This year we selected writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as the top honoree on The Root 100, our annual list of influential and high-achieving African Americans. It was June when The Atlantic published his widely read and highly acclaimed cover article, “The Case for Reparations,” which “lays bare a compelling argument for the pecuniary redress of Africans brought to this country in chains and continually terrorized—socially, politically and economically.”
Coates sat down with The Root’s managing editor, Lyne Pitts, to talk about the impact of his record-shattering article, which, he says, “way outdistanced my expectations.”
The Root: You called this article “The Case for Reparations.” So obviously you were making that case to someone. Who was it written for?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Well, this is tough to say, because I don’t want this to come off the wrong way. In general, when I write something like that, I’m writing for black people. But that shouldn’t mean that I don’t want other people to read it, or I don’t expect other people to read it.
But I think for those of us who find ourselves in majority-white spaces, we feel this need to slow things down and dumb things down and speak to people in a certain way. And I just try to write as though I were in a room full of African Americans. I don’t want to cut anything back.
And I think in the long run that that actually shows more respect for my white readers. Because the expectation is that they’re gonna be able to follow me, and that it’ll be OK, if I speak in my natural way or write as I naturally would, as though I were explaining it to people within my community. And those who are outside of my community will actually understand and can understand. And I truly, truly believe that.
TR: What did you want African Americans to know that we didn’t know?
TC: That our condition is not a mistake. That we don’t need to run around pretending, as though there’s some great mystery going on—it’s not. If an alien came to planet Earth and looked at the socioeconomic statistics for African Americans and then measured that against the history and the policies of this country, there would really be no surprises about who we are and where we are. And I think that’s important, because there are things that are not within our control in this country.
But there are some things that always get out of control, and one of those things is the level of stress that we put on ourselves. The feelings that we have about our position. The doubt—I don’t want to call it self-loathing—but the effect it has that we have somehow done something to ourselves, injured ourselves. And I just want to relieve that stress. There’s no need to walk around feeling—to be fooled into thinking—that somehow you’re insufficient as a human being. And that’s the condition that we find ourselves [in].
On the contrary, I have always said that, to be perfectly blunt, there’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix. And that’s what I believe, and I want black folk who read that piece to know, “You’re OK.” You know? That the conditions within the community are not OK, but as a human being, you’re OK.
TR: Because we can’t fix it?
TC: I think we’ve done the best we can; I think we’ve done the best we can. And that’s hard to take. And that’s even hard to say, because what it means is, like, saying that certain things are not in your control. But I think we kind of do have to say that, you know?
It’s very hard for me to look at African-American history and see people slouching. I don’t see that. I see people against great odds fighting against a power, a state that for most of its history has not operated with the interest of African Americans at its heart.
TR: At the same time that your article was published, the Huffington Post and YouGov did a poll (pdf), looking at how Americans feel about the issue of reparations. The majority of white Americans said Germany should pay for Holocaust survivors. A third of white Americans said the Japanese should get money for internment. But when it came to descendants of African-American slaves, 6 percent. What’s that about?
TC: It’s not about the money; I’ll tell you that. What it is is about the history. The problem with reparations, I think, for white Americans has never really been the money. It’s what giving the money signifies. And what it signifies is that America is not innocent, is not this city of total and complete nobility that we like to imagine. …
The wretched treatment meted out to African Americans, and the wretched treatment meted out to Native Americans, in the minds of most white people is almost separate from the core idea of what America is. America is this place of democracy, freedom, all these other values, and these other things were sort of just mistakes that happened along the road—as opposed to thinking of those mistakes as things that actually made all those other good things possible.
It’s very hard for people to get their heads around that. I mean, how, then, do you think about your country? You know, if the Founding Fathers are not what you thought they were? But I think it’s essential work. I think it has to be done.
And that poll doesn’t really scare me too much. Because people have been lobbying for reparations since the birth of this country. I mean, literally since the birth of this country, there were, you know, enslaved or freed African Americans saying, “I should be paid for my debt.” And that’s, you know, end of story.
