Journalist, Author Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in the post-civil rights era, son of a publisher and former Black Panther; he's a contributing editor and blogger for The Atlantic magazine and author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, 2 Sons, and An Unlikely Road to Manhood.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, came of age in the '80s in a post-civil rights era where the gains of Dr. King and our previous guest, John Lewis, were a reality. In Coates' memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle," he writes that he felt all the great wars had been fought and he was left to rummage through myths of his fathers.

Coates grew up in an Afro-centric home in West Baltimore with parents who revered black leaders like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. His father, Paul Coates, was a Vietnam vet and former Black Panther who ran a small publishing company out of their basement called Black Classic Press.

Ta-Nehisi immersed himself in his father's books, as well as X-men comics, "Dungeons and Dragons," and hip-hop. He's now a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic magazine. His article about Michelle Obama, called "American Girl," is in the current edition. Ta-Nehisi Coates, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. TA-NEHISI COATES (Contributing Editor and Blogger, Atlantic Magazine; Author, "The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and An Unlikely Road to Manhood"): Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Now, you were born in 1975, and you grew up in the post-civil rights era, the son of a former Black Panther. What did Martin Luther King mean to you growing up?

Mr. COATES: Well, I had a very complicated relationship with Martin Luther King. I came up among people for whom I - quite frankly, black nationalism was a much larger influence. I hesitate to call my household a black nationalist household. My dad was a very sort of critical, unpredictable sort of person. But having said that, black nationalism and Malcom X had a huge influence on my upbringing, and I think between that and between how Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was presented to us in school - which was basically every February us seeing tapes of people being beaten and shot and water-hosed - I don't know that I had the highest opinion of Martin Luther King as a young person because to us it looked like a kind of qualification of suffering. And I was much more - being a kid of that age, you know, interested in messages of pride and that sort of thing.

As I became an older person - and I'm talking about into going to college in my later teens and my early twenties and I began reading about him - I had a much different understanding of Martin Luther King and a much greater appreciation mostly for the fact of how, you know, he was basically an intellectual prodigy, and just as a young man, you know, going through college, that was very appealing to me. And how much he achieved at a relatively young age. I mean, I'm 33 right now, and Martin Luther King was, you know, basically had lived a good portion of his life.

And then later how he evolved post-Selma, you know, taking on the Vietnam War at a point when it probably was not the best move necessarily politically, and he just sort of cast that aside and did it anyway. That was and still is very inspirational to me.

GROSS: Let me read something that you wrote in the Washington Post in an op-ed. You wrote: King believed that the lion share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge.

And this is a protest that you were referring to.

King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own people, but it was the opposite.

What did you mean there?

Mr. COATES: There's a natural inclination, you know, knowing the history of African-Americans in this country. And I think this is true for any group of people who have gone through some sort of struggle, who are at one point or at any point have been an oppressed minority to - how shall I say - glorify striking back, glorify, you know, in being a sort of me-first attitude. But I think what King taught me - and this is, you know, a lesson that, again, that sticks with me and I think it came through again in this election - is what there is to be guarded in believing in the humanity of other people.

I - you know, I always say in my work that I'm always interested in African-American humanity and bringing that out as much as I possibly can. But King believed in white humanity and the humanity of people who we don't necessarily see on a daily basis. And if you think about it, given how we live America - in terms of black and white is still fairly segregated. We don't necessarily interact with each other too often.

I always felt like it was an incredible leap of faith - as crazy as this sounds to say - even though I've never met this guy, he still goes home to his family the same way I do. He doesn't, you know, like cutting on his TV and seeing kids getting water-hosed. He doesn't like seeing women being beaten - as I said, for simply wanting to cross a bridge. He may have his own, you know, racial hang-ups, he may not want his daughter marrying a black man. But he can sympathize with the mere thing of wanting to cross a bridge. It's a simple, simple human act.

GROSS: And the bridge that you're referring to there is the Edmund Pettis Bridge...

Mr. COATES: Yes.

GROSS: The bridge that John Lewis tried to lead protesters across.

Mr. COATES: Right.

GROSS: But they were trampled by Alabama state police. How does your feelings about Martin Luther King - about the fact that he believed in the humanity of white people, he believed that white people wouldn't support the thugs who were beating civil rights demonstrators - how does that connect to how you see Obama?

Mr. COATES: I'll put it to you like this. Had you told me a year before election season started that there would be a black man who would go to Iowa and win the primaries, who would go to places like the Dakotas, who would go to Washington, places where there aren't significant populations of African-Americans and be successful there, I would not have believed you.

