Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious The writer, whose Between The World And Me was the winner of this year's National Book Award in nonfiction, talks about his process and the classmate and friend to whom he dedicated the award.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious

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Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious

Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been quite a year per Ta-Nehisi Coates. The journalist and author was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called genius award, earlier this year. His long-form pieces in The Atlantic magazine have been widely circulated and discussed. His memoir, "Between The World And Me," a blunt but lyrical account of how he navigates the world as a black man, has been one of the most talked about nonfiction books of the year. And earlier this week came yet another honor - the National Book Award for nonfiction. All this has taken place at a time when this country has been deeply engaged in questions about race. And we thought this was a good time to check in with him again. And we reached Ta-Nehisi Coates by phone, just as he was to return to Paris. Ta-Nehisi Coates, thanks so much for speaking with us and congratulations on everything.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Oh, thank you, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Your acceptance speech for the National Book Award, which has also gotten quite a lot of attention - it was very emotional. And you dedicated the award and the book to a young man named Prince Jones. Would you mind telling us a little bit about him?

COATES: Sure. I met Prince Jones at Howard University, and he was from a different world from the one I'd come from. Prince's mother was a doctor. She had - was a child of sharecroppers and, you know, just really worked her way up from, you know, dirt-poor poverty and, you know, had basically given her son the best of America, the best America had to offer. And he really reflected it. And he was killed in 2000 by a Prince George's County police officer, who followed him from Prince George's County through Washington into Virginia and shot him mere yards from his fiance's home. When Prince died, nothing happened. The officer was not punished by the department. He wasn't prosecuted, and this was at a period in time where Prince George's County just had a horrendous record of brutality cases. And I had a young son at the time, and so it really, really bothered me. I had always been aware of what could happen to me. But I was very, very much worried about my son. And for 15 years I just stewed on this. And it really, really bothered me that, you know, people did not remember this young man's name. He just did not deserve to die the way he died and it was completely forgotten. And to see us now 15 years later engaging in the same sort of questions, you know, it is - it's disturbing, it's disturbing. And so I - you know, my charge, as I said during the speech, is, you know, I can't, you know, deliver any justice for Prince or anything like that, but I won't act like this didn't happen. You know, I won't, as I said, be involved in a lie. He was killed, and he shouldn't have been killed.

MARTIN: What are you saying here? What is it you see as your role in this?

COATES: Well, I think, like - and I've said this as I've, you know, talked about the book, you know, there are two burdens of racism in this country. The first is the actual burden - you know, so the socioeconomics that, you know, we see all the time - wealth gap, life expectancy. But then there's another portion of this that folks ask you to accept, and that is, you know, the notion that somehow this is not really tied to our long history - really our 350, almost 400-year history of policy directed towards African-Americans that, you know, somehow this is our fault. "Between The World And Me" is my complete rejection of that idea. It may well be our responsibly, but it certainly is not our fault. You know, Prince Jones bears no fault in how he was killed - none, absolutely none. You know, Howard University student with a daughter who had just been born, about to be married - that this man was somehow a criminal - it allowed for police officers to track him through three municipalities and kill him. I just - I won't, you know, say that that was OK. I won't write that off as a mistake. It was wrong, you know, and we allowed it to be wrong.

MARTIN: You know, I'm thinking about the fact that November 22, for example, marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was...

COATES: Right.

MARTIN: ...Playing with a toy gun when the police shot and killed him in Cleveland. But I'm just wondering, how do you account for the fact that you've got these things going on and yet your work calling attention to all this, calling all of this out, is among the most discussed works of journalism this country has produced this year. What do you make of that? [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this conversation, we say Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun when he was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland. In fact, he was holding a pellet gun. Such guns can fire plastic pellets, BBs and other projectiles.]

COATES: Well, fairly easily - I mean, you know, the book-buying audience is not, you know, representative of some large swath of America. I think one should be very careful about how far actually the work is actually reaching. It is certainly reaching people who are curious about these ideas and interested in them. I don't think that constitutes the majority of Americans.

MARTIN: What is it that you think people are responding to in your work?

COATES: You know, Michel, I can't tell. I don't know. I'm like inside of it, you know what I mean? I'm the fish in the bowl. I'm inside of the work, so I can't tell. I'll tell you what I try to do. I try to write as honestly and directly and as cleanly as I possibly can. I don't, you know, attempt to make people comfortable. I think that, you know, my, you know, standards in terms of art and journalism, you know, always have necessitated my discomfort. The process of getting conscious for me was a very, very uncomfortable, disturbing and sometimes physically painful process. And so that's the standard to which I write because it was what I've experienced over, you know, my time.

MARTIN: Do you feel that there is now some pressure to be kind of an oracle of race in a way that...

COATES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You did not feel before? Do you want that job?

COATES: No, no, no, and whenever - I've been, you know, very, very careful to tell people what I am qualified to talk about and what I am not qualified to talk about. And no one person should be, you know, the spokesperson, you know, for that experience. No one person should be an oracle or be the articulator.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we're heading into the Thanksgiving holiday and - which I think you will celebrate abroad, I take it. But I've read on social media that you grew up fasting on Thanksgiving.

COATES: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: Is that something you...

COATES: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: ...Still do? No?

COATES: No, no, no, in recent years I've been thinking about bringing it back. My dad, he preferred to use Thanksgiving as a day of reflection, you know? And the main thing we had to reflect on is what had happened to the Native Americans, the inhabitants of the land that we live on now. And I hated it when I was a kid. I absolutely, absolutely hated it. And then I stopped doing it as I got older. And then I had a family, and I stopped doing it then because I thought family traditions were very, very important. But as my son has gotten older - he's 15 now - and looking at my own work and how important history and reflection and memory is in my own work, like, I don't know that it was such a bad idea. So I've often thought about going back to it.

MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations once again, hopefully you'll check back in with us when you come back.

COATES: Thank you. Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: That's Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He's winner of this year's National Book Award for nonfiction for his memoir "Between The World And Me."

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