This is the long fight. You know, it’s not supposed to happen in my lifetime. It may not even be something that’s supposed to happen in my children’s lifetime. It’s a long, long, long walk.
Giving money to Japanese Americans does not indict American history in the same way … reparations to African Americans would. Certainly, Germany giving money to Jews does not indict America at all. You know? So I think that’s more about this country not yet having come to grips with its own identity.
TR: How has this work informed your other writing? It seems to have affected you in some way.
TC: Yeah, it did. … I think a lot of people think it depressed me, but it didn’t. It is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Because what it gives you is a grounded—as far as I’m concerned—a grounded view in life, about the limits of human beings, and what human societies are capable of doing. And as far as I’m concerned, it is very much an open question as to whether there can be an America without white supremacy, in which African Americans are fully integrated.
That is, like, initially horrifying, and people … feel like that’s a really, really pessimistic thing to say. But I’m a writer. My job is to explore all possibilities. It would not be honest for me to proceed from the notion that, yes, this will get fixed. I hope it does. I hope it does, but you have to be open to other things.
And then, at that level for me, it then becomes, like, a deeper question. It allows me to say, OK, so what if this thing doesn’t get fixed? What, then, are my responsibilities as an African American even if I know that? What are my responsibilities to my son in that world? And this is one of the things that I got hip to.
Slavery in this country lasted for 250 years. From the moment African Americans got here, you know—enslaved Africans got here—there’s no doubt that they knew what was happening here was wrong. You can see a record across the 250 years of African Americans protesting, black people saying this is wrong. Generations of those people died, and slavery did not end. And so, as far as they were concerned, in terms of their life, this thing lived on forever.
We shouldn’t just focus on folks like Frederick Douglass who actually did live to see the end of it. Many, many more people did not live to see the end of slavery. And yet they resisted and they fought, and they struggled. And so my responsibility, regardless of what my conclusions are, or regardless of what I think is going to happen tomorrow, my responsibility is to resist and is to struggle and is to keep on going. And it doesn’t require, as far as I’m concerned, [me] to believe in ultimate victory. It just requires some amount of loyalty and fealty, frankly, to my ancestors. To people who came before me and struggled.
It would be absolutely just, like, the highest sort of wrong, a moral betrayal, to retreat to a corner and curl up in a fetal position. Even if I believed there was no hope at all. Resistance, in and of itself—struggle, in and of itself—is rewarding. So that really is it. It just—it opened me up to other possibilities, and I think it just made me fuller as a human being.
It’s very tough to explain that to people. It’s hard to get that across, ’cause I think we feel like, well, if this isn’t gonna get fixed, and we don’t feel like it’s gonna get fixed, what are we struggling for? But for me the question is, well, what is your life about? What are your values? How do you want your life spent? And I want my life spent struggling. This is how I want to live.
TR: I mentioned that you are our top honoree in The Root 100. And again, congratulations for that honor. It is given to a person who we think has great influence, who has done something substantive in the last year, and obviously the article we are talking about is certainly evidence of that. What kind of influence do you want to have?
TC: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t spend too much time thinking that, you know? I hope to be able to write about the things that I’m curious about. That’s what I hope for. I hope it makes other African Americans’ lives a little easier. That’s what I hope.
The case for reparations, I felt, is representative of a deeply held truth within the hearts of African Americans. But my hope was that it meant something for them to see that on the cover of The Atlantic. It may not change anything, but folk are not gonna lie to me. We’re not gonna have this sort of conversation about race and racism, and things that we all know to be true within our hearts, and not spoken at the same level and at the same volume [as] other people’s thoughts.
Our ideas and our thoughts and our ways of seeing the world are just as good as theirs. They’re just as good as anybody’s. And anybody else’s is just as good as ours, you know? I don’t know if that qualifies as influence, but I just hope folks wake up in the morning and their day is just a little bit easier.