Ta-Nehisi Coates, famed Atlantic columnist, visits Northwestern


By Megan Spengler


“You come up with your ideas, and to a greater extent, their quality is driven by your curiosity, by your insane desire to know, and to know as much as possible.”

On February 27, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor of “The Atlantic,” spoke to an overflowing auditorium of students on the art of storytelling, his love of learning, and what it means to be an African-American in the 21st century. Alex Kotlowitz, a CWA Writer in Resident, hosted the event in collaboration with the departments of Performance and African American Studies.

“I think [Coates] is one of the most brilliant writers of our time. The New York Observer has said that Mr. Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in America, and I think that is really undeniable,” said Kotlowitz.

Coates was born and raised in Baltimore, where he lived with his parents and later attended Howard University. Despite his influence and success today, Coates claims he was kicked out of high school not once, but twice, and ended up dropping out of college as well.

“I was not a great student. In fact, I was a pretty bad student. I spent more time in the library than I did in class,” said Coates. “But that is actually a great qualification for a journalist. The fact of the matter is I was an intensely curious child. But I was only curious about what I wanted to be curious about, when I wanted to be curious about it. That is exactly what you need if you are going to be a reporter or writer.”

Being loyal to your intent and pursuing your interests are two things Coates finds essential to becoming a good writer. He believes owning your sense of curiosity and being able to play the amateur are key in journalism.

“We’ve gotten into this era where writers are seen as people who stand up and give instruction, who tell people about how the world is, but the most exciting part of [writing] always will be the aspect of learning. I’m a student, and what I publish is like a term paper,” explained Coates. “As a journalist, you’re always supposed to be the dumbest guy in the room, because the people around you always know more. That’s why you’re talking to them.”

Recently, Coates brought his 13-year-old son with him to interview Lucia Macbeth, the mother of the late Jordan Davis, a black teen in FLorida shot over a dispute about loud music. In his article, Coates mentioned how his son was reaching the age where he was beginning to understand how American thinks of him as a black boy.

“People say black, and you get this picture in your head. They say [Davis] was playing his music, and you get this picture in your head. But what people didn’t understand was, if you actually took this young man as an individual, and you said, ‘Who was his father? Who was his mother? What kind of neighborhood was he from? Who were his friends? What were his hobbies?’ the idea that he was toting a shotgun sounds absolutely absurd. If you can get past just thinking of him as a black race, if you think of him as an actual human being who is African American, it becomes such a powerful rebuttal,” said Coates.

Coates pointed out that this lingering issue of race in America is not due to a misunderstanding of the past, but a lack of acknowledgement, even by our president. Not doubting Obama’s sincerity on the issue, Coates explained how straightforward transparency is needed for a solution.

“I watched the president’s speech today, and he spoke about this category: young men of color. I think this in itself is a political designation. I don’t think I heard the word ‘racism’ the entire speech. I certainly didn’t hear the words ‘white supremacy,’” said Coates. “There is simply no way to have a straightforward, intelligent and direct honest conversation about any sort of situation with young black men in this country, and not mention racism. Just ask yourself, ‘Why is this happening?’”

Direct, honest conversation is something Coates encourages on a daily basis with the comment sections featured on his blog on The Atlantic’s website. He takes the time to moderate and contribute to the comments on his articles, something most writers don’t take the time to do.

“Why are there no rules online? Why do you get to go online and do whatever you want? If you imagine online space as an actual space… I would often think of it as a bar,” said Coates.

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