Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic and writes an immensely popular blog which was included on TIME Magazine‘s list of Best Blogs of 2011, with the motivation, “Like many of the world’s best bloggers Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates is impossible to pigeonhole.” Coates’ prose is electric, crackling with wit and intelligence. He tackles some of the most infected issues of our time – race, social inequality, masculinity – with a rare balance of passion and equanimity.
Coates grew up in a rough section of West Baltimore. His father was a former Black Panther and founded the publishing company Black Classic Press, which he ran out of their home. Coats’ 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, is a lyric depiction of coming of age as an African American man in America.
Coates attended Howard University but dropped out to pursue journalism. He wrote for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and TIME Magazine before joining The Atlantic.
On May 2, 2013, he won a National Magazine Award for his article entitled “Fear of a Black President.”
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Tony Dorsett, the running back for the Dallas Cowboys. That’s what I wanted to be.
Did you play a lot of football on your own or was that just sort of a….?
I did, but I didn’t play too much on account of not being very good. You know, it was just something we did in the neighborhood, threw the football and ran around a lot, yeah, a lot of fun.
And were you a kid who told a lot of stories?
No, but, you know, I did ask a lot of questions. I asked a lot of questions. I really annoyed my brothers and sisters, I remember that.
You were the kid who was always saying, “Why? Why?”
Yes, that was me.
What was it you wanted to know?
Everything! I mean that was how I ultimately got into writing. Professionally I started off in journalism and the thing about journalism is, it’s a license to ask anybody anything. For a kid like me that was exciting, you know?
My dad read a lot, I do know that. My mom read a lot, there were books all over the house.
Your father actually ran a publishing company, right?
He did, he ran a small publishing company so there were books everywhere.
I was voracious, man. My natural inclination was to read.
Was there an early reading experience that was important to you?
Yeah, Choose Your Own Adventure. I was just like, “Wow, you get to sit in the driver’s seat.”
A lot of writers talk about that moment when they’re reading and they realize that someone actually wrote the story, that there’s someone behind the story.
And I think what you’re describing similar, right? That feeling that you wanted to control the narrative.
Yeah it was totally similar. It’s the idea that, “Hey you can’t do it.” You know what I mean? Choose Your Own Adventure says, “Yes, you can control the story.” It’s not even wondering, “Can I?” The answer is, “Yes, you can.” It’s actually not that much of a leap from saying, “I can control the story” to “I can actually write the story.”
And did you? Did you begin to write around that point?
Yeah, but I mean there were other things in my life, like hip-hop was really big and to some extent hip-hop isn’t big on storytelling. Some of it is, but the big thing about hip-hop is the beauty of language. Rappers really, really love language and the best rappers have been really good at language and the notion that through precision of language, through the unlikely coordination of language, you can paint imagery in people’s heads. And that in and of itself could be delightful.
On top of loving storytelling, on top of having all these questions, I really, really liked language; I really liked the way words sounded. They were like instruments, as far as I was concerned.
Did you write hip-hops songs and play with language?
I did, I did. I was really bad at it. I did a lot of things I was really bad at – which I think is very important, by the way. I didn’t really care that I wasn’t good at it. I really enjoyed it.
And you listened to a ton of hip-hop.
It was constant, it was the soundtrack of my childhood. It was just everywhere.
So then I wanted to be a rapper, that was next. But much like being a running back, I wasn’t very good at it so that was a minor problem with that dream. I wasn’t good at that but that led me to poetry and I did poetry for a while. I was a better rapper than I was a running back and I was a better poet than I was a rapper. I wasn’t particularly good at any of those things yet.
There was a great degree of failure in my life and I never really… You know, the way I came up, it quickly became clear to me that no person has the right to success. There’s no guarantee to success at all; you may get it or you may not. You can like something and you can be bad at it and you can keep doing it or you can be not great at it and you can keep going or you can be mediocre at it and you can keep doing it. You keep doing it because you like it, just because you like it, for you, it’s yours, it’s private, you own it. Not to please other people, not to impress nobody.
