary that speaks to it in a particular way. And so, that’s why there are different names. You know, you have your enslaved are called the Tasked; the enslavers are called the Quality. Those whites who don’t have the “luxury” of owning people are referred to as the “low whites.” And so, I thought all of that was really, really important to give a different vocabulary and a different sense of where we were.

AMY GOODMAN: And the decline of the plantation, talk about that.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Sure. So, there is a subtle and slight, I think, parable about ecology and about climate change in there. And one of the things that happens in this novel is Virginia, the state, grows rich off of tobacco. You know, in the world of this novel, it grows rich off of tobacco that slaves farm and cut and hang and etc. And the tobacco exhausts the land. And as the land is exhausted, the wealth, which all of these Virginia planters are living off of, begins to exhaust itself, too. And so what they do is they turn to something else: They start selling people.

And, you know, a lot of the characters just comment on the fact of, you know, “How long can this go on?” Because what folks are basically doing is, once they exhaust one area, they move west. So, within the history of this novel, they move from Virginia to Tennessee to Mississippi. The characters are always afraid of being sent Natchez-way, because that’s where the land is rich, and it’s blooming, but in the mind of slaves, they’ll exhaust that, too. And the very fact that they have turned from enslaving people to actually cultivating and selling people is a commentary in and of itself.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here you are for 10 years writing this novel, at the same time that you’re writing these paradigm-shattering essays and books that are getting so much attention. And so it’s all coming together. In the midst of all this, you testify before Congress around the issue of reparations. And you have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responding to the issue. When you were last in, we had you respond. But I’m wondering now, as The Water Dancer comes out, and as you deeply dove into this issue in a different way, in a fictional way, your thoughts on what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. I want to just play that clip.


MAJORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL: I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate. We’ve had waves of immigrants, as well, who have come to the country and experienced dramatic discrimination of one kind or another. So, no, I don’t think reparations are a good idea.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, I want to point out that Mitch McConnell was being questioned by an African-American reporter, by Eva McKend of Spectrum News, about whether the government should issue a public apology for slavery. So, in light of this and just this deep world that you’ve been living in, both imaginary and very, very real?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. Well, I would say that, you know, that commentary actually gets to one of the themes of the book, and that is the idea that you get to forget the things that you don’t like. Anytime someone makes an anti-reparations argument, almost 95% of the time what undergirds that is the idea that one can have an à la carte approach to history.

So, Mitch McConnell would never say, you know, “George Washington died a long time ago, so, therefore, we shouldn’t pay any attention to George Washington. We shouldn’t have Presidents’ Day.” He wouldn’t say, “Thomas Jefferson died a long time ago, therefore we shouldn’t paying any attention to Thomas Jefferson.” He wouldn’t say, you know, “There were treaties that were signed before any of us are alive, so, therefore, we’re out of those treaties.” He wouldn’t say that pensionnaires who are still alive from, say, World War II, even though the vast majority of us weren’t alive to fight that war, should no longer have to pay.

And so, the very idea that history should not matter, if we were to apply that rule across the board and not just to reparations, it’d be tough to have a state in and of itself at all. Part of being part of a state is being responsible to things that you don’t directly do, be they be things that happened across time and history or be they things that happened across time and space. You know, my tax dollars goes to subsidize highways that I may or may not make utilization of. That’s what it means to be part of a state.

The second fallacy in that is that somehow the oppression of African Americans ended in 1865 and does not extend up into the lifetime of Mitch McConnell, which I tried to make clear during my testimony, that in fact that is quite false. This would be an entirely different conversation, had this country done in 1865 what Frederick Douglass asked it to do, which is to let the enslaved alone and let them prosper. That’s not what happened. In fact, what followed was a 100-year, century-long terrorism campaign, which was backed by policy at the federal, state and local level. The folks who suffered under those policies are very much alive today.

And so, one of the things I wanted to get to in The Water Dancer, that I was tackling, was this idea that you can be opportunistic about memory, that Hiram’s father, you know, who lives off of the slave labor of all of these people, can remember the, quote-unquote, “greatness” of the folks that founded the plantation, while ignoring what all of that wealth and greatness was actually based on in the first place, while ignoring what he did to this enslaved woman. That is a problem that I feel like is with us across the board. It’s not just a race problem. It haunts all of our policy, this inability to grapple with history.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates. His first novel, The Water Dancer, came out today. Tune in Wednesday for Part 2 of our conversation, when he talks about the 2020 presidential race, politicians using blackface, from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, and more.

To watch Ta-Nehisi Coates testify on Capitol Hill about reparations, go to democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Rhiannon Giddens on Pulitzer-Winning Opera “Omar” About Enslaved Muslim Scholar Omar ibn Said

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation