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You’re invited to join me tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. EST as I talk through your questions and comments with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Today, I’ll highlight several big themes that emerged from your questions, and then walk through how this conversation will work.

My goal in this conversation is a little different from your everyday interview. (As I mentioned last week, Ta-Nehisi has done a lot of those.) I’m going to use our time with him to identify which intellectual veins have been thoroughly mined, and which could use further exploration. Then, as a community, The Masthead can do some of that exploration together. As we go through the questions, I’ll ask Ta-Nehisi to break them down into roughly four categories.

  • Category 1: Pass. These are questions that aren’t worth getting into because they’re irrelevant to him, he’s already answered them a million times, or they just don’t move him.

  • Category 2: Straightforward answer. These are questions he can jump right into, because he can respond off the top of his head. We’ll probably spend the bulk of our time on these questions.

  • Category 3: “No, but…” These are questions that are interesting, but to which he doesn’t immediately have an answer. It’s a subject where he’d be interested in follow-up work. These are going to be the most fruitful questions for us at The Masthead, because they’re places where we can extend Ta-Nehisi’s writing and research.

  • Category 4: Too big. These are questions that are just too big and woolly for anyone to answer, let alone in the scope of a conference call.

What You Want to Ask Ta-Nehisi

As I read through your notes in our collaborative Google Doc, several themes emerged. Some of the questions are great in text but would be awkward to ask verbally, so I’ve done a little paraphrasing. If you see a paraphrase that doesn’t quite get at your question, feel free to respond with a clear (but succinct) framing of the question that I might substitute.

On Being on a Husband and Father

Ta-Nehisi’s national bestseller Between the World and Me was written as a letter from the author to his son. Now, as the #MeToo movement is focusing attention on gender, readers are interested in the significance of framing the book around male identity.

  • How would Between the World and Me be different if you had a daughter? I’m borrowing this question more or less verbatim from Bill, who asked: “Describe some ways in which the content would be different if, instead of a ‘Letter to My Son,’ you were to write a ‘Letter to My Daughter’ today.”

  • What do you teach your son about the baggage of masculinity? Hannah wants to understand what it takes to raise a boy in the era of #MeToo: “What do you want your son to know about his rights and responsibilities as a man?” She mentions she’s teaching her young daughter about consent. “I often wonder what approach I would take with a boy to help him understand that being a boy and eventually a man is wonderful, but also comes with its own special set of baggage.”

Other readers had more personal questions for Ta-Nehisi about his family life. In the notes between chapters in his newest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, he describes a long period in which writing earned him little money.

  • What was it like not being the breadwinner? Natasha wants to know how he got through the experience, and what he took away from it. “Have your ideas about unpaid work and its recognition in our society changed?”

  • How has the concept of fatherhood evolved over your lifetime? Eric remarks, “If there is one position of ‘power’ that has changed dramatically in my lifetime it is the position of ‘power’ a father once had in his family.”

  • Can you teach children to be discerning, journalistic thinkers? Lisa would like Ta-Nehisi’s thoughts on “how to raise our children to be independent, critical thinkers in an age when ‘fake news,’ and social media ‘influencers’ seem to capture their attention the most.” She’d also love to know “what books he wishes his son would read.”

On Atheism and Faith

Ta-Nehisi’s atheism is a theme of Between the World and Me. It makes him concerned with the physical security of the body—particularly black bodies.

  • How do you feel about the role of faith in black political struggle and writing on race? In We Were Eight Years in Power, Josh writes, “he mentions the black community’s bending of Christianity toward their own ends in the days of slavery and Reconstruction as a kind of resistance and appropriation,” but Christianity within the black community wasn’t a major focus. Josh wants to know why Ta-Nehisi hasn’t explored that topic.

  • This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose religion was inseparable from his moral beliefs. How do you think about his legacy? Or, as Chad would put it, “How does the atheistic lens through which Mr. Coates views the world affect his understanding of Rev. King's gospel-infused Protestantism and its influence on his life's work?”

In a recent round of interviews, Ta-Nehisi was repeatedly asked to temper his tough analysis of America’s structural racism with some source of hope for the future. He refused, saying, essentially, that it’s not his job.  

  • Is faith at the heart of your disagreement with critics about pessimism? Ta-Nehisi’s unwillingness to say It’ll all get better has rubbed a lot of his interlocutors the wrong way. Not David. “One dimension of Between the World and Me that struck me as especially courageous was the writer's honesty about how his case for justice to black Americans was/is NOT underwritten by any appeal to divine justice winning through.”

  • Have all the demands for hope had an effect on you? Erica called in to remark on Roxane Gay’s recent comment that she is “tired of comfortable lies." But, asks Erica, “Where do we go without hope?”

On Education  

Ta-Nehisi has written about the lasting influence of his time at Howard University, which he has called “Mecca.” Members identified education as an area worth exploring.

  • What role does education play in the cycles of inequality you’ve written about? Damion comments, “I’ve read almost everything Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, but aside from a couple of pages in [Between the World and Me] and the connection between education and redlining in ‘The Case for Reparations,’ I don’t recall any longer treatments of Coates’s perspective on education.”

  • What have you learned in your own role as a teacher? Bob recalls that Ta-Nehisi taught writing at MIT a few years ago, and adds: “When I was at MIT 40 years ago, it was a very diverse place with folks from around the world but with very, very few American born blacks. Is that still true?”

On “Whiteness” and Combating Racism

These questions get to the heart of Ta-Nehisi’s recent writing.

  • Will what it means to be “white” change as minorities make up more of the population? Aditi points out that the social construction of whiteness is founded on its relationship to a stereotyped blackness. She asks if that will change along with the country’s demographics. “As an Indian American, I often explain white supremacy to my community by saying that it’s not an ideology that hates us for who we are, but who we are not (white). Will whiteness become defined by not being a person of color? Do you think all people of color will be considered black? Or, will the shift force white people to contend with the supremacy embedded in the identity?”

  • Does whiteness mean what it used to? Margaret drew out an analogy to a fraternity or sorority, where college students can purchase social commodities through their identities. She wonders if whiteness works the same way. She asks if “white people are pissed because this commodity is not as valuable today on the social and job market as it was in previous generations. You can’t trade on your whiteness as your dad once did.”

  • Can you make an economic argument for ending racism? Anne Marie points out that oppressing large swathes of the American population comes at significant economic cost. “As a single mother, I'm shocked by how easily dismissed my contributions to the tech industry were once I became a mother, and how hard it is to fight female/motherhood stereotypes and policies and strive to succeed (or simply survive) in my career. I can only imagine what's been lost over centuries of devaluation of people of color. It would not take much investment or encouragement from ‘the system’ for me to be extremely productive, and I'm sure the same is true for people of color.”

  • Critique your effect on the culture. Pamela wants to know, “Do you think your writing promotes identity politics?”

On writing Marvel’s Black Panther

Ta-Nehisi has taken over the writing of the Marvel comic series Black Panther. The hero of the series, T’Challa, was Marvel’s first black superhero when he originally appeared in the 1960s. Ta-Nehisi chooses to send the character back to his kingdom, Wakanda, a technologically advanced but politically troubled society. It is fiction, but deeply political fiction. Since all the residents of Wakanda are black, structural racism isn’t a major feature of the comics, but Ta-Nehisi’s other great interest—power—is. As he told an interviewer, the big question animating the series is, “How does [T’Challa] inspire loyalty to the throne if he doesn’t like being king?”

  • What has writing for a fictional Black Panther revealed about the real world? Pamela asks how the "overriding question" about how a king inspires loyalty “ties to the relationship between race and power, aka ‘the heart of the comic book’”?

  • What can your readers expect from the upcoming Black Panther movie? Matt W. lays it out: “Curious on your thoughts about the new Black Panther movie, how much it will tie into your ongoing Marvel series, and how much you’re currently contributing to the current Marvel storyline. Any plans to write more comics? Reading anything good lately in that medium?”

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: Last call for questions for Ta-Nehisi! Reply and let me know what else is on your mind.
  • Your feedback: Take our quick survey to share your thoughts on this issue.
  • What’s coming: Tomorrow, we’re up with Ta-Nehisi. Register here to join the conversation live.

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