Ta-Nehisi Coates talks America, race, and his new novel The Water Dancer
Ta-Nehisi Coates talks America, race, and his new novel The Water Dancer
a-Nehisi Coates is on his way back from somewhere quiet, somewhere peaceful. A place that is decidedly not New York City, still hungover from president-elect Joe Biden’s win. Where Coates’s getaway is exactly, he doesn’t want to say, but he laughs as he declines to give away the location, perhaps conscious of how the refusal might come off.
“I missed all of that,” says Coates, referring to last Saturday’s coast-to-coast spontaneous dance numbers after the media called the election. More importantly, the writer’s fans also missed his much sought-after take on it all. But since quitting Twitter in 2017 after a dust-up with Cornel West, and then a year later departing The Atlantic, his intellectual home for nearly a decade, Coates has been happily away – off somewhere (thinking, reading, writing) and not everywhere.
“If I’m honest with you, I feel like the need to have an opinion on everything at every moment corrupts thinking. Some of my favourite thinkers, people who I really respected during the Obama years and in some cases before, have been deeply corrupted by Twitter and the need to respond and the need to argue,” said Coates.
“When I see that I get very scared because I think it could have been me. I mean, it kind of was,” he adds pensively. “And I don’t think that’s who I’m supposed to be. And if it is, I don’t want to be that,” Coates declares, all too conscious of how personas are made, and how they can unmake a person.
Because Ta-Nehisi Coates – winner of the National Book Award and the MacArthur “genius grant”, whose writing led to a congressional hearing on reparations for American slavery – is acutely aware of how legends are made. The 45-year-old became one – the intellectual celebrity – just as his work deconstructing another, the shining city on the hill that is America, shot into the stratosphere. But he is on his way back.
Coates’s debut novel, The Water Dancer, an intimate story about an enslaved Virginian man grappling with his own gifts, came out in paperback this month. Last year, the bestseller got Oprah Winfrey’s coveted anointing and brought back her book club. Last week, it was announced that Winfrey and Brad Pitt are teaming up to produce the film adaptation. Coates is now tasked with writing the screenplay.
The story follows Hiram, a young man who is a member of “the Tasked”, otherwise known as the institution of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Hiram, the son of an enslaved Black woman, lives on a once-successful but now crumbling plantation owned by his White father. He is smarter than everyone. He sees the beauty around him – namely the deep familial ties braided together by the women in his life – and with it, the unescapable ugliness. Like Hiram, Coates is constantly examining the duelling realities of living as a Black man in America.
“In my work, there is a thing that’s going on all the way through it: the America as it thinks it is, and as it projects itself out into the world … There are aspects of it that are really beautiful and seductive, and if you’re Black,” explained Coates, placing emphasis on his identity, “on some level, you understand that it’s not true. A large part of my life is figuring out the how and why of that.”
That is where the writer, whose 2017 bestseller We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy investigates the limitations and pride of having a Black president, found himself on Saturday 7 November.
When the news broke that Democratic nominee Joe Biden was now President-elect Joe Biden, and Senator Kamala Harris would be the first Black, Indian and female vice president, Coates couldn’t get too hyped (though he finds plenty of joy in how “insufferable” Harris’s fellow sorority sisters, Howard University alums and HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] graduates have been in the last week and will be for the next four years).
Still, he was in his quiet somewhere, contemplating the myth of America and how reality always rears its messy head in the morning.
“For me, it’s hard to jump up and down. I don’t condemn anybody else. I know it’s been a dark four years. I get it. But I don’t know if we’re going back to normalcy,” said Coates, who made certain to underscore the “for me” part of his explanation more than once, more than twice. For Coates, the man who cannot help but hear the dog whistles beneath the words, “it’s a very hard situation to wrap yourself around.”
“A president-elect who stands up and says, ‘The Black community had my back and I will always have yours,’ that’s a beautiful sentiment to hear. As a Black person, I’m very happy to hear that,” said Coates. “But if the past 12 years really taught me anything, it’s that other people hear that, too, in other communities. And it really doesn’t reflect the world that they want to live in.”
That’s pretty dark. But these are also pretty dark times, right? Even with all the celebrating that’s going on. There are nearly a quarter of a million Americans who weren’t here for it, and the rise of coronavirus infections in the United States shows no signs of stopping. This summer the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the fore, once again. Hundreds of children are still separated from their parents. President Barack Obama’s legislative legacy is actively being dismantled by President Donald Trump. It’s easier to destroy than to build. This is the America that Coates contemplates.
“Would I give up my reasons for why I can’t celebrate so that I could be out there dancing with everybody? No, no. There’s beauty in seeing certain things, even if those things make you sometimes sad, or despairing or they hurt you. But I would rather know than not,” said Coates.
