Conversation — December 9, 2015, 8:00 am

Choosing Words

“There is this idea that writing beautifully or writing powerfully is somehow separate from clear thinking,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me. “It’s not.”

The writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates on race relations evince a sense of purpose. That purpose, to hear Coates tell it, is not to move, or persuade, or instruct his readers. He does not intend, he says, to sway his many readers into new understandings of segregation, police violence, and slavery informed by the insights of the historians and social scientists he references, although he has. He does not write to situate himself within the project of ending racism in America; he is not sure we can. Coates writes, he says, for himself. The history he probes is our collective history, but also his particular history. His second book, Between the World and Me, for which he won the National Book Award last month, is an exploration of the ways in which his own experiences have been shaped, directly and indirectly, by the racial oppression he casts as America’s original sin. It is also a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, an effort not to say that these are particularly trying times for black youths, but that this is a trying country for them. Mass incarceration is but one of the prominent threats to their livelihoods and the subject of Coates’ October cover story for The Atlantic. That story, like Between the World and Me, has won the praise of both loyal readers and some of the diminishing few who are unfamiliar with his work. Coates is ambivalent about this. When this latest wave of attention subsides, Coates says, he will return to the task of explicating American history for his own education, through writing. I asked him why and how he does so.

You’ve written that this book didn’t take the form of a letter until its fourth or fifth draft and that writing it as such gave you a clearer sense of its purpose. What made you uncomfortable with those early drafts, given that you’ve written compellingly about these very same topics before in your features and blog posts for The Atlantic?

That’s fairly normal for my writing process. You go through several drafts, man. I’m never happy with my first draft, and there are almost always a couple of drafts every time I’m writing. Only through rewriting and rewriting over and over again do I get something that I feel like I can actually be happy with. That’s just straight process. In terms of the letter format, you know what I think it did? I think it focused it. There was this problem in the other drafts of, “who is he talking to and why is he talking?” I don’t know, it made me say, “Okay, this is what I’m doing.”

In the book you write a bit about being exposed to and learning about poetry. At one point you write that “Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” How did the economy and structures of poetry influence the writing of this book and your writing more broadly?

There is this idea that writing beautifully or writing powerfully is somehow separate from clear thinking. It’s not. A lot of times when people are writing poorly—when their writing is not clear and not completely fleshed out—there’s poor thinking going on. The ability to explain something clearly is not divorced from the ability to have it clearly worked out, you know what I mean? When you’re studying poetry and you’re trying to get across the naked truth—a feeling—the ability to find the precise words is a way of demonstrating that I have an understanding of what was actually happening.

It’s a way of proving to yourself that you get it.

That’s exactly what it is, a way of proving to yourself that you get it. The ability to explain it to yourself in really clear terms. I think that’s really, really important. That’s the thing about Cornel West’s response. “He writes pretty, but whatever.” No, no, no. It’s not whatever. It’s not whatever. The ability to write in a beautiful way is deeply connected to understanding what is actually happening. James Baldwin didn’t just write beautifully as a sidenote to his ideas, you know? He wrote beautifully because he had a deep understanding and the ability to convey that understanding to other people. That’s an incredibly important thing. Learning how to write in a powerful way goes along with being right about ideas and facts. Not just in your words but in what you actually think. And writing powerfully is not just a matter of being clever.

How do you separate the need for clarity and precision in language from the didacticism of people who preach about the need to use and protect “proper English”?

The very notion of proper English is an abuse of language in and of itself. What do you mean proper? What do you mean? Proper where? Proper for whom? Those are the kinds of questions you’ve got to ask yourself when you’re writing and you’re trying to convey something clearly. “Proper English” itself is not a clear statement and conceals all sorts of ideas about power. What you’re saying when you talk about proper English is, “You need to learn the language of the people who have authority in this country.” That’s really what you mean. “Why do you talk like this? You need to learn to talk proper English.” You have to understand what that person is actually saying to you. It’s not outside the context of American history. Unpack that statement. This goes back to writing. These things are connected. Choosing words—it’s a powerful thing.

One of the most striking choices of language you make in the book is the physicality of the way you render the struggle. You use the phrase “black bodies,” which has been deployed by a lot of activists and writers on race in recent years.

