Introductions: Ta-Nehisi Coates
November 10, 2015
On October 29, SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey introduced Ta-Nehisi Coates to the resounding applause of a sold-out crowd at McCaw Hall, for SAL’s 2015/16 Literary Arts Series.
I first met Ta-Nehisi Coates 20 years ago, when we were two of the youngest members of WriterCorps, in Washington DC. WriterCorps placed writers in traditionally underserved communities to lead workshops, and Ta-Nehisi taught at Lorton Prison, Cardozo High School and the Lamond Riggs Library. For those of you who know DC, you will have some sense that those are very disparate places. I remember him as quiet and thoughtful and most strongly remember both of us intently learning from our writing elders, Kenny Carroll, Joel Dias Porter, Van Jordan, Jeffrey McDaniel and Brian Gilmore.
I followed Ta-Nehisi as he wrote for the Washington City Paper, and then The Atlantic. I cheered the day I found one of his essays in the New Yorker. He has also published pieces in New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Washington Monthly, and O. In 2008 he published, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, a memoir about coming of age in West Baltimore. His incredible attention to detail and exceptional writing galvanized the national conversations around race, particularly his September 2012 Atlantic cover story, “Fear of a Black President,” and his June 2014 feature, “The Case for Reparations.”
And now, in a book written as a letter to his son, Coates has written an incredibly beautiful, important, aching book, Between the World and Me. The New York Times called the book “essential, like water or air” and Toni Morrison concurred, saying the book’s “examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.”
It is indeed. This is a book to read, to re-read, to deeply consider. This is more than a book, it is a wrenching look into a father’s love for his son, into the legacy and history of racism and of violence perpetrated on African Americans. Coates began his writing journey as a poet, and his poet’s sensibility glows through his incisive and melodic writing, his extraordinary attention to detail and his gift for storytelling. The book is at turns tender and heartbreaking, searingly honest and bracingly detailed. In tracing the history of the destruction of black bodies – through slavery, through redlining, through police brutality, through mass incarceration – Coates tries to instill in his son a consciousness and also a framework for understanding how Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Prince Jones are not isolated examples of random violence, but connected with a long and brutal history of oppression. One that we who call ourselves white perpetrate. And perpetuate.
One of the greatest gifts of Between the World and Me was that it was not written most of all for you or for me, or for any of us. It was written, with immediacy, intimacy and love, for Coates’ son, Samori. And toward the end of the book, he writes:
“I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted to you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
I can imagine no more important incantation, no greater hope for all of us than to engage in the brief bright life of struggle, to be conscious citizens of this terrible and beautiful world. Please join me in warmly welcoming the brilliant writer, the tireless seeker, the courageous struggler, the man who invites us all to awake from the dream and into the struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates.