An American Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates

TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates about his childhood and dedication to journalism.

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EDDIE CONWAY, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway from Baltimore. I recently had the opportunity to do a special interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates at his former residence where he grew up, and where I now reside.

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TA-NEHISI COATES: My name is Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine. More importantly, I’m the son of Paul Coates, who was in the Black Panther party, defense [inaud.] of the Black Panther party for a couple years. Was in the Panther party with you. Although I believe you predate him in the party. I believe you were in the party before him, as I recall.

And you know, I’m just going to tell this from the perspective of who I was as a child, and what I understood at that point. I understood that my dad was in something called the Panther party. I understood that the Panthers carry guns. And I’m talking, like, five years old. Like, what I can recall, like, how I saw it then. I understood that several of the people, or a few of the people who my dad had been in the party with–a few of them were out, because they would come to the house, right, and they would visit. You know, like brother Howard. Like, they would come and visit. [bomani], a few folks like that. But I also understood there were a number of them who were in jail.

I couldn’t quite conceive of what jail was, but I remember coming to see you. And what I remember–and my dad is telling me this would have been at the penitentiary, not out at Jessup. But like, gates. Like, bars, with gates. And I remember several of them closing. And what I remember is that–was there like a wooden divider that you would look across and talk?

CONWAY: Yes. There was.

COATES: I remember that. And I remember that, that brother Eddie was in jail, and brother Eddie was accused of shooting a police officer. And that, you know, a big part of my dad’s work was for brother Eddie to regain his freedom.

And it was just this thing that was constant. And I have to tell you that it is amazing to see you out now, because it went on for like, so much–I guess it went on for my entire childhood, and it continued to go–you know, this is like, my dad’s commitment, other folks’s commitment, obviously your commitment, obviously. I don’t know how I feel to fight for something for 40 years. You know?

And like, when I think about it now, I don’t know if this will make–I guess it will make sense to you. I had prepared in my mind, like when I thought about it, for you to be in prison for the rest of your life. That’s like, all right. You know, like in my mind, that was a strong, strong possibility, you know.

CONWAY: Because so many decades had passed. And you, I mean, the experience was what you were going on.

COATES: Yeah. And also I think it was my sense of the authorities.

CONWAY: Okay.

COATES: You know, like, knowing like, as I gained some knowledge on what the Panther party was, my sense of what the police are. And how the authorities are. And I was coming up in a time where you know, it was, the way people dealt with incarceration was changing, and people were getting much, much more–even more harsh. And I just, I couldn’t conceive of this moment. I really couldn’t. So it’s amazing to be here.

CONWAY: I think what’s really amazing is that you’re sitting here on this porch. And it has a significance in your entire life. Can you explain to us what that significance is?

COATES: This house, as we were talking about before, was when I was coming up, and I guess is still now was just filled with books. And that was the main thing. And this is, I don’t know how to express this. But this is the place, this is where I was living when I garnered a lot of my views on the world. What it meant to be black in society, what it meant to be black in Baltimore. I think about this now, and I’m writing about this a little bit in a book that’s coming out in September.

So this was, like, my neighborhood. And I could walk through this neighborhood generally and be safe. But I couldn’t really go beyond Mondawmin Mall. I couldn’t go across Liberty Heights over to Park Heights. I couldn’t go past Gwynns Falls towards North Avenue. You just, you really didn’t do that. It wasn’t safe for you, you know.

I was talking about this coming over. You know, your grandmother better live over there. You better know somebody over there, or something. You don’t just–.

And so that, that feeling of being bound was immediately present for me. You know, I went to Lemmel, which is just back across, you know, behind the [woods], it’s shut down now. But that feeling of being bound was very, very familiar to me. And I’ve thought about this like, just with like incarceration and prison. In many ways I feel like a lot of the neighborhoods that black folks live in, it preps them for that experience. The sheer violence of what it means to be incarcerated is already–you know, to a lesser degree, but already present in the neighborhood. The sheer lack of having the same amount of freedoms that other people have is already present in your life.

I mean, I, you know, I say this all the time, but I would be a kid and I would watch all the TV shows. And you see, like, the little children who were your age, and they go wherever they want. They ride their bikes all day, do whatever, you know. And that just was not present in my life. And so, like, this was like, the first place where I really got a sense of what that was.

CONWAY: How many years you spend in this house here, growing up? Can you remember from your starting date, to–.

COATES: Mm-hmm. I think we moved here when I was 9, and we left when I was 14. So it would have been five years. But 9-14 are like, I mean, it really is like child to young man. I mean, that’s such a crucial–it felt like much longer.