I wasn’t really good at school, I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t particularly good with girls, I didn’t have any of that. I wasn’t a social outcast; I had pretty good social skills and was well-liked among my crowd, so I didn’t have the sort of nerd-geek experience. But I did have the experience of not being particularly good at anything measurable as a young child.
And I went through a long period, once I got to writing, of not being very successful but I kept doing it because I liked it.
You grew up with many siblings.
Yeah, there were seven of us – four women and kids rotating. I lived with my mother and my father, a parade of brothers and sisters that were there at any particular point in time, so I saw all of them at varying degrees. I loved them very much. I had people who loved me very much who looked out for me.
It was a tough time in Baltimore, there was a great degree of violence in the city and my house was not a warm house, it was not a cuddly house. It was a hard house, but it was a very loving house. I don’t know if that makes any sense. It was a tough house but toughness and the sort of challenges that people put on you were very clearly delineated as things that were for you. They were for your benefit. Not because somebody had too much to drink, not because someone was feeling particularly cruel – because I didn’t really live around cruel people – but I had a great degree of toughness.
My dad had been somebody who had read a lot as a kid so reading was very, very important to him. He had opened up this small independent press that was top-notch so all the things that I wanted in terms of reading were just right at hand. But in the geographic community I lived in, that value was not too widely shared. And to be fair to that community, I don’t know that if had we been somewhere else those values would’ve been widely shared. Reading, just for the hell of it and not for school, is not exactly a prized value anywhere right now. So I don’t put that so much on them. At the same time, there were people around me who recognized that I did read and that that was a good thing and that was always encouraged.
And I guess since your dad had this independent press, you were sort of privy to the whole process of how a book comes into the world. So for you writing and the world of books must not have felt very distant. It must’ve felt pretty natural, close to home.
It did. I didn’t quite realize that people could make a living at it, but I did know that people wrote books, I was very aware of that.
Did your father and mother encourage you in that direction?
Reading was more encouraged than writing. But having said that, once I started writing as I got older it thrilled my parents to no end.
You went to Howard University.
That’s a pretty unique experience on the American college scene. What was college like for you? Were you writing?
There is this sort of narrative around black people who are into intellectual things – particularly with this generation, I don’t know about previous generations but particularly with this generation – about the distance between us and, you know, other black folks. I didn’t have that at all. I didn’t feel that at all. I went to Howard and there were 10,000 black folks there and there were black folks of all stripes, of all kinds. I didn’t really find it too hard to find other black people like me. So I never had any sort of notion of blackness as being tied to not valuing intelligent things. That didn’t really exist for me.
In that way it gave me a sort of safety, because I think when I went out into the world as a writer, um…. I don’t know how to say this. It’s like it’s one thing if something racist happens to you when you’re a child, right? Like a lot of my peers who are writers, my wife is the same way – they were “only-ies” in their school, like they were the only black kid in their AP program or their gifted program or their talented program. They were distinguished because they were black and intelligent, okay? I was never distinguished because I was black and intelligent. I don’t have that as an experience at all. You definitely can’t have that as an experience at Howard; everybody is black and intelligent there. It doesn’t really mean anything to be black and intelligent, there’s nothing singular about that, you’re not original, you don’t have anything particular. So I never had that as a burden, right? I didn’t come into contact with that until much, much later in my life and I think by then I was really, really steeled to that and I think part of the steeling was going to a place where that just wasn’t the case.
I was speaking with Sanford Biggers, the artist, and he said how his sister went to Harvard and that she always felt that people were like, “Oh you went to Harvard and you’re black,” like people were questioning her, like she only got in because she was black.
Yeah nobody reacts to you like that when you go to Howard.
Yeah, so Sanford didn’t want the experience that his sister had, which is why he chose to go to Morehouse. Was your decision to go to Howard motivated similarly?
No, cause I didn’t know anybody – like I didn’t know black people who went to Harvard or Yale or anything, like I didn’t even know anyone who did anything like that. I didn’t know people who did things like that, I didn’t know what their lives where like. It was so abstract to me whereas Howard was something I knew. My dad worked over there and everyone in my family who was middle-class went to historically black colleges. I only had an abstract conception of what the “white world” was. There was no direct tie in my life to that.
Did you begin to write seriously in college?
Yeah that was about the time I started writing poetry. I started late in high school and continued into college. Most of that stuff reflected my really simplistic quasi-black nationalist politics. You know, a lot of sister Nubian queen stuff… I recall a “Kill Whitey” poem. “Kill Whitey” poetry is like, “Uh, well I don’t know anything but I know I’m angry at white people so…” A lot of dumb stuff like that.
One of the cool things was that there was a literary tradition at Howard. There were writers that went there; Toni Morrison went to Howard, Zora Neale Hurston went to Howard. So again, it wasn’t this situation where you can just walk in and say, “Hey, I’m black and I write.” Nah, that ain’t special, that’s already been done, plenty of people did that. So there were people there who critiqued that sort of thing, they said, “Man you ain’t really saying nothing.”
That was probably a really good thing.
Oh yeah, it was excellent. You couldn’t write these people off and say, “You only saying that ‘cause you white.” You couldn’t really disqualify them, you really didn’t have a crutch to lean on. They were saying ‘cause they knew, they knew more about black literature than you did. So they were more than equipped to tell you why you weren’t really talking about nothing and why what you were writing wasn’t very good.
It was a great place to get disabused of things and of notions that you would’ve had going in. It just takes the racial element right out of it. You could never say these people are saying something to you because they don’t understand where you’re coming from. They know exactly where you’re coming from. They know more about where you’re coming from than you do.
You were writing poetry but you also started to become interested in journalism, right? You dropped out of Howard to work as a journalist?
I started writing journalism while I was at Howard. I started writing for the school newspaper and then I started writing for the alternative paper in the city. After doing that for about a year or two… See, I kind of knew even when I got to Howard that I didn’t really belong in college. I wasn’t very good at school and I probably wasn’t going to be good at school. I knew that but I didn’t really want to accept what that meant, so I kept going.
Once I started working for the city paper it became clear that I actually could do something, that all this reading and all this curiosity that I had had all these years actually had some application somewhere. Wow, who knew? That was like a revelation. At that point I said, “This is clearly where I belong.” And it took about two more years before I said, “It’s really, really time to go.” In between that I was off-and-on, I would leave for a little while and the come back, I went back and forth.
How did your parents feel about that? Were they stressed out that you were going to leave school?
Yeah, they hated it, everybody hated it. Nobody liked it, nobody said, “This is a great idea Ta-Nehisi.”
But you were convinced that it was?
Yeah, I just didn’t – at that point what I remember is that I knew that I wanted to be a writer and it was not at all clear to me that by staying in school I was gonna become a better writer. I couldn’t see the point. I was bad at it (school) and not only was I bad at it, but it wasn’t going to help me get to where I wanted to go.
Didn’t it scare you in some way – the way society is set up now, a college degree is a basic prerequisite to do anything?
You’re right, but again, going back to what I was saying earlier, I had never really been good at anything. I had a great degree of failure in my life and so what? I was going to risk more failure so, you know, “Alright, fine.”
That’s a pretty gutsy move, especially when your whole community and family is telling you “Don’t do that. Stay in school.”
I wanted to be good at writing, that was all I had and that was all I could really think about.
What was your first move when you left college? What did you do?
I kept writing for the city paper and I started freelancing.
And where were you living? Did you move back home?
No I had a place by then. I was living in D.C. in a small efficiency. I kept living there and I tried to freelance a little bit. I just kept writing, I just kept writing.
Shortly after I left, maybe a year or two after I left college, the young lady who I was seeing at the time – my current wife – became pregnant. I would’ve been 23 or 24 when that happened. So that was a big shift, but it actually didn’t make me say, “Oh now you should go back to college and get a regular job,” you know? What it made me say was, “Well, you really better be good at this writing thing.”
