November 2008

Paul Morton

features

An Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last month, on the blog he writes for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained the origin of his first name:

[F]or the record Ta-Nehisi (pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) is an Egyptian name for ancient Nubia. I came up in a time when African/Arabic names were just becoming popular among black parents. I had a lot of buddies named Kwame, Kofi, Malik (actually have a brother with that name), Akilah and Aisha. My Dad had to be different, though. Couldn't just give me a run of the mill African name. I had to be a nation.

Coates’s father was a former Black Panther who raised seven children by four mothers, while running an underground Afro-centric publishing house from his basement. When Bill Cosby complained about black parents naming their children “Shaniqua, Taniqua and Mohammed and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail,” he may very well have been thinking of Paul Coates.

And yet he was, many flaws aside, a good father, a Herculean figure that rose above and guided a young Ta-Nehisi -- an obviously brilliant underachiever -- through the devastation of Baltimore during the crack epidemic into the halls of Howard University. In drawing his portrait and telling his own childhood story in his first book The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, Coates helps rethink the issues of fatherhood and child-rearing. Written in a beat style, influenced by hip-hop and Dungeons and Dragons, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s voice is difficult and comic, punctuated by well-earned moments of heartbreak. Coates, 33, spoke with me by phone from his home in Harlem, where he lives with his partner and 8-year-old son, on October 6.

The Beautiful Struggle takes place during the crack epidemic in Baltimore. If history was the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, of which your dad was a part, well everyone was now living at history’s end. 

The point of view of the book is supposed to be a 20 or 21-year-old kid looking back on his childhood. It really isn’t technically me right now. At that point, I had a feeling that I would not do anything that would be equal to what my father and my father’s generation did. There would be no great battles. All the great battles had been fought, for better or ill.

My father was a Black Panther. He carried a gun around. I wasn’t going to carry a gun. I wasn’t going to go off to the Vietnam War and be awakened and be reborn. I wasn’t going to be the product of an impoverished household on the north side of Philadelphia, and then have to make something of myself. That wasn’t going to happen to me. I always felt I was born out of time. I wanted to be back in my dad’s time.

Your father fathered seven children by four women within a 15-year period, which makes me think of Daniel Patrick Moynihan screaming about the decline of the black family. But though flawed, he is a decent parent. How conscious were you when you were drawing his portrait of answering the voices of so many sociologists?

Extremely. In fact there are places where I break out of character, where I break the fourth wall, where I’m dealing with [issues of] black men and violence. People don’t humanize these folks. They’re numbers to them. And the experience of black folks in this country is taken in a number. This is why we have art. This is why people need to read novels. This is why people need to read history and great detailed journalism. Statistics and facts have a way of dehumanizing people. You can’t see yourself in statistics but you can see yourself in well-drawn characters. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell a good story. And I thought in telling a good story I would offer a nice counterpoint to the stats.

One of the lines you hear a lot about Barack Obama’s potential for the country is that if he were elected every black child, no matter their class or background, would have this amazing role model. And it’s true. But how different would your own particular childhood have been had you had a President Obama?

The crack epidemic probably would have unfolded a lot differently because we would have had different policies. (laughs) That’s probably the most important thing.

But I’m not asking about his policies.

I know. You’re talking about the symbolism. Beyond that, nah, it may have changed the character of art for instance. But in my personal world, not very much. My dad was my personal hero. I didn’t need much more than my dad. And he introduced me to people who became my heroes. My dad was my strong black male role model. He was Hercules. He was Zeus. He was mythical. And it is a tragedy, this fatherlessness that we’re experiencing across America and particularly in black communities. Black boys don’t get heroes. 

My father said this to me many years later, “Fathers who are not with their kids rob themselves of an opportunity to be a hero. They rob themselves of an opportunity to take joy in the deeds of someone else [which would mean] that they [themselves would do] better because of something their kid did. And they rob themselves, if you want to be craven about it, [of having] someone take care of them when they get old.”

I wanted to ask about Marvel Comics.

Beautiful.

The fantasy of those books is centered on the idea that you have these kids who feel themselves to be freaks and they get to live out this fantasy where their freaky nature is realized as having these great powers. They end up being sexier, they get to wear tight clothes and they get to beat people up. How does this fantasy play out for a black kid growing up in the crack epidemic, living with a perpetual fear of violence?

I think the important thing is to not internalize your own persecution. “Persecution” is too strong a word.

Oppression?

Yeah, that might be too strong a word too. [pause] Kids are mean. They’re beautiful. But they can be cruel. But for all of that, there’s the idea that you have more worth than they tell you you have. So don’t internalize what they tell you. That’s the obvious parable. That’s X-Men, obviously. The greatest thing about Spider-Man is that everyone in New York hated him. (laughs) I didn’t know that at first. I came to Spider-Man first through the cartoons and then I started reading the comic books. And it was a shock to me that people hated him. They threw stuff at him. They cursed at him. I don’t know if it’s still like that in Marvel today. He’s gone through some changes. But in the ’80s, you know, Spider-Man was not liked. That was just so intriguing to me.

There’s a line near the end of your book, “In those days, all the kids anyone cared about got beatings.” I thought that was heartbreaking. At this point, corporal punishment is considered an awful way to raise a child. And that tenet is at the heart of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which I know you have studied a bit. And yet everyone in your neighborhood, as you note, did beat their kids. They weren’t doing this to be malicious. They were trying to be good parents. But they were all doing it wrong.

I don’t spank my son. [pause] I have in the past spanked him, but never with a belt.

Having said that, parenting is an extremely scary endeavor, [and] certainly more so for black parents [at] that time. Your job is to deliver your child as safely as possible to adulthood. I understand the case against spanking. I really do. But I’ve never taken a harsh stand on that, mostly because you have to do what you have to do to get your kid to adulthood by any means necessary. You got to have everything at your disposal. Obviously we all have bright lines. And for a cat like Geoffrey Canada there’s a different line. And it’s very hard for me to tell parents what they should do beyond these really bright lines. I had to deal with this when I was writing the book. “Do you feel like your father abused you?” I never thought about it like that. People started saying it or asking me about it. I don’t know. To me, the parents who didn’t beat their kids, and I mean this literally, didn’t pay attention to their kids. They were the ones who were like, “I’m going out to the club.” They weren’t in their kids’ lives as parents. It’s a kind of war. And a lot of black parents feel they will do whatever they got to do to get their kid to adulthood. Whatever it takes to keep them out of jail, whatever it takes to get done, they’ll do.

In the penultimate chapter of the book your father pulls into a parking lot and tells you that he’s carrying on a relationship with another woman. There’s a belief that if you were to behave as your father behaves, you are supposed to own up to your responsibilities, but also carry a sense of shame.

Yeah, my father was never ashamed. (laughs)

Again, this is something that would come across as Bad Parenting 101. But in the context of your book it feels okay.

I think kids need to know that you love them. I think that that’s the most important thing. I think they need to know that you will keep them safe, that you will put them above all others. I may not have been happy about what he was doing. But I never doubted his relationship to me. I doubted his relationship to my mother. I never doubted his relationship to me or to his other children. They were just two separate things to me. I never doubted his commitment to me, in no respect. I thought my parents were in business together and that business was raising children. And that was separate from other contracts they had, relationship-wise. 

You left out a lot of your father’s iconoclastic beliefs in your book that you discuss on your blog. You tell one story of putting on a Malcolm X t-shirt when Spike Lee’s movie came out. Your dad asked you, “Why are you so eager to tell everyone who you are?” It was a way of saying you can define yourself and that you don’t need a movement to define you. That’s an amazing thing to hear from a former Black Panther.

My dad’s weird. You have to know where he’s coming from. I hope I got this in the book, or at least to some extent. The child kind of sees his father singularly. And defines him in a one-dimensional way. He’s the antagonist. He keeps you from doing what you want to do.

I knew he was “black” but wouldn’t do Kwanzaa. So I knew there was more going on than he would say. I knew that. But what [he said about the t-shirt] told me more than anything was, “You be the thing that you want. Don’t wear what you want. Don’t tell people what you want to be. Just be what you want to be and they’ll respect you for it.” Some of that is in the book. I think my dad had some direct exposure to that, to posing.  

I was doing an interview for the book awhile back. And this cop calls in. He knew my dad. The cop says, “Even though we were on different sides of the law I had great respect for his dad, a great respect for this gentleman because he really believed it. He believed in what he was going to do.” (laughs). He wasn’t a poser. And I told my dad about it and he said it was very difficult all these years later to imagine that all these people were doing this and some of them were actually posing. But he’s always been a believer. If he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it. If he’s on board, he’s on board.

Let’s talk about Baltimore which has been the focus of a lot of great entertainment: John Waters, Barry Levinson, The Wire. But I don’t know of any other literary representations of Baltimore other than your book.

I’m sure there are and I can’t think of them. I pulled very strongly on hip-hop. The Wire was influential, but not in how it depicted the city as much as it was great storytelling. It made me want to push harder when I went to tell my own story.

The Baltimore as I remember it in the past lended itself to storytelling. You had all these neighborhoods and these neighborhoods were enclaves. And in the minds of children, their imaginations run wild because they have no rules. And neighborhoods north of Pulaski become mythological to you. It becomes like orcs or goblins or superheroes. In your mind, that’s how you see it. It’s that ferocious, that fearsome. Baltimore was huge. It was gigantic. It was super-real what would happen over there because you had no other experience to measure it against. Everything feels gigantic. Everything feels epic.

When you watch The Wire do you recognize characters on the show reflecting people you knew when you were growing up? Did you know anyone like Omar? God help you if you did.

No, no, no, no. It was more the middle school and the kids there. In fact, they actually shot at my middle school at Lemmel. And some of the kids in that middle school and some of the extras were at Lemmel as I was told later. At the end of the fourth season, when they’re collecting the bodies and they’re putting them in a middle school. they ask Cedric Daniels, “Why did you choose this place to collect the bodies?” He says, “This is Lemmel Middle. I went to school here.” And he says it’s closed down now. It’s actually not closed down in real life. Lemmel serves a lot of those kids in West Baltimore. And when I was there they had this great Gifted and Talented program that was just incredible. It was a weird juxtaposition. It was a weird place to be.

You must have seen some of those teachers in real life. You’re always referring to these kind white teachers.

I didn’t have any white teachers in middle school. I had them in high school. In middle school it was mostly black women. They certainly had better things to do with their time. They were college-educated. They certainly could have been moving on to other things. It was a weird thing at this school. Academics was important, it was extremely important. But at the same time, if you were to know anything about the world, you better know the streets, you better know street law. In school, you got your butt kicked if you didn’t understand academics. But outside, you got your butt kicked if you didn’t understand jungle law. So both were required. You just had to have both.

You’ve been tackling this question on your blog, about just how much white racism matters to black people. A lot of the great classics of black literature -- I’m thinking of books like Go Tell It On the Mountain -- contain very few white characters. It’s as if segregation, whether it was de jure before 1964, or de facto afterwards, created a richness in black life that would have been absent otherwise. This is not to forgive the greater sins of segregation.

There’s some truth to that. As to your question, I’m not very much interested in literature that tries to tackle these big questions in impersonal ways. That was the world I knew. And I think most writers are best writing about the world that they know. The fact of the matter is, as a child I didn’t have any real understanding of white people. I didn’t know any. How would I know them? But I knew black folks. I’ve been thinking about them for a long time. That was the world I knew. I think if it comes across as retro, [it means it’s] one of the things people don’t understand about segregation post-civil rights. You didn’t really come in contact with white people. So the daily ways racism affects your life are not so immediate and are much smaller and at the same time, less shocking.

In your essay about Bill Cosby back in May you write, “Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the ’60s weren’t made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word nigger. But that’s exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile -- in other words, the right to be human.” 

That’s what integration is. You don’t get one without the other. You integrate and don’t get all the good from America and not get some of the bad. If you think pop culture is particularly profane now -- and I don’t buy that -- but if you think pop culture is particularly profane now than hip-hop will be profane. It’s a part of pop culture. You can’t insulate yourself out. Your kids are a part of the culture and they will go the way the culture is going. Black people are Americans and you don’t get to be American whenever you feel like it. Nobody cries when a black coach is fired in the NBA. There are plenty of mediocre black coaches in the NBA. That’s how you know it’s equal. And more mediocre ones will be hired. Everybody can’t be great.

In other words, the real breakthrough will not be if Obama is elected. It will be when we get a black man as a dumb as George W. Bush elected president.

God help us that we don’t. I was thinking about Sarah Palin and about how a lot of women hate Sarah Palin. And I was thinking, “Good Lord, if there was a black Sarah Palin I would want to shoot myself. I would walk around hanging my head all day.” So there’s part of me that goes the other way too.