Ta-Nehisi Coates Talks White Readers, Offers Black Literature Primer

By Sameer Rao Oct 26, 2015

When "Between the World and Me" author Ta-Nehisi Coates appeared at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture last Thursday, he faced some pretty forward questions about his career and readership. 

Notably, fellow journalist and The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica writer Nikole Hannah-Jones asked what he thought of having a major readership among white people. It was a question that, The Daily Beast reports, caused the event’s majority-black audience to laugh:

“Why do you think that so many white people love what you write?” asked the award-winning ‘[The] New York Times Magazine’ journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones, during a sold-out discussion at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And the predominantly black crowd—which included the performers Usher and Common—erupted in laughter. Ta-Nehisi Coates was in the hot seat.

The topic of discussion: "Between The World and Me," the memoir penned by Coates and directed towards his teenage son, Samori, in the form of a letter. The piece is a raw account of Coates’s trying experiences as a Black man living in America—from his father’s heavy-handed approach towards parenting (i.e. whippings) to the pain and rage caused by losing a close college friend at the hands of the police. The theme of the black body—protecting it, fearing its loss and its destruction (which in his book, Coates describes as “traditional” in America)—is woven throughout. Essentially, the book is written for a black (young) man, by a black man, and about the black experience (from the author’s perspective)—so, yeah. Why do white people dig it?

Coates’s response acknowledged the conflict, saying that despite a seeming bent towards explaining racial justice issues in language that appeals to white readers (one he traces back to his scholarly education), he doesn’t soften the blunt force of American history for any reader: 

“I felt like many of the people that I was reading in the ’90s, when I was in college, were very much burdened by the need to explain to white people,” he said. “And that has an effect on your language.” These scholars took on the daunting task of explaining the ills and intricacies of a centuries-old system that has oppressed and exploited black people, and still exists in America. Whether or not it was intentional, the previous message became diluted to soften the blow for white audiences. Coates didn’t want carry this burden—it alienated him. And so he writes with a tone that is blunt, authoritative and unapologetic.

Still, Coates says that this notion of laborious explanation affecting language is relevant today. For example, the term ‘white privilege.’

“[White privilege] I think is a word that we have created to make white people comfortable—while we talk about racism, and white supremacy, which is much more uncomfortable for folks because it names things and it’s very, very direct.”

And who, exactly, was Coates reading? He mentioned several landmark literary works by black authors during the conversation, all compiled in a useful list by the New York Public Library. He envisions the list, reprinted below, as a primer for "folks who are not familiar with black literature" to "read [these books] and read a ton of other books,": 

  • "The Fire Next Time" in "Collected Essays," by James Baldwin
  • "The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, His Own," by David Carr
  • "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," by Edward E. Baptist
  • "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War," by James McPherson
  • "Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America," by Beryl Satter
  • "Confederate States of America: Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union," from Avalon Project, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School
  • "Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America," by Wil Haygood
  • "American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia," by Edmund S. Morgan
  • "Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life," by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields
  • "When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America," by Paula Giddings
  • "Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching," by Paula J. Giddings
  • "Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household," by Thavolia Glymph

Coates also mentioned the historic Cambridge University debate between William F. Buckley and James Baldwin—something he’s written about before for The Atlantic. 

Check out the Livestream for the full event above. 

(H/t The Daily Beast, NYPL, The Atlantic