Because now it’s not just you taking the risk anymore.
That’s right, that’s right. So talking about other things that I think really helped me in terms of my writing, it was really my son because I didn’t spend a lot of time in my twenties doing the sort of things that twenty-year-olds usually do. I did go out and have a good time and all that but when somebody else is at stake, when you have a family at that age, it ages you. I think especially for young men, you’re willing to do dumb things that endanger you but once you’ve got a family it becomes a lot harder to do dumb things that will endanger them. Because if something happens to you, that somehow has an effect on them. You have to decide who you’re going to be in that situation. So all of this kind of set into me really taking my writing more seriously.
When you said you were trying to freelance, did you just sort of cold pitch places?
Yes I did, I cold-pitched, you’re exactly right. I cold-pitched everywhere and got nowhere. Sometimes I would have a name but that didn’t make any difference, none of that did anything.
It’s a tough thing because what I realized later was that this (industry) is totally about who you know. There are actually too many good ideas in the world. There are a lot of bad ideas, don’t get me wrong, but even then there are not enough front pages for all the good ideas. What makes the different is having a relationship with people. I had no relationship with anyone at that point, so it was tough, it was really, really tough. I got a couple of breaks. I did a horrible job at this alternative paper in Philly, just a really awful job.
Why was it so awful?
I don’t think they knew what they wanted to do and I don’t think they knew why I was there or that I was quite clear on why I was there. I didn’t really have guidance, you know what I mean?
What were you hired to do?
I was hired to write a lot of assignments I wasn’t stimulated by. I can remember the last assignment before I got fired that I got chewed out about. You had to write about your cubicle and I was like, “I couldn’t care less.” I think I had that job for about 5 or 6 months and I basically got fired. My son was two months old when it happened.
Had you moved down to Philly with the whole family?
Well she (his wife) was working at a newspaper in Delaware which was a 30 minute commute so I moved up to Delaware. At the time she was at home on leave and it had been a really, really difficult pregnancy, she had almost died, she had congestive heart failure, it was really bad.
Oh my gosh! That’s awful.
Yeah it was pretty bad. It’s interesting hearing you react to that because in the moment this was not my reaction.
No, I think I…. So I talked about growing up in Baltimore, right? There was a great degree of violence in the city that I was exposed to and involved with, was a victim of, etc. And one thing about violence is that it doesn’t do you well to think too much about it. You just try to move on and get through it. I was really trying to get through it and I don’t think I thought too much about how horrible it was. I know I didn’t because the day I got fired I came home and I was like, “Alright we should move to New York,” because we had been thinking about it. So Kenyatta, who was not my wife at the time – we only got married like two years ago though we were deeply committed to each other – she started at a copyediting job in New York. She got the job first so for two or three months she actually commuted to New York. Sometimes she would stay the week up there with friends and come back on the weekend.
That must’ve been so difficult with a two-month old.
Yeah, I was taking care of the kid at that point.
You were home with your son, were you also looking for writing gigs?
I was. I was writing for The Washington Monthly mostly and almost basically writing for free. They paid 10 cents a word; you weren’t there to get paid. I will say this: that aside, it was a great place to be. I think what writers need more than anything is a field to practice on and I had a field to practice on there.
Did you have other jobs at the same time?
When Kenyatta first got pregnant, and I was in D.C., I delivered food, like a delivery guy. When we finally moved up to New York, after a year of just being in utter depression, I started doing that again, I was a food delivery guy for a while. That was actually a decent job. I would do my bagel and coffee in the morning, I would just sit in the car and put on sports talk radio and, you know, just sort of drive around the city delivering food. It was pretty good.
At least you didn’t have to be on a bike. The bike delivery guys in the New York, that seems like…
No, no that’s rough, I didn’t do that. I had a car, it was like a corporate thing, mