Ta-Nehisi Coates is running late. As a national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of the new book, Between the World and Me, everyone, it seems, wants a word with the 39-year-old Baltimore native these days. His book—which Toni Morrison christened “required reading” and which the New York Times hailed a “profoundly moving account”—is a deeply personal examination of the ways in which American violence and racism have wreaked havoc on its black citizenry. “[T]he question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” Coates writes in the beginning portion of the book, “is the question of my life.”
By the time we meet, on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July, he is gracious and candid as ever, despite having just come from another interview. “I feel freed,” he will later tell me, a wide, generous smile cutting across his face. Over the course of the next half-hour, we discussed Coates’ early days at Howard University, traveling abroad, obligation, publishing’s lack of diverse gatekeepers, and what, if anything, it means to understand the fullness of history.
Gawker: I want to begin with one of my favorite lines from the book. You write: “Your Uncle Ben became a fellow traveler for life, and I discovered that there was something particular about journeying out with black people who knew the length of the road because they had traveled it too.” There is a lot in there—community, love, endurance. What’s the length of your road been?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: We went to Paris in the summer of 2013. I have a friend Ben, and he and his wife; they’ve always been a little bit ahead of me and my wife—just very mature about seeing certain things about the world. And for years, they had been doing these house-swaps. They would go to France or wherever, and a family would come live in their house. They were even doing it at a time, living out of the country and taking their kids with them, when I wasn’t even conscious that that was something that I wanted, or should want. Even though I knew that I wanted my son to see the things.
So they were in Paris the same summer we did it, and these are like black folks that came up like me. So it’s one thing to go there with people who have expectations for certain things, but it’s another thing—and I had other friends there with me, too; Jelani Cobb came over for a little while, and a buddy of mine, Tom Fisher, a doctor in Chicago, came for about a week—and so, for a good amount of time in Paris, I was with black folks who as children could not really imagine that. It was a shared experience of, What the fuck? And then, at the same time, particularly for me and Ben, because we had been history majors at Howard, and came up in this Afrocentric tradition—in fact, everybody I just mentioned came up that way— where you are kind of scornful of the West, and to actually be there and say, This is badass. This didn’t make it in the final draft of the book, but I met Ben one night in front of Hôtel de Ville, and there are buildings like this all over Paris. Just beautiful fucking buildings. And I was just like, Ohhh. But then you had to balance that. You had to balance that with knowing how much wealth they plugged out of Haiti, for instance.
Like, the history that came with all of that?
Right. You have to, on one hand, behold the beauty of what you’re seeing, as a human endeavor. And then still understand how it came, lest you fall into your own dream. You can’t be cynical. You have to see it as it is, the fullness. And it deeply challenged us. From an intellectual perspective, it was great to have somebody else making that journey at the same time, which in many ways, is a metaphor for how we have to go through this country itself. It’s very hard to be black in this country and hate America. It’s really hard to live like that. I would actually argue, it’s impossible to fully see yourself.
In what way?
Well, you’re part of this.
We’re sort of complicit in the machine.
How can you not be? That’s the sinister part of it. How do black people extract themselves from this? African Americans are one of the oldest ethnic groups in this country. We been here since the beginning. Before the beginning. And then people tweet me, “You go back to Africa.” No. You go back to Ireland. You go back to Scotland. Because we were here. We been here before the beginning. So, in that way, it is very hard to extract yourself. Some things cannot be undone. You may have been born from an act of rape, but do you want to not exist? This is how you came about.
Speaking of beauty, and seeing things for the fullness of what they are, early on in the book you talk about your time at Howard, and how you discovered the majesty of black people while on the Yard. Can you talk more about your time there, and how it shaped your years after that?
I grew up around black people, but I didn’t grow up around black people like that. Howard pulls from the entire black diaspora. And black people, being human beings first and foremost, there is a great variation among them. And to see all that variation united under one thing, and yet still be individuals—I had never seen anything like that. It gave me a great respect for how full the black experience really was. How much it really meant, and how big it was. Somebody once told me, black people, in and of themselves, are cosmopolitan. There’s cosmopolitanism within the black experience. There’s an incredible amount. It’s an incredible thing, and I first saw that at Howard.
