Even if you had only read one Ta-Nehisi Coates article, “The Case for Reparations” for example, or maybe “Fear of a Black President,” it would be difficult not to join the ecstatic chorus celebrating the writer’s recent MacArthur Genius Award win.
The author of Between the World and Me, Coates has time and again shown his knack for both historicizing racial inequalities and positioning his interrogation of structural inequalities within lyrical personal narrative. Recently, the LIVE from the NYPL presented Coates in conversation with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. For this week’s episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we’re proud to present Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing theft, atheism, and history.
Although “The Case for Reparations” is, perhaps, Coates’ most influential work of journalism, he found himself dissatisfied with the piece after its publication. This dissatisfaction, in part, led him to write a more personal text in the form of Between the World and Me:
“I felt like a number of historians had done the work of outlining the racism implicit in New Deal policies and twentieth century policies because the weakness with reparation is always people look at you and say, ‘Well, the slaves are long dead.’ But there are plenty of people around right now who were certainly affected by New Deal policies, so I pulled from the history and made that argument. But when I was done, I was somewhat displeased because I felt like the article did not explain how it felt to live your daily life under a system of plunder, under a system of theft. How does it individually feel to live that way? That was the main challenge for Between the World and Me.”
Coates spoke of the importance of research in his intellectual work, crediting many fellow thinkers’ contributions to his own understanding of systemic inequities. One book vital to him is Racecraft by Barbara and Karen Fields:
“The basic argument of this book is we have a notion that, as far as I’m concerned, filters through all of our conversation about race, and I talk about this in the book. And it holds that there are a unique race of people called white who come from Europe, who are pure and are here. There is a unique race of people called black, who come from Africa and are here. There’s a unique Asian race that comes from somplace called Asia and are here. There is a unique race of Native Americans and increasingly a unique race of Hispanics and Latinos who are here. And this is written in blood, somehow written in the DNA and inscribed by science. But in fact what you find is that these definitions, these allegedly biological hard and fast definitions, are not consistent across history and are certainly not consistent across geography. And when you try to understand why we call something white today and why we call something black today, you go back into the history and you cannot get away from the notion of plunder. Someone decided that they wanted to be able to strip as many people as possible of their labor, the fruits to their labor. They called the group of people black… We’ve had groups of people come to America at various points and not necessarily be called white, and slowly because of some sort of political interest, they get called white. If you think about the world that way, if you understand race as a done thing, not the work of God, not the work of Jesus, but an actual done thing, a decision that was made by a group of people, it charges you with some things. It charges you to fix some things. But if you can make it mystical, if you can make it the work of Jesus, if you can make it the work of God, you can say, ‘This is just natural.’ Then the inequality, the wealth gap, it becomes sanctified. You can think, ‘Not my fault, man. I didn’t choose this. It ain’t got nothing to do with me.’ Racecraft: a very good book.”
Coates also noted the way that atheism informs his aversion to couching black politics in a redemption narrative:
“I’m black. I’m African-American. there is so much about being African-American, African-American politics, that I don’t understand, primarily because in my household Malcolm X was Jesus. And again, that’s at the root of this book: the stress on the body. Malcolm’s belief, his rage, his seeing black people beat in the street and dogs sicked on black people, said to me the black body, your body, is precious. Your life is as precious as anyone. And you should not give up your life. And you should not give up your body for rights that are already written in the Constitution. It’s wrong. It may be that as a matter of actual politics that’s what had to happen, but I have never parted with the sense that that is wrong. I can’t watch the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma campaign in the same way as other people. I can’t even watch the movie Selma in the same way as other people. I mean, I love King’s speech — “How Long, Not Long” — I love that speech. I can’t feel happy though, I can’t share in the sense of triumph and hope that comes out of it because when I see those cops rush those folks for wanting to cross the bridge, I just think it never should have came to that. How did it even come to that? It was wrong. Bloody Sunday was wrong. I can’t be redeemed by John Lewis Sterling’s career afterward. Those four little girls were killed, and for me there’s no afterlife; I’m not going to see them. In my belief system, I’m not going to see them somewhere else. Their bodies were destroyed. And no law that came afterwards, no march that came afterwards, can make me okay with that. I can’t draw anything out of my friend Prince Jones’ death except, frankly, a great deal of anger. Perhaps some understanding about the world I live in. But I can’t be okay with that. This book does not redeem him. This is not redemption. Prince Jones did not die for this book. Prince Jones was killed… his young daughter was rendered fatherless, and I don’t want people to forget that. I don’t want this to be obscured — forgive me if I offend anybody here — by spirituals, by gospels, by some sense that the arc of history ultimately will reward us. If your life ends, that’s where your arc ends. And that is a tremendous tragedy.”
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Photo of Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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