As nationally acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates walked on stage to roaring applause from a full house, he laughed, saying, “It better be good.” The standing ovation he received at the end was a solid indicator that he followed through.
On the night of March 28, students, faculty, staff, and community members alike filled the Kathryn Mohrman Theater for a conversation between Coates and Colorado College’s Dr. Michael Sawyer of the Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies Program about Coates’ past and present interrogation of race in the U.S.
Coates rose to national fame in the last decade thanks largely to his work as a national correspondent with The Atlantic from 2008 to 2018. He is now widely regarded as one of the most influential intellectuals and writers in the country. A recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship or “Genius Grant,” his work as a journalist and author centers on African Americans and white supremacy, calling into question much of the discourse in the social, cultural, and political mainstream.
After an introduction from President Jill Tiefenthaler, Coates opened the evening by reading and discussing an excerpt from his New York Times bestseller “Between the World and Me,” a work written in the form of a letter from Coates to his son, tackling the realities of being Black in the U.S., including the ever-present potential for police violence.
“When we see police killings … I don’t know that we always grapple with the fact that these people are not symbols,” Coates said. “They’re part of people’s lives. And those lives have been erased, and not erased by common criminals or muggers — that would be bad enough — erased by the people who they pay taxes to protect them.”
In addition to discussing national occurrences of violence, Coates shared personal stories from growing up in Baltimore — including instances when he was physically assaulted — saying, “Everything in my life at the end of the day felt like it came to violence.” Coates, however, made clear that racism does not come solely in violent forms.
“There are so many subtle aspects to racism, and I think one of the subtler aspects … is the idea of ownership,” Coates said. “If you are Black, you are sure to encounter white people who feel like they own everything … ‘What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.’”
When Sawyer asked how Coates finds beauty in dark times and spaces, he pointed to love.
“People do love you, at least that was my experience,” Coates said. “I didn’t have a loveless childhood. I never felt unloved. It’s important that there is great beauty at the same time, and that has to be pointed out … so much that is beautiful about being Black comes out of much that is horrible about being condemned to a quote-on-quote Black race.”
For some students, including John Capers ’21, Coates’ words powerfully underscored the double standard that continues to plague Black Americans across the country.
“There is a struggle of beauty and brutality among African Americans and possibly for other people of color in the United States,” Capers said. “[Coates] reminded us that in our society, there are standards of what is expected and what is not expected of Black men. Paraphrasing his words, Black men are told to be two polar opposites of personality every day of their lives by the society we inhabit.”