Our conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates left us wanting to know more. Ta-Nehisi and Masthead editor Matt Peterson touched on an incredibly vast range of topics—comic books, historical fiction, fatherhood and, of course, race in America—any one of which probably could have filled the full hour. With that in mind, the Masthead team read through the call transcript and marked it up—adding in links, thoughts, and questions sparked by the discussion. I’ve highlighted a few of our favorite moments from the call (heads up, there are a lot!) and what we took away from them.
You can find a recording and transcript of the call with Ta-Nehisi here.
We annotated more of the transcript of the conversation in this Google Doc.
On Masculinity and Fatherhood
How would Between the World and Me have been different if he’d written it to his (imaginary) daughter, instead of his son?
It's very tough for me to imagine. I don't have a daughter. Between the World and Me comes out of a deeply personal black male space. It comes out of me as a young black male growing up in Baltimore. It comes out of the experience of Prince Jones as a black male. It comes out of me having a black male as my son. My father's in there, too ...
I was 24 when Samori was born. I was a very, very young man. So obviously there is probably quite a bit I would've done differently and said differently. My kid's about to go off to college. In the wake of Bill Cosby, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein, I have had very direct conversations with my son about what it means to go into the world as a young man. I tell him to be conscious of your power and privilege. I don't mean that in a kind of signaling way. I don't mean that you go off to college and do this whole preamble about how I know and I'm acknowledging my male privilege. I mean literally living it. I mean in how you treat people.
In the time of my dad, there was almost a throne offered to men who were willing to do the work that obviously women do all the time. Certainly, to some extent, an undeserved throne. A throne that was given by default. So there was always great power in it.
The African American community is very, very different. We don't have this sort of tradition of women staying home and men going to work and thus being able to dominate through the purse strings. I'm not even sure that the majority of white people actually had that experience. I know that's the myth, but I'm not certain that that's the history. But that stream, that experience, it's myth for the white community, it's legend for the black. It's something we don't really have access to, it's somebody else's myth. I think the way we interact with that idea and the idea of fatherhood look different.
Here’s what struck us:
Matt Thompson: Months after Jones's death, Ta-Nehisi reported and wrote a story for Washington Monthly that was one of the seeds for Between the World and Me. The main link to that story seems to be broken, so here's a link to it from the Internet Archive.
Karen Yuan: I would love to read a “Letter to my Daughter” about what it’s like to grow up as a black woman in America today.
Caroline Kitchener: When was the peak era of women staying home, and men going to work? The 1950s? Whenever it was, it would be great to get some statistics on how many families—white and black—actually fit into this stereotype. Because I agree, pop culture probably makes that situation seem far more common than it actually was.
On Education and Admitting That You Don’t Know
What role has education played in Ta-Nehisi’s development, and to what extent has his work been a form of continuing education?
People should understand [my] articles, not as a demonstration of knowledge, but as a kind of the demonstration of the act of gathering knowledge. In other words, those pieces are not pieces I already had in my head and I just wrote. The process of writing was the process of learning about the thing.
So I haven't done the process of learning about the thing the way I did the process of learning about say, mass incarceration. When I did, I went through the process of learning about housing on the south side of, on the west side of Chicago. Or the Civil War. I just haven't lived there much.
That might be because of my own history. Wherein I've said before, I'm a college dropout, I hated school. I would've been a high school dropout if it was up to me. But I just didn't have a good relationship with school. So I had to find my own way around it. I guess in many ways, I wasn't particularly anxious to go back to it.
I love medieval Europe. I wish I better understood the workings of the economy, I don't. I wish my math skills were better. They're not particularly great. I wish my French was better. It's okay, it's passable, I can get around in Paris. I wish my knowledge of French history was better, to go with that French. I wish I was a better cook. I mean, the world is vast. I wish I had a better understanding of Cold War history. I don't have a particularly good one. I wish I had a better grasp of or even a decent grasp of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don't, I don't. There are so many things.
My experience with writing is not the process of someone who has a vault of knowledge and understanding for the people and then dispensing it. It's a process of learning in public.
What that means is that I'm necessarily ignorant of certain things. This comes from being a younger man and watching Sunday talk shows and watching people who clearly had no real knowledge of a specific topic or news event, holding forth and basically bullshitting as far as I was concerned.
I vowed that if I ever got any position of prominence, I would never do that. I would never stand up and present myself as a kind of finished product. I would never present whatever work I was doing as a product of some sort of innate genius. You're supposed to attempt to learn something about the world. There's a ton, there's ton.
