An American Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates (2/2)

TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway discusses reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement with Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Thank you for joining The Real News for the second part of the interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he will talk about reparation.

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CONWAY: You’re not a youth anymore. Of course, I know I’m like, approaching 70. But you know, young people read your stuff. And even people who are older. Like, my son is 50 and he just follows everything you write, right. And other people, people all over the country actually, read and follow your stuff.

How do you see America today? I mean, I know you just wrote that piece of reparation. So I guess one, give me a reason–give me, explain to me why you felt the need to write that. It seems like we’ve been talking about reparation for like, hundreds of years, from one great person to the next. But it seemed to me that that particular article that you wrote kind of resonated across the nation. Why did you write it, and why do you think it was so accepted?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I wrote it because it became clear to me, like, through reading and through study that it actually was the answer. There are two separate things. It’s like, does the society have the political courage and the moral courage to do what’s right? And that’s one thing. And then it’s actually identifying what’s right. So you can identify what’s actually right, and the society might not do it.

The way this country has worked for the vast majority of its history, and I would say to some extent even today is African-Americans have functioned as a class of people who things were taken from to enrich other people. And when you do that, there tend to be some effects. And the way to remedy that is to A, stop doing that. But to also give back, to pay down that debt. To get that to somewhere where folks can be whole again. Without that I don’t expect much to change. And I mean like, if your great concern is ending any sort of gap, any sort of chasm between black and white folks, which is to say ending white supremacy, I don’t see it happening any other way.

And so that was why I wrote it. To the extent it resonated I think it’s because deep inside, people know that. Even if they don’t want to admit it I think they know. I think they, I think they know that it’s correct.

And I don’t mean that they know like, I’m correct. Because I didn’t come–you know, as you said, the idea’s been around for hundreds, literally hundreds of years. Literally hundreds of years. First person that we have claiming for reparations in my article claimed it in like, 1787 or something like that.

So I think we know that it’s correct. It’s just can we muster the courage to do it.

CONWAY: Was that a woman?

COATES: It was a woman, yeah. Her name was Belinda, I can’t remember her last name. But yeah, it was a woman. Yeah, uh-huh. And her argument was, her master had been a British, was a British loyalist. And after the war he had gotten–Belinda Royal was her name. And he had gotten rich basically through exploiting her labor. And she said, well–and the Massachusetts legislature had taken over this man’s property because he had fled to England. She said, listen. A lot of that probably is actually rightfully mine. You know what I mean? Because that’s how he got it. And what they did was they actually set up, they used some portion of the property to set up a pension plan to take care of her.

But yeah, I think we know. I think we know. I think we know what’s right.

CONWAY: Do you think America has the will to do what’s right, though?

COATES: Not right now, no. No. But I mean, I think part of the long-term fight to get that will is reminding people what the right thing is.

Frankly I mean, to me, like, I just take it back to your case. So in my mind it’s like, oh, brother Eddie’s never going to get out. You know what I mean? Like, and there must have been people who worked on the case who had worked on the case who just succumbed to despair. Now, you didn’t have that option, you know what I mean. But there must have been people, and I imagine you saw this in prison, where other people are fighting something and they just succumb, I’m never getting out. I’m never getting out. So I think like with any sort of struggle it’s like, despair is the thing you really have to avoid.

And it’s a long fight. It’s a long fight. And I think in The Case for Reparations it’s a long, like, generations. A fight through generations. You know, it’s not something that you necessarily expect to be resolved in your lifetime, but you do your part and give what you can.

CONWAY: There seems to be right now a concern, an interest, Black Lives Matter. We had the Freddie Gray situation here, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner up in New York. Oscar out in Oakland, et cetera. I mean, you just have a litany. Sisters up in Detroit just recently, and this is not even big news, a sister down in Atlanta, Georgia was shot in the back of a police car. Handcuffed.

So there seems to be a new awakening or awareness of young people, and a concern and an interest about what they can do. An interest in how to do something to make changes. And since you are not that far removed from that generation, what would you suggest that young people do at this point?