Now having realized there was this fullness and vastness to the black experience, when was the first time you remember it being threatened? Was it a physical threat?
I always knew it was threatened. For as long as I can remember I knew that. But I did not understand the depth. Once you see the beauty, you see how much you have to lose. I always knew the threat was there. Now I understood how much there was to lose.
There are two terms invoked constantly throughout the book: “body” and “plunder.” There is a physicality to both, a totality in each when you use them, that is terrifying. I’m interested in this idea of choosing the word “black body” as opposed to saying, “the black mind” or “the black soul.”
I think the body is the ultimate thing. The soul and mind are part of the body. I don’t think there is anything outside of that. Your physical self is who you are. Some people feel that that is reductionist, but I don’t think it is. It’s just true.
It’s your vessel.
But not even your vessel. It’s the thing. The body is the mind. The mind is housed, as far as we know, within an organ—the brain. The brain is part of the body. And when people speak about the soul, they are speaking about certain sensations that they feel as a result of nerves and other organ systems within the body. For me specifically, not really coming out of a religious tradition, that’s how I understand black people. It very much clarifies for me the idea of physical violence. There is a tradition within black America, that I quarrel with, that says: They can do things to our body, but they can’t really trap our minds. I disagree with that. Every assault upon the body is, in fact, also an assault upon the mind. I don’t think there is any way to get away from that.
You refer to assaults on the body as the “terror of disembodiment.” As it relates to black women, you write: “...the bodies of women are set out for the pillage in ways I could never truly know.” As black men—and being raised by a single mother I am constantly wondering this—do you feel we’ve used our bodies and our minds and our mouths to terrorize black women? Is the plunder of black women partially our fault?
Men terrorize women. Men have terrorized women throughout history. I don’t think black men are immune from that.
Is it a conscious thing always?
Yes. Probably so. Somebody could have written this book in much the same way with those same physical virtues and talked about the relationship between men and women. This will sound horrible, but the expectations that black men act outside of the dictates of men, within the culture in which they are from or maybe within men throughout humanity, I don’t have that expectation. Black men act as men do—within their condition. So, yeah, I would agree. And black men aren’t particularly immune from that.
Would you say it’s part of our heritage as Americans?
I would say it’s part of our heritage as men. The idea of women as property—why would we be immune to that? The way that plays out is different because of certain economic features, and one might say I’ve characterized African-American families. But I’m kinda skeptical of that. Like, the ability to physically dominate somebody, and there being no check. Only within a relatively recent period in history is that really, really looked down upon. And we’re still struggling with that, even as I speak. I don’t have any expectation that black men would be any different. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held to a standard, which I want to be very clear about. I guess I don’t have any expectation because there is a presumption that since black men live closer to black women—because black men themselves are oppressed—that they will somehow have a better understanding of oppression, and will therefore be more charitable. But I don’t find that to be true in power relationships, period.
I would disagree, partially. I feel like black women, because they are often the closest to us, we can be vulnerable around them in ways we can’t around others. The expectations should be higher.
On a one-to-one level, and you’ll find that in individual relationships. When you think about it; white men and white women are also close to each other.
But I’m not concerned about them.
Right. But if you are using expectation like, I would like. Or, this is my aspiration—I aspire for something else. That’s one thing. But as a matter of what is, why would that be true? I think we can speak about what we want to be true. We can aspire to certain things. We can say: I aspire for our relationship to not be like their relationship.
But, in terms of the science of what’s been—and this is a critical point that goes beyond the gender piece—we get this wrong a lot. For instance, people say: Irish immigrants came to this country and they turned out to be just as racist as everybody else or Italian immigrants came to this country and it seems somehow natural that they would’ve made common cause with black people, because they faced some of the same discrimination. But that’s not how power works, regrettably. It’s very unfortunate. Those folks are doing exactly what groups have done throughout history: They identified a place in which they can empower themselves and they’ve done exactly that.
