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Acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at Penn

November 03, 2017

By Jenna Wang C’19

On November 1, Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed a packed audience at Irvine Auditorium as he spoke about writing, fame, race, and politics in America.

The event, co-hosted by Penn Law and the University of Pennsylvania Center for Africana Studies, brought Coates to campus as part of the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Memorial Lecture series. Coates, a nationally acclaimed author and national correspondent at The Atlantic, spent an hour in conversation with Penn’s Camille Charles, who is the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences, Professor of Sociology, Africana Studies & Education; and Director of the Center for Africana Studies.

Much of the evening’s discussion centered on Coates’ writing, from his 2015 book Between the World and Me to his most recent publication, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, out since last month. Coates talked about his laborious artistic process, as well as his hopes for his writing, which he said was to get readers to feel the emotions he was trying to express.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of the author’s essays written during the Obama era. The essays cover a variety of topics related to black politics and the Obama administration, such as reparations, mass incarceration, the Civil War, and Malcolm X.

On stage, Coates praised the Obamas as an exemplary First Family, saying that nobody else threatened racist notions about African Americans more than they did. However, he also used them as an example to illustrate how racism is still a continuous hurdle in America.

“Two black Ivy League-trained lawyers with two beautiful kids and a grandmother that lives with them, a dog named Bo — this could be a TV show,” he said. “[But] half of the opposition party said that man is not American, and that woman is not actually a woman. It exposes the rank hypocrisy. They don’t dislike you because you don’t [fit] their values. They dislike you because of who you are.”

Coates also drew comparisons between the former President and Donald Trump’s White House, highlighting the racial double standard between Obama and Trump.

“You cannot convince me that a black man could be that politically unqualified [as Trump] and be a governor,” he said. “Forget President.”

On the topic of fame, Coates painted a somber image of his personal loss of innocence since catapulting into the public eye a few years ago. After racking up accomplishments such as receiving the 2015 MacArthur Fellowship and the 2015 National Book Award, Coates said the accolades defined him in a way that made him “uncomfortable,” and compared publishing Between the World and Me to getting punched in the face as a kid. 

“It was so much,” Coates said. “Everybody had an opinion. I had to get rid of my Facebook.”

Coates also spoke about recent events, such as the comments made by John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, on the Civil War. Earlier in the week, Kelly stated that he believed Confederate General Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man” and that the Civil War had been fought because two sides could not come to a compromise.

“It’s not a factual description,” Coates said regarding Kelly’s description. “There’s no science or history or primary sources.”

Speaking about Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment, Coates said he felt shame as a man when he heard about the Weinstein story. The report, he said, caused him to reflect on how he was privileged in ways that his spouse or other women were not.

“When I was younger, I would get drunk and fall asleep on the subway back home, and I wasn’t worried,” he said. “What shames you is that you understand those accusations are not disconnected from all the privileges you enjoy.”