COATES: I think it’s really, really important to seize control of your own education. I think it’s just so, so important. I think you cannot leave your education up to schools, to universities. I think it’s very, very important for you to read for yourself, and try to come to as precise an understanding as you can. And that’s always evolving, of course, for your whole life. But as precise an understanding as you can of the country you live in and the space which you occupy. Because you can’t really begin to identify correct solutions if you don’t do that.

And just to give an example of that, in this Black Lives Matter movement, one of the things that people, some people talk about, especially politicians is this idea of body cameras. And I’m, you know, I’m for body cameras. But it helps you to avoid a deeper discussion about why police are in certain neighborhoods and why they’re not in other neighborhoods. Why police are acting a certain way in certain neighborhoods and not acting that way in another neighborhood. And people will say that the police are there because of crime. But why is the crime there? What’s really, what’s actually going on?

Do you want to live in a society where because, say somebody like Freddie Gray happens to be in an area where folks have identified as high drug activity, looks at somebody in a way that I guess he wasn’t supposed to, and the police run him down? And by police I mean, I think it’s very important to identify people who are servants of the state. The state has empowered them to kill people. So that means it’s done in all of our names. You know what I mean, it’s done in the name of all citizens. Is that how you want people acting in your name? Is that the sort of society? And body cameras can’t fix that. Body cameras can’t fix, you know, you just ran through this litany of people who got killed.

If you look at these issues, a lot of times beneath this is other issues. Mental health issues. Issues around employment. Issues around how we deal with child support, that’s the Walter Scott case. All sorts of other things where we could make other decisions as a society. I think the simplistic focus on the police is a problem. But you can only get there through study. So I think like, really–I mean, it sounds passive, but I don’t think it is, I’m a big fan of reading. I’m a huge, huge fan of reading. I really am.

CONWAY: What I notice, unfortunately, and it’s been pointed out to me by sisters, is that there is a lot of male talking heads–.

COATES: Yeah, there are.

CONWAY: –talking about the amount of black men that’s killed. There’s a lot of, you know, mic–I guess, the hogging the mic kind of thing. And leaders–and from my experience with the Black Panther party almost 50 years ago, it’s like, we wouldn’t have had a successful movement, even though it was attacked by the government, but we wouldn’t have had even that activity in an organized, sophisticated way if it hadn’t have been for sisters. Sisters on the ground, sisters in the middle ranks, sisters in leadership. And I wonder why it seems to me now that sisters seem to be invisible.

COATES: I think a lot of the times–so being shot by a police officer, it’s a broad, sensationalist sort of thing in a way that child care and equal pay is not. You know what I mean? It’s like, a part of this is even–I’m saying this as we’re talking on film. Part of this is like, the bias of a camera, and drama. You know, so you got the video of Freddie Gray, and that looks horrible. You know what I mean? You got video of Walter Scott, and that looks horrible.

I think a lot of the issues that are equally important and in some issues more important–that’s what I was trying to talk–like, these sort of root issues do not lend themselves to the short attention spans of a lot of people. I think that that’s the fact of it.

Now, what you were saying about talking heads, it’s actually–in fact one of the reasons, or part of the reason why–again, even though we’re doing this right now. Like, my people at the Atlantic, there’s always tension. I try to stay off-camera. I really do, I really do. Because God forbid I become perceived in that sort of way. I feel like I have a very, very limited role. And my limited role is to be a writer. My limited role is to write things. I’m not an activist. I obviously support and have great love for activists. But that’s not particularly my role. That’s another aspect of the fight for other people to take up. And I try to really, really guard that. I don’t want to be seen in any way as somebody that’s sort of hogging the mic. You know, I write in my space. Then what happens outside of that is, it’s for other folks to deal with.

CONWAY: There’s this, always this dual discussion about Black Lives Matter. In the first place I think that’s a movement that was started by sisters, I believe. But there’s this discussion about if black lives matter, why is there so much fratricide in the black community? And bodies are dropping right and left and you don’t hear the same kind of outcry that you hear in relationship to the, I guess it boils down to several hundred a year by the police as opposed to several thousand, and I’m talking up maybe into the tens, but not much more than that, by our own internal violence.