It goes to this whole thing in 2008, where we were shocked that black people, straight black people, in California did not make common cause to ensure the protection of marriage equality. Why are we shocked by that? Black people are homophobic, too. We’re American. And this goes back to what I was saying in the beginning of the interview—about extracting yourself—I don’t know that we can do it. I appreciate it as an aspiration. That’s good. But as an actual observation of what’s been historically, I don’t know, man.
Is that what you mean when you write about making “peace with the chaos”?
When you make peace with the chaos, you have the aspiration you just outlined, and you struggle towards that. And you identify that as a worthy thing to do whether you are successful or not. So no matter what the expectation is, no matter what the observation of history says will probably happen, you struggle nonetheless. That’s how you make peace with the chaos. And that’s perfectly okay. It’s okay to observe something and say: It don’t look too good, and yet I’m going to fight for this anyway. That’s okay.
You refer to “the language of survival” as “a myth,” writing: It “helped us cope with the human sacrifice that finds us no matter our manhood. As though our hands were our own. As though plunder of dark energy was not at the heart of our galaxy.” That line—as though our hands were our own. I stopped the first time I read it. It’s the realization that you are not in control and won’t ever fully be in control.
You’re not. You’re a minority in this country, and you have to acknowledge that. A great deal of our political dialogue—and, again, that is fine as an aspiration, but observing history—believes that individual people, minorities, can move history. But that doesn’t stand up to history. The efforts of individual minorities have been very, very important, but minus the larger culture seeing their own interests in those efforts, you don’t get anything. Your hands are not your own. It’s not just on you. And yet you have to struggle anyway. We’ve observed that. It doesn’t give you the right to go home and lay down.
Do you think perhaps, maybe not in our lifetime, but in your son’s lifetime, the needle will have shifted a bit?
And our hands will be more our own?
Well, that will never happen.
Because America would have to fundamentally change what it is?
Right. And at that point, we would no longer think of ourselves as a black race. It would be different. We would probably think of ourselves as a cultural group, as an ethnic group. But the idea of race would not exist. Not as long as there is white supremacy, no.
I want to talk about obligation. You’re in a pretty important post at The Atlantic. You’ve covered some of the most significant issues of our day. Now, with the Between the World and Me, your words will cast even wider, and endure longer. Toni Morrison, the queen mother, knighted you with her remarks about the book. Is a weight on your shoulders, perhaps even more than there was before?
No. There is no weight. I feel freed, and am deeply honored by that. I’m number three on Amazon’s Bestsellers list. There’s no weight. [Laughs]. Let me tell you about weight. Weight was when I first came to New York, and I didn’t have a job. My wife was the breadwinner in our household, which is fine. But I couldn’t even contribute. Weight is having a one-year-old kid and having no idea how you are going to contribute to the household. Weight is writing for years, where you are paid ten cents a word and you write three articles that year that you worked your ass off to do, and that’s all the income you bring in. Weight is all those years when you bring in 1,000 or 2,000 dollars a year. That’s weight. I never thought I would get here. I had no expectation of this. This is icing. [Laughs] It’s not even the cake; it’s icing. And you can’t write for that.
What do you mean?
You can’t write to get like Toni Morrison. There’s no possible way to live up to that quote. You can’t. It wasn’t given for you to live up to. That’s not what happened. That’s her assessment of this book, which I deeply appreciate. And I am deeply honored. But if I go and write three other horrible books, you can’t say, Toni Morrison was wrong. No. It’s what she thought at this particular time, about this particular work. It’s true of this book.
I guess what I am trying to get at is, in your writing, do you at all feel obligated to stand up and tell all black peoples’ stories? Or is it just about truth-telling and casting a light on the nightmares of the world, wherever the pen lands? I ask because BuzzFeed’s review accused you of leaving a particular aspect of the black woman’s story out of your book.
Shani [Hilton, the author of the review,] is a buddy of mine. And she told me she was going to write it beforehand. And I knew that was going to be one of the critiques about the book. I was trying to think about this. Because there are women in this book; it’s my mom who actually gives me the gift of reading and writing.
You discuss your mom and grandmother early on. Then there is a portion devoted to your wife, and the two other women at Howard. I understood where Shani was coming from, but thought the critique was somewhat unfair.