This goes back to Howard. This professor I had kept talking about this and making reference to bodies, bodies. And I couldn’t understand what she was saying. But what she was trying to talk about—the nature behind it—was the idea of violence. And that, once I got it, was powerful. Behind that is the notion that the body is what you have. And for people who don’t accept that there is a soul—the body is the only thing. There is the body. I thought about it in those really, really clear ways, those direct ways. There is this tradition in the African-American community, whenever people are struggling, that the body is chained but the soul somehow escapes. That the mind somehow escapes. Violence means you don’t really escape. And I wanted to make that as clear as possible.

You’ve said time and time again that writing is an “internal process” for you, which is to say that ultimately you write about and try to understand history and the underpinnings of race relations in America for your own education. Any effect your writing might have on your readers—positive or negative—is incidental to that project. Has the reception of this book and your more recent writing for The Atlantic changed that at all for you? Is writing still an entirely personal process, or do you think more about how readers will respond?

I just can’t. I can’t. I mean, I’m just doing my writing. I’m not called to that. If you start writing in that direction, you’ve gone down a very, very dark path. I just write. I enjoy the process of it. It’s personal to me. It’s very, very important to me. It’s bad for writing, and it’s bad for truth. If you start writing for other people, you start losing your own independence, your ability to come to your own conclusions—like for example in this book. If I were writing to effect change, maybe I would write more about the black church. One of the largest vehicles for the struggle. But then it would have been a very, very different book. You’ve got to speak your truth, man. You’ve just got to. Not what a thousand or ten thousand or twenty thousand people want to hear. What you feel. You shouldn’t hand that over. And by the way, people in the movement shouldn’t want you to hand that over. I don’t want them to become artists.

One of the reasons why I think people are so fascinated by your writing is that listening to you on this subject, race, violates every natural instinct we have as Americans. It’s an unusual thing for us to give the mic to someone who says not only that “Things are not all right” but also that things may never be all right and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, they probably won’t. Even the most radical voices on race in America that we’ve had on the scene have made the case that through black nationalism or separatism or militantism, progress and perhaps a final deliverance from white supremacy was possible. What you’re asking us to believe, in this book and in much of your writing, seems to be that no matter how much incremental change we may achieve, there is no inexorable march of progress and that deliverance may never come. That isn’t supposed to sell books in America. That’s not the Dream.

I actually have no idea why people are responding to it. I’m amazed. I mean this goes back to your question about writing for an audience. I think in my head, I had notions about how black people find ourselves and our struggle. Anything beyond that, I don’t really have. It was very hard to think about how people would react. That goes back to what I was saying. You have to speak your truth. I have little insight as to why people have reacted the way they have.

Your son, Samori, is named after Samori Touré, a Haitian who struggled against French colonists and failed. I think a question one might have is why it was important to you to name him after a resister who didn’t succeed. But then, in your rendering of history, no one’s really succeeded as far as the struggle’s concerned.

That’s right. All the victories we have are incomplete victories. I mean, at any moment the clock could turn back.

Do you think incrementalism is the best we can ultimately do?

Probably. I don’t know. But probably, I suspect, yes. My dad was a Panther. Do I wish there had been a revolution in this country in the 1970s? No, I don’t. Revolutions are often—not often, always—pretty awful. And they’re not just awful toward people in power. They are awful on an individual level to individual people that may not be in power. This is like the history of revolutions period. Everywhere. These things are not clean. So maybe the best you can do is say, “Okay, we have here a project. It is the work of our lives. It is the work of the generations that come after to try our best and make that project better. To try and improve it. Even if we understand that we can’t perfect it. We just do what we can. Or maybe we will perfect it. Who knows? Maybe we’ll solve this particular problem. Maybe we will. But you can’t be solely motivated by the idea that you can do so. That seems to me to be kind of naïve and myopic. Because what if you don’t? Has your life been wasted? You know, Ida B. Wells, for most of her life, tried to get the Senate to pass legislation against lynching. She died, and that did not happen. Did Ida B. Wells fail? Was her life a failure? Is that how we’re supposed to think about her? Was John Brown a failure? Is that how we want to think about him? I don’t accept that. I think there’s something deeply honorable in struggling for things that may not be realized in your time and may never be realized. I think there’s great worth in saying, “Listen, I was not on the side that was trying to push the planet over the edge. I wasn’t part of that.”

In the book you write that when you were about as young as I am now, you were coming out of this tradition of black nationalism—you might have been the kind of person who wanted a revolution in 1970, maybe, when you came to Howard University. How long did it take you to come to this more nuanced understanding of what progress can look like?