COATES: Yeah. Again, there’s the spectacle of a police officer doing something. That’s the kind of direct violence, right.

But there’s the indirect violence that forms neighborhoods like the one we’re sitting in now. And that is when people pass certain laws and say, well, you have to live in this sort of area. You know what I mean, which is how these neighborhoods were formed. How, where Freddie Gray was, how it was formed.

You know, it’s not like–I mean, you grew up here. You couldn’t live wherever you wanted. Am I right about that? I mean, you couldn’t just move. I mean, there must be certain areas that you must remember that you couldn’t just go up and buy a house there.

CONWAY: Oh, certainly. Not far from here we couldn’t [inaud.].

COATES: Right. Right. And so when you have–and the reasons for that, as I talk about in The Case for Reparations, are not like, they did not come out of the aether or down from God. I mean, there were federal policies to assist certain people who were going to live in certain places. We’re going to invest in certain places in certain ways. And that continues even into today. And I don’t mean necessarily even the discrimination. The effects of it. Of restricting where folks live, and how they live, and the amount of resources, and who’s going to have jobs and where they’re going to have jobs.

If you concentrate people who do not have much, who have very, very little wealth into one area, if you restrict their movement outside of that area, if you compound this over generations, if you have the backstory on top of that of the sheer violence of slavery, which is effectively a system of torture for profit. You’ve got the sheer violence of the entire Jim Crow era, a hundred years of that after enslavement. And you pile that up. I don’t know what people expect to happen after that. I don’t, like, I don’t know why people didn’t expect for all of that to happen and for there to be no violence within the communities.

Behind each one of those actions that I identified, housing policy, Jim Crow–and we ain’t even covering the whole gambit. Enslavement, job discrimination. In all of those places you can find the hands of federal, state, and local policy shaping things. That is violence. That’s violence. That’s violence. It’s not the graphic violence or the spectacular violence of a police officer shooting somebody down. But that is violence, because what’s behind every one of those laws is do this or you will be arrested. You know what I mean? Like, violence, the implicit threat is behind every single one of those.

And so the kind of violence that we see in African-American neighborhoods, you know, is the indirect result, is the indirect result–I shouldn’t say indirect. Is the direct result of policy. Now, it doesn’t matter that the guy who is holding the gun is a police officer or is just somebody from the neighborhood. And I maintain that even about, like, the police. Because I’ve said to somebody, it’s the same thing. The police killers are not simply about–or not, I wouldn’t say simply. Are not even about whether the police are bad people or not. And they certainly are not simply about whether police respect the neighborhoods in which they’re policing. That’s an aspect of it. But the bigger question is, who is sending them there? What’s the policy behind it? And it’s the exact same thing out here. It’s the exact same thing out in the neighborhood. I mean, it’s like, what is the policy that allows this to happen? What’s behind it?

So I just, I’ve never seen much difference between the two things. You know, I just don’t. It’s certainly true that when I was here the people I most feared violence from–you know, people down on North Avenue, people up on Park Heights. People who came from Gilmor Homes who went to Lamell. I mean, that was–yes. That’s who I feared the most violence from. But what was the policy behind that? What was driving that? Like, see, that to me is the real question. I mean, when you get caught up in this sort of individuals–you know, and even, like, again going back to Freddie Gray, we can all applaud for those cops being charged and everything, and indicted. But is there going to be actual policy change in how that community is policed? Is there going to be actual policy change so that like when we went down there yesterday, you know, folks are just sort of out there with no sense of employment, education. Is there going to be actual policy change?

We focus too much on the particulars of the police, or the people doing the violence, the hand of the violence, as opposed to the body that’s actually directing the violence and what it’s trying to do.

CONWAY: Thank you.

COATES: Thank you, brother Eddie. Thank you so much, man. Thank you. Thank you.

CONWAY: Okay, all right.

Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, and thank you for joining The Real News.

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