Had you went further and told me there would be a black man running in the Democratic Party in the general election who would go to Georgia and be competitive, who would go to North Carolina and win, go to Virginia and win, go out to New Mexico, Colorado, Indiana, be successful in Ohio, that a black man would do that on a Democratic ticket knowing what had happened with Democrats in the past, I wouldn't have believed you.

And a huge part of that was because of my broad impressions of white people. I'll just be straight and honest as I possibly can. You tend to paint with a broad brush, almost as a survival tactic, people who you've never seen. And you write whole communities off as hostile to you. Now, I understand that that's not the same thing as somebody writing off a whole community as inferior to you. It's a defense technique almost. But at the same time, it can cause you to close off worlds that could be accessible to you.

And I think Barack Obama - the most inspirational thing about all this is that he was able to see that. And not only that, he was able to see the humanity in other communities, and quite honestly, see how it would benefit him, how it was a limitation to him to not see the humanity, to not see that certain people, once they heard him talk, would be able to evaluate him as a human being.

I understand that there are all sorts of factors - an economy, a war, apresidency that was unpopular that helped him, but you know, I'm a strong believer that the field is what the field is. You know, you play on it, and that was an object lesson for me. It really, really was.

GROSS: Let me quote you again. You wrote: The favored rallying cry of black people is that we're not a monolith. How fascinating that some of us could only belatedly extend the same courtesy to white Americans.

Mr. COATES: Right.

GROSS: So it sound like Obama's election gave you faith in white people and taught you that white people aren't monolithic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COATES: I hate to sound embarrassing, but yes. I guess that is - I mean, what - I can't run away from that. That is sort of true. Again, I want to stress, it's kind of a defense mechanism that you take out into the world as a black person. You want to shield yourself against things you've been talking about. The thing you have to understand is we come up from a generation of people who actually dealt with real serious, direct racism. I mean, you know - and so our parents taught us a certain way to be in the world in order to be successful and in order to - honestly, to prevent a level of emotional trauma that they might have incurred that we might incur from dealing on a personal basis with racism. I'm talking about people calling you the N word, people looking at you a certain way. ..TEXT: Part of that is you don't go certain places. So, you've - you know, may read that North Dakota is a very beautiful state, but you think there are no black people so I'm never going there. I got no reason to go to North Dakota. They don't want me there. And you don't know anything about North Dakota but that's how it shows up for you in your mind.

I was out in Colorado for the Democratic Convention and also for some business this summer. Beautiful, beautiful state. There were times when I didn't see a black person for a whole day. And you know, under normal circumstances - and I have to admit - when I, you know, when I was at first out there, it does give you a sort of, you know, OK, anything can happen out here sort of feeling. But I think, again, the confidence that Barack Obama showed, whether he was walking into a barbershop and, you know, he approached people as human beings, or whether he was in the middle of Colorado and there were no black people around, was deeply, deeply inspirational to me.

And I connect that to Martin Luther King's ability, again, to not just believe in people who did not live next door to him but to believe in people who historically had endorsed a system that had kept people like him down. And he just had a broad belief that at the end of the day, most folks, when faced with this, would do the right thing. And that's just - I mean, he paid for it with his life, no question, and you know, we're all fearful of what can happen to Barack Obama, but that was a great lesson in courage for me and in faith.

GROSS: My guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates. He writes and blogs for the Atlantic magazine. He has a piece in the current edition about Michelle Obama called "American Girl." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. He writes and blogs for the Atlantic magazine. His memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle," just came out in paperback.

You write that you grew up obsessed with having been born in the wrong year, that all the great wars had been fought and you were left to rummage through the myths of your fathers.

Mr. COATES: That's right.

GROSS: What were some of the great wars that you thought were fought and over?

Mr. COATES: Well, you know, it was only later that I realized that this is something happens with most generations. So I mean, probably my son will look back on, you know, the whole thing with Barack Obama and say, man, I wish I had been around for that.

For African-Americans, and I think particularly for African-Americans of the slice of society that I was - young folks who came up in the late '80s, early '90s, were raised on hip-hop and conscious, quote unquote "black nationalist hip-hop," who went to historically black schools - our sense was that the great wars were the civil rights movement, were the black power struggles, were - had happened with Fred Hampton and with Malcolm X and with, you know, Martin Luther King indeed. That we would never to do anything that noble. I don't want to get too much off topic here, but my Dad had fought in the Vietnam War, had come back and joined the Black Panther Party and left the Black Panther Party, got into publishing books about African-American history and that sort of thing.

He was a man who I felt had been on the frontlines at a point in American history where things just totally changed. And whatever would happen to me, I had the feeling that I would never experience anything like that. I thought I would never live to see any sort of seismic shifts. The feeling was, again, we had moved into a new era.

GROSS: You write that many African-Americans learn to be bilingual, to be one way with black people and another way with white people. But you say, increasingly, as we move into the mainstream, black folks are taking a third road - being ourselves. Can you expand on what you mean by that?

Mr. COATES: Yeah. I think that the culture has changed in such a way that African-American culture has been blended into pop-culture in a manner that it's obvious to everyone. And not necessarily - that wasn't necessarily the case 20, 30 years ago. I don't even think it was the case 10 years ago. So when Barack Obama's on stage after that debate with Hillary Clinton and he dusts off his shoulder, everyone understands that because Jay Z is the sort of star at that point that he has more white fans than he has black fans. Everybody gets that. It's not a black thing as it would have been, I think, say, 20, 30 years ago.

When Barack and Michelle Obama give each other dap or give each other a pat - as we like to say amongst ourselves - it's not Barack and Michelle Obama who are racialized for doing that or who are scandalized for doing that, it's the people who have apparently been living in a time warp somewhere and call it a terrorist fist-stab. They're the ones who are seen as completely out of the loop because everybody knows what that gesture is. It's so mainstream now.

I think that moment and being where we are in history freed Barack Obama up, and I think it freed Michelle Obama up to talk to the country in a broad sort of way. And so they didn't have to particularly tailor messages. They could speak as they, quite frankly, would speak to African-Americans in the neighborhood. But it wouldn't be alien. Through the technology, we're all connected now. We're all - a lot of us are listening to the same music, seeing the same things, receiving the same symbols. And so I think that made things a lot easier.

GROSS: Your father for years has had a small publishing company. He used to publish in the basement when you were growing up. And among other things, he's published a lot of Afro-centric books. What does it mean to you to have a president whose father was from Africa?

Mr. COATES: You know, I've never thought about it like that. That's a very interesting statement. I have never really thought much about that. What meant more to me was to have a president whose father abandoned him because, again, as a black man, I knew so many kids who were in that situation.

There was a lot of criticism around Barack Obama's fatherhood speech, which I liked and I thought was given an extra level of credibility because he knew what that was. And that, obviously, is going to be one of the big issues that we're dealing with over the next four years or so. I thought that was really, really, especially significant and really gave him a level of insight to one of our big societal problems.

GROSS: Your father is a former Black Panther, was somebody who really stood in opposition to the government. Your son - who's how old now?

Mr. COATES: He's eight.

GROSS: He's going to become cognizant of politics in an era when there's an African-American living in the White House.

Mr. COATES: That's right.

GROSS: So, his idea of what the American government is is going to be, I think, pretty radically different than what your father's was. What do you think it might mean to your son growing up with Barack Obama as president?

Mr. COATES: Well, I think - to just put this in context - my dad was in the Black Panther Party when he was in his 20s. I don't think his idea with the government was - in his 20s - is what it is when he's in his 60s now. It's also probably true the government isn't what it was then.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. COATES: Having said all of that, that's a tough question to answer because it won't even be where I was - and this is something I think about all the time - I don't - we have a difficult time in our household even talking about race with him because you don't want to freight things. You don't want to put things on him that he doesn't actually even really have to deal with, that won't even be real for him.

I think, you know, that there's a lot of talk about what would be the effect of having a black president. And I think on people his age and actually younger, who won't enter into the world with the idea that a black president is somehow insane, I think that's the biggest effect. I think it will be a seismic shift. I did not expect to see a black president in my lifetime.

One of the differences between, I think, a lot of African-Americans who came over to Barack and, you know, some of the women who were supportive of Hillary Clinton, is there was almost an expectation of some women that there could be a woman president. It was almost like they didn't doubt it, that it could actually happen in their lifetime.

For black folks, this came out of left field, I think. We were really, really surprised. I mean, you have to remember, Barack Obama couldn't even get into the Democratic Convention in 2000. So it completely blind-sided us. I just - I didn't expect that. And so I think for him, it'll just be - it'll be completely different. It's very difficult for me to imagine, actually, in fact.

GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. COATES: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic magazine. He has an essay in the current edition about Michelle Obama called "American Girl." His memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle," just came out in paperback. You can download pod casts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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