A long time. I’ve been thinking about this all my life.

You seemed a lot more positive about Howard in this book than you’ve been in some of your past writing. In 1999, for instance, you wrote in the Washington City Paper that you were disappointed in the lack of interest then-current students had in activism.

Yeah, I think that was just wrong. This is what happens. I was twenty-two or twenty-three at the time.

Do you think that Black Lives Matter is the kind of thing you would have wanted to see while you were at Howard?

Probably so, but it’s tough to articulate because Black Lives Matter comes so much out of social media that wasn’t around.

Do B.L.M. activists seek you out for advice?

Not really. And that’s probably for the best. I can’t advise them, you know what I mean? They’re engaged. They’d probably do just as well.

One of the ideas that you give voice to in your book is that the struggle delivers a few blessings—a heightened self-consciousness and inclination to seek answers and a deeper understanding of American history. Are these things that are on some level universally accessible to black people regardless of personal experience, or is the influence of people like your father and mentors like the ones you write about finding at Howard central to accessing them?

The latter. They’re not universally accessible. They are available in the way that they are available to white people in this country. That’s how available they are. In a way some things are easier for us. Here’s what I would say is universally accessible: skepticism. When Americans say we should send people to Iraq to liberate people from a tyrant, we have a universally accessible skepticism of that notion. We might not even know why we’re skeptical. You can’t put a finger on it. But something about your relationship to this country goes against the idea that folks just do stuff without self-interest. That’s just not in your experience. That ain’t in the experience of your grandparents. That ain’t in the experience of your great-grandparents.

You wrote last year in a post at The Atlantic about writing on black poverty that you saw a “massive gulf between how people who study American history see their country . . . and how American journalists see their country.” What’s at the root of that?

I don’t know. I think part of it is technological. There’s a lot of work hidden behind a wall in JSTOR. But history has a way of taking away your naïveté about the world. You have to look at the long sweep of the way people have behaved. Journalism is a lot more biased towards the now.

Is there also maybe a self-interest in that? If you have a deterministic view of how history shapes the present, that makes it harder for anyone to, as a pundit, or an analyst, or a reporter, say that this solution or that current event will change things.

Right. And that’s another part of it. This idea that we should be solution oriented. I think that solutions should be hard earned.

In 2011, you did this exploration of the “American Tragedy”—or the presumed “American Tragedy”—of the Civil War. You wrote in a piece then that “the origins of the American Tragedy are rooted in the Civil War denialism of historians who held that the war wasn’t about slavery but, in the words of Charles Beard, “a sectional struggle” between two powers divided by “accidents of climate, soil, and geography.” This seems strangely related to the way that police shootings are often talked about, which you’ve also criticized. As if the confrontations with Eric Garner and Michael Brown were the product of neutral, regrettable, but unavoidable factors. They were accidents of circumstance.

This is a part of making ourselves in the Dream. To say, “I did nothing wrong.” You know? “Some good old boys, never meaning no harm.” “I didn’t mean any harm to anybody. It was just sort of random. It just happened this way.” You can hear that in the language when people talk about police shootings. “The officer’s weapon discharged.” It’s a way of avoiding responsibility.

And how do you counter that? By getting people better acquainted with history?

I don’t know. I’m not being evasive. I really mean that.

Are there ways you can identify that we could go about teaching the Civil War, the history of slavery, the history of white supremacy better? You write in the book about being left cold by the way the Civil War was taught to you in school.

I don’t know. I know how to write and hope that in writing I can make things clear. But are people getting it? I don’t know. And how to make people get it, I don’t know.

You seem to be doing pretty well at it for someone who doesn’t know.

But that goes back to your question about intent. Do you think that’s my intent? You’re asking me to step out of myself and look at what I do. That’s for you to do. You could probably do much better at it.

I think it’s possible that the things about your writing that allow you to facilitate the process of understanding history for yourself also happen to be the things that facilitate that process for other people.

Maybe so. I mean, that’s one explanation, right? That’s a theory. But for me that process is internal. There’s a way of thinking about it as a critic, and there’s a way of thinking about it as a writer. And I can’t think about it as a critic. And I’m not demeaning criticism at all. But it’s a different role.

Finally, you’ve written about the late David Carr a bit. He was your editor at the Washington City Paper and an incredibly important mentor for you. Have you thought about him a lot these past few months as this book has come out?

All the time. I wish he were here. I think he’d be flipping out right now.

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