Ta-Nehisi Coates Letting Us into His World

Ta-Nehisi Coates was an absolute pleasure to hear speak. Photo via: Music Arts Center Handout

After sitting in on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lecture and reading of an excerpt from his book, I can see why all the tickets were gone four hours after they were available to the public. Coates spent the bulk of his time talking about his book, “Between the World and Me,” but what he was really talking about is race in America and the societal wrongs we have been perpetuating over the last few centuries and quite likely longer than that. Brian Watts of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs introduced Coates with a host of titles, but by far, the most important one was “truth-teller.” In listening to Coates speak, I believe he can move people to change, to want better things for American citizens of all races, socioeconomic backgrounds and different kinds of people.

Coates is an inspiring man, and he took the time to inspire me in a way I didn’t even know I needed. In the beginning, before he read from “Between the World and Me,” he spoke to all young writers in all mediums and said some of the most important words I have ever heard: “Don’t quit. Don’t ever quit.” Now, I’ve heard that idea from a host of people in a host of different ways before, but knowing the adversity Coates faced in growing up in West Baltimore and on a social plane that I can’t even begin to understand, hearing him tell me not to quit, that I will fail, that he still fails and that all of that is perfectly fine had a profound effect on me. In essence, I believed him.

“A book is a crafted thing,” Coates said. He then went on to tell us the shallow and the deep reason behind writing this book. He talked about Prince Jones, a friend of his from Howard University who was killed by police officers. Jones became the beginning of a platform to talk about race and what people are afraid to be black in America. I knew these things were true. I have an awareness of history that spans more than just American pride. I see what kinds of headlines about cops make the news. I know these issues are out there, but for me, they are so distant that I really can’t fathom them on my own. Hearing from Coates, letting him tell from first person experience what it is like to be so fearful and have so little control moved me. I tweeted him after the show that I couldn’t get to the microphone for the question and answer portion, but I wanted to know what a person like me could do to start changing the way these things happen. I do hope he will respond.

I found Ta-Nehisi Coates to be a very well educated and well-spoken person on the matter of race in America. He absolutely shocked me when he explained that “white supremacy is a matter of cash.” I had never considered it in that way, but listening to his exposition and elaboration of the idea that slavery was what built the American economy from the ground up, it made sense. “The problem isn’t to get people to hold other people’s hands,” he said. “It’s to get people’s hands out of other people’s pockets.” It still amazes me to hear stories about black tax dollars going to fund public education in schools that wouldn’t accept their children or to promote community projects in which they could not participate. I don’t believe that kind of injustice has gone away; rather, it has a new face and marches around behind the guise of mass incarceration.

I am extremely grateful that I was able to listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates. His statements were bold and thought-provoking and his manner was one of understanding and respect. As both a writer and a student, he inspired me. He made me want to keep failing and keep getting better and he made me want to do what I can to point out injustices in the world through my work.


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