And then there’s Prince Jones’ mom at the end of the book. But I think what Shani would say, knowing her: a) most of the women are depicted through the experiences of a man, b) the whole depictions of those women are not sufficient for me.
What do you say, though?
I say, I’m a black man. Yes, they are going to be depicted through this lens because I am writing the book. I guess, had I picked some other act of violence that happened to a woman at the end of the book, that could’ve worked, but Prince Jones was actually killed. You understand what I’m saying? This book started in 2000 when he was shot down. That has eaten at me for years. To have observed his mother from afar, to have seen her at the ceremony at Howard, to have read all the articles. I say it in the book: I wonder how the hell she lived?
I deeply, deeply wondered how she lived. Like, how was she living? Let me say two things: The greatest book written on the black experience in the last 30 years was written by a black woman—Isabel Wilkerson’s book, [The Warmth of Other Suns]. It’s just no question about that. It’s undebatable. That is a work, man. That is a mighty work of history. And that’s to say nothing of the black women historians who have inspired this book. For instance, Barbara Field’s Racecraft, which runs all through this book. Out of the House of Bondage by Thavolia Glymph—the only footnote I have in the book—was very key in shaping my notion of the body. It’s about the physical violence of white women, who presume to be meek and were slave mistresses, and who repeatedly inflicted it on black women. Very, very important book, especially in getting to this notion of the physicality of racism. And Toni Morrison—our greatest living writer. One might argue that our greatest nonfictional depictions of the black experience over the last 50 years have been written by women. Certainly the greatest fictional ones have; that’s just true.
Having said all of that, there’s an aspect of this that’s lonely, in that people turn to you and ask you questions a lot of the time, and ask you to speak for folks. I’m a writer, so I’m unholy enough to do that. There should be more people. I appreciate all the attention this book is getting; I appreciate all the fanfare behind it. But I think the answer to this—and Shani might quarrel with me on this—is to have more books like this. That’s ultimately the answer. When I wrote my first book, The Beautiful Struggle—about my father, brother, and me—I didn’t get that critique. Well, not that many people read that book. But whenever you have a book that says, this is going to speak for us right now; this is the book that addresses the moment right now, people look for themselves in that book.
They want it to speak for them.
Yes. And I understand that. But I think the answer to that is to have more books. More books that get the kind of prominence and the kind of push that this book has gotten.
You think Between the World and Me will open the lane up for more books like that?
Man, I hope so. I actually think the problem is at the editor level. There is just not another Chris Jackson. He’s really the hero of this book. It’s fine that it’s taken the form of a letter, but it’s not like I came in here and said, Hey, I am going to write a letter about American violence and American racism and address it to my son. What do you think about that? That wasn’t the pitch.
It was supposed to be a book about the Civil War, right?
Yes, a book of Civil War essays that I was not writing. [Laughs.] Then, even when the idea began for Between the World and Me, it was not a fully formed idea. It was a notion. It was a reaction. Chris is a cat who is from the hood, and was raised a certain way. Extremely literate. Knows the kind of references I make, and thus is able to shepherd a notion through. I don’t know if there is anybody else in publishing like him. There are other black editors. But I don’t know if there is anyone of his stature. That’s the key right there. That’s what’s missing. Right now, we have a number of writers out there who are certainly capable, but to have someone mentor you and bring you through the process; I think that’s what’s missing.
Before we end, I want to discuss Prince Jones. There is a line in the book that I return to often. You write: “[He] had made it through, and still they had taken him.” Again, returning to this idea of not being in control, of being a pawn in the chess game, even when you have done everything right.
Prince Jones, his mother, his family—they did everything that was asked of them. They went way, way, way beyond. They are the living embodiment of—fuck twice as good—thrice as good. It didn’t matter. They confused him for some dude who stole a policeman’s gun. That’s who they thought he was. He had no individuality. Except for having been cast into the black race by a system of white supremacy, that that would somehow make him vulnerable. Nothing else mattered. Who he was had no bearing on how he was ultimately treated and how he ultimately died. And I think people need to grapple with that.