It’s heavy stuff, for sure – holding a mirror up to the America of the past and present to show them how much they favour each other – but Coates said the work is nowhere near as daunting as it once was.
The global pandemic caused by the coronavirus has been both tragic and clarifying. In the time he’s been away from the daily churn of journalism, “takes” and Twitter, Coates has learned a few things about himself. His wife, Kenyatta Matthews, and his now college-aged kid, Samori – for whom 2015’s breakthrough Between the World and Me was written as a 155-page letter from father to son – are lighthouses.
“I want to have as much time with them as I can. I never knew how important that was. I really enjoy learning. I really enjoy reading. And I enjoy reading and learning whether it turns into writing or not. I like that private space of imagination, which to me is the closest thing to being a child and playing with toys,” said Coates.
“I want those things to be central to my life, and I feel as though I am closer to those things now than I was four years ago.”
Back then – because four years feels like 40 these days – Coates was still in the fray. He described the constant hustle of having to have an opinion about everything all the time as “personally exhausting”.
“It’s weird. Every time you share your feelings about the world, there’s some aspect of you that’s opened up to the world. And I learned to be more discriminating about that. That made my life a lot easier,” said Coates.
Leaving The Atlantic, a place the author adored and still does, was as defining a moment as joining the legacy publication in the first place. It allowed Coates to make a living as a writer and his seminal piece there, “The Case for Reparations”, made him into something more.
Coates’s former editor at the magazine, Scott Stossel, said the writer never wanted to be the something more.
“One of the many things that’s so great about him is he really thinks of himself as just a writer,” said Stossel. “He thinks about really big ideas, but it’s all about the work. He doesn’t want to be an activist. He’s just about the work. It’s not false modesty or bulls***.”
Leaving The Atlantic was an “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation. Coates needed space, and he knew the magazine would be fine. He was no longer the only Black writer on staff, untangling the country’s racial knot on his own. “That was always the dream,” said Coates, for there to be no need for him.
Chris Jackson, Coates’s editor at One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, echoed that sentiment.
“He was never someone who was like, ‘I have to be the one’,” said Jackson. “He’s always been incredibly generous in trying to make room for other people and not position himself as the singular voice or authority. He always hated that.”
The special September race issue of Vanity Fair magazine, which Coates guest-edited, is an example of that. On the cover is a portrait of Breonna Taylor, rendered divine by contemporary painter Amy Sherald. Open it up and there is the traditional editor’s letter, one of Coates’s first columns in a while. Before sitting down to write “the Vanity Fair joint,” he spent an entire Sunday reading Black poetry. “That was the kind of space that I really didn’t feel like I had before,” Coates said of the slow pace he took to the page. The issue features some of his favourites – novelist Jesmyn Ward, memoirist Kiese Laymon, poet Eve L Ewing.
Passing the mic is also a major principle of Coates’s forthcoming HBO special, an adaptation of Between the World and Me, premiering on 21 November. The special is executive-produced by the Apollo Theatre’s Kamilah Forbes, whom Coates met at Howard more than two decades ago, when she was producing a rhythm and poetry cipher and he was one of the poets.
With the HBO special, Forbes sought to answer the question, “How do you make a story of one man be every man?” She did it by assembling an Avengers-style cast of A-listers not just in Hollywood, but in the music industry and the activist world. The cast, which includes Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Angela Davis, Janet Mock and more, read careful selections from Between the World and Me with interwoven documentary footage, graphic art and archival images from Coates’s life.
The film was shot in July and August, months after the killings of Floyd and Taylor and under the renewed spotlight of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It is a true representation of voices that are on the cusp on this conversation,” said Forbes. “We could have easily done two actors and leave it at that. But there was a much larger story to be told. The idea of the actor starts to melt away. These are not just characters,” said Forbes.
Coates praised Forbes’s ability to make his book “bigger” on screen, not in terms of size but accessibility – the doorway to the Black experience seems widened. “It almost feels as though there are voices in the text that are not mine,” he said.
Which brings us back to Coates’s dream: of many voices singing America. That’s the only way the myth gets stripped bare.
Not too long ago, Coates and his wife were sitting around discussing the commitments one makes to the Black community. Jokingly, he posed a question: If you could disappear into the White world – that is to say, America the myth – would you? Her answer was no, because despite the physical and emotional irony of being a Black person in America, it is, in fact, a beautiful experience.
“It really is,” echoed Coates. “But the beauty of Black people is hard-earned and hard to see. It’s tough. It comes with people’s attitudes and people’s thoughts and their dysfunctions. It’s not easy. But when you see it, it’s f***ing incredible. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I would never want to be anywhere else. I would never give this up.”