The air was electric at King’s Theatre, where award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates packed the house.
Considered by many as one of the country’s most formidable writers and thinkers on socio-political issues since, perhaps, James Baldwin, Coates, 42, has written for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper and Time. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, O, and other publications.
In 2008, he published a memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons” and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.” His second book, “Between the World and Me,” was released in July 2015 and won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Also in 2015, he received a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and he is the writer of the Black Panther series for Marvel Comics.
His most widely known works are two articles he wrote for The Atlantic— “The Case for Reparations,” in 2014 and“The First White President” in September 2017, both of which address with radical candor, meticulous research and literary grace how America’s social and economic advancement was (and continues to be) afforded through near-intractable systems of racial inequality and white privilege.
The air was electric at King’s Theatre where Coates packed the house. The crowd was so large and eager to get in, the discussion ended up starting 40 minutes late. As audience members clutched copies of Coates’s new book to their chests and began settling comfortably into their seats, conversations buzzed back and forth surrounding the questions they wanted to ask and have answered.
After a short, comedic introduction by Goldberg, Coates finally made his appearance, met with a standing ovation.
“Have the past seven months vindicated your pessimism?” Goldberg asked, referring to Coates’s writing around racism, whiteness and white privilege, following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
“History isn’t happy,” he quipped, adding that he did not believe his work was pessimistic, nor was it negative but, rather, based in reality. He referenced former President Barack Obama, who once said that the world bends towards justice. But Coates’s belief is that the arch bends towards chaos.
And so that’s basically how much of the repartee continued: as a discussion focused less on the matters of his new book, centering instead on Coates’s ideas around whiteness and white privilege in America, and what he feels might be the solution, some direction, a pathway to hope.
“The First White President,” Coates’s most recent article in The Atlantic, has raised eyebrows nationally for exposing the pervasiveness and peril of white privilege in America. And for those white people willing, honest and brave enough to acknowledge the truth of the matter, naturally, a solution to the problem is what they now seek.
However, as it concerns white privilege, who really holds the key to solving that problem? Is it Coates? After all, even with all of the “pussy-grabbing” facts, a majority of white women still voted for Donald Trump. And furthermore, is it Coates’s responsibility to offer hope?
Coates at one point attempted to turn the conversation towards his political work, his book and his relationship with Former President Obama. Goldberg bridged that question by asking Coates his opinion and reaction to Trump’s election win.
Coates answered, he believed the current Trump Administration could have only existed after “an Obama,” or a black man in the highest seat of democratic political power was there before.
“We had this security with Obama that we were moving in the right direction in terms of criminal justice,” said Coates. “…And the bill that we thought was the model, most bipartisan… it went nowhere. And so it’s hard for me to see us going back there in my lifetime. So you say, you want me to be hopeful, I say, give me the evidence. Give me the receipts.”
Goldberg asked if Coates believed all Trump voters were racists and whether or not he has sympathy for them. To this question, a few audience members began to shout, “Skip!” and “Next!”
“White Trump voters are possibly racist,” answered Coates. “I don’t believe in sympathy for them.
“What I have sympathy for is the broad inequality in this country. What I have sympathy for is if you’re working a job like a coal miner and it’s definitional to who you are. And then somebody comes in and says, ‘Well, you can just be a computer programmer,’ without really understanding that it’s not just the way you pay your rent but, also, [your] identity.”
Goldberg asked Coates why he thinks white people look to him to give them hope. The audience broke into laughter. He didn’t set out to give white people hope, he answered, and he understands why black people need it from him most.
“What would have to happen in this country for you to say, ‘I think this country has achieved a kind of equality?’”Goldberg asked.
Coates offered three grievances tied to racial inequality and the ongoing plight of black people in America: reparations, closing the wage gap and ending the prison industrial complex.
The event closed with a brief audience Q&A and book signing, hosted by Greenlight Bookstore.
Coates may be correct in his belief that the universal arch bends toward chaos, particularly considering the vast differences in the people that make up the universe, their histories, their triumphs and their burdens.
And depending on what side of history you are, the arch bends accordingly, as different people continue to seek different answers to very different questions.
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