Here’s what struck us:
Matt Peterson: One of our goals in this interview was to find areas that merit further reporting and analysis. Ta-Nehisi told me he hasn’t done much work on the topic of education in inequality. That tells us the topic is ripe for exploration.
Caroline: I’ve long admired Ta-Nehisi’s willingness to admit what he doesn’t know. In our interview, he said he vowed never to present himself “as a kind of finished product.” This is a lot easier said than done, I think. It's scary to admit you don't know something, particularly as a woman or a person of color. It's something I'm actively working on: being brave enough to say "I don’t know the name of that person you just referenced," or "I don't understand." It's a vulnerable position to put yourself in, but a necessary one.
Karen: Ta-Nehisi referenced “the process of learning in public.” This brings up a tension between learning in public versus learning in private. I'm thinking of the solitary and almost lonely aspect of quietly researching something to completion by yourself. How does that detract from a learning process?
On Christianity and the Black Community
How does Ta-Nehisi’s atheism inflect his understanding of the black Civil Rights Movement, given the prominence of Christianity in that movement?
If you don't have God and you don't have a Christian view of God, but certainly if you don't have God, it's not so much that it's hard to relate to the intellect and the wisdom. Because that's not really hard to do. But, for instance, a phrase like, "Love your enemy"—I don't get that at all. I've tried. Maybe if I understood the Bible more and I understood Christian philosophy more, I would get it. But the notion that I'm gonna have any sort of love at all for Bull Connor, in my mind, mocks any understanding I have of love itself. This is just me, right? You know what I mean? This is just me.
I've had this from the time I was a child encountering King. If I love everyone, then I love no one. You know? I really do hate certain things in the world. I really do sometimes hate certain people. I'm sometimes really, really angry. I'm sometimes really, really afraid. I don't want to be all loving. I don't believe love is the answer to everything. I believe that I have to accept myself and try to find the proper place and the proper vent for all of those emotions. I never wanted to force myself emotionally to be my best self.
One of the hard things always about the Civil Rights Movement, which I salute for its courage and tenacity, is just the notion that these people had to be their best selves. They had to be their best version of a Christian. They had to be Christ-like to get the things that the most evil, hateful white person in this country could get. That is hard for me to accept. It's hard for me to take.
It's hard for me to accept, as an atheist, suffering and deliverance. As an atheist, I believe that when people die, they die. So I don't have the ability to think about Dr. King himself, who was shot in the head, and say he died for me. No, he was killed and it was horrible that he was killed. It was wrong that he was killed. This country is responsible for his death. I believe that. Nothing can make that okay. My presence at The Atlantic, all the pleasures that I enjoy, I should've had the ability to enjoy them anyway. It was always wrong.
So it's hard for me to access the notion that black people, who have suffered so much in this country, and anyone really, who suffers under the yoke of oppression, can somehow be redeemed in any sort of grand narrative. I believe in the value of an individual life, I really believe that. I believe that every enslaved black person in this country who died enslaved, died that way, and that was the end of their story. That is the great tragedy.
It can't be redeemed by their children or their grandchildren or the idea of heaven or any sort of other notion of loving the people that put them in that condition. Or loving the political descendants of those people who continue to honor that system.
Love is a resource for me and it's limited. My mom used to tell me—man, she told me this about girls. But she used to tell me, I think it was the best thing she ever said, "Honestly, you gotta love those who love you." And that's my basic philosophy. I don't have love to expend. I'm sorry, I don't. So it's hard. Because I say all that and it doesn't mean I don't want to understand Christian philosophy. I do. Very much so.
Here’s what we pulled out:
Karen: Emma Green, The Atlantic’s religion reporter, wrote a related story on black activism and the unchurched that I really enjoyed. Emma writes, "The spirit of the black Church has long animated the movements for civil rights ... But in the black-and youth-led political activism of the last several years, the Church hasn’t been nearly as visible."
Matt P: “I don't have the ability to think about Dr. King himself, who was shot in the head, and say he died for me. No, he was killed and it was horrible that he was killed.” When Ta-Nehisi said that, it was the single most important moment of the interview for me. It encapsulates his worldview in just a few words. It's too easy for younger generations to look back at King's life as a complete story, with his death as a narrative punctuation mark. (I will admit to being guilty of falling into this line of thinking.) But our lives are our bodies, as Ta-Nehisi might say, so the brutality done to Dr. King's body should be remembered in a different category from our understanding of the value of his morality.
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: We asked a couple of questions in our annotations. Do you have answers to any of them?
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- What’s coming: Next week we’ll report out a few of the questions that came up in this conversation.
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