I think it was the house we lived in the most, too. We lived over on Woodbrook for a while. I was born up on Park Heights. We lived out in Edmondson Village for a few months, and then you know, my folks moved out towards Woodlawn.

CONWAY: Your book, The Beautiful Struggle, you cover a lot of this neighborhood. I was curious, of course I know you came down and you discussed it. You came in the prison and we talked–.

COATES: I did, yeah. Down to Jessup.

CONWAY: But I was always left wondering, and you might have explained it in the book. But explain it now, why did you call it The Beautiful Struggle?

COATES: Well, I didn’t call it The Beautiful Struggle. That’s the funny thing. My editor–it was my editor’s title. It was my editor’s title.

And I think, like, his basic point with that title, which I disagreed with at the time, was that all of the sort of, you know, trauma that black folks go through, all of that, you know, quote-unquote struggle, is in fact actually–that there’s great beauty in it. That there’s something to be lived and loved in that, you know what I mean? Because like, my, my concern even as I wrote about what was happening in Baltimore, I didn’t want people to pity Baltimore. I didn’t want people to, like, think of the neighborhood as just a, like, abstract social experiment. I mean, it was–I loved being here. And I loved being alive at the time I was alive, you know, and I can say that even, you know, with everything else I was saying about, you know, figuring out the rules.

It was a very, like–it was a very interesting time to be alive. And it was beautiful. You know, and black folks are beautiful. And I don’t, I think, like, there’s a tendency that when we talk about all the things that are wrong or not quite right, we can lose ourselves and our humanity in that.

CONWAY: You know, you also came down to another jail that I was in, the Maryland House of Correction, and I remember now that was just before you dropped out of Howard, I believe.

COATES: It was. I came down to write about you. That wasn’t Jessup? Where were we. Where did–.

CONWAY: Yeah, both of them, all of them are in Jessup, yeah.

COATES: Both of them–all of them were in Jessup. But it’s a different, it’s a different prison. Okay, yeah.

CONWAY: Yeah, it’s different–there were different jails. It’s like about five major jails in the Jessup area, right. And, and obviously it traumatized me more than you in terms of finding out you was dropping out of Howard. So you dropped out of Howard at what point and why?

COATES: Shortly–or about the time I came to see you. Because that was like, one of the first, like, really–like, I had the idea to write that article, and I wrote it, and I wrote it a certain way. And it felt so good to do it. And it–you know, writing was like, one of the first things I could do and get, like, really positive feedback. I had never been a particularly good student. I never–.

CONWAY: Are you saying I caused you to drop out of Howard?

COATES: [Laughter] Well, I–you know, I actually, yeah. I mean, yeah. Well, the experience of writing that article was part of my decision. Because it’s like, oh, I can do this. I’m actually good at something. And like, I could get better at this if I practiced at it. And you know, Howard cost money. But when I wrote, people gave me money. You know what I mean? And then it’s like, oh I could, if I got good enough at this one day, I could actually make a living.

So I was, I believe I was about 19 or 20 when I came down there to see you, and yeah, it was a huge thing. It was a huge, huge thing to me. And I just, you know, I was sort of like my dad. You know, my dad–he got all these books all over the house and everything. And he, you know, he went back to school and got his degree and everything, right after the party. Most of his education was outside, you know. And I felt like–.

CONWAY: He already had an education when he went back to school.

COATES: Yeah. Oh yeah, he did. He did, he did. And so for me, like, it was clear that you didn’t really have to just sit and, if you really were committed to educating yourself you didn’t have to necessarily sit in a classroom.

And once I–you know, at the time, once I knew what I wanted to do, that was it. That was it.

CONWAY: But apparently you became a very successful writer.

COATES: Well, not when I left. When I left I thought, like, when I left–well, I left, again, like, it just, it took a very, very long time, probably about 15 years, before I could really say I could stably support myself.

CONWAY: Did you do other things in the, in the–.

COATES: I did, I worked at–.

CONWAY: [Inaud.] you worked on the railroad or something?

COATES: No, no. I worked as a–no, I worked as a food delivery person. Yeah. Like, I’d deliver food. You know, I did whatever, I did whatever I could do or whatever I had to do in order to support the writing. For a long time. You know, and then–in fact, it was really when I got my job that I have right now at the Atlantic. And I’ve been there about, 2015–I’ve been there about seven years now. It was really when I came there that it started to, that my life started to stabilize. But you know, I understand the concern, I understand the worry.

I will say that I think a lot of times when people drop out they just have no clue what they’re going to do. But I did, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew, like, what direction I wanted to go in, so I did have that. I think that helped, you know.

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CONWAY: Thank you for joining us with this interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please join us for the next segment in which he will talk about reparation. And thank you for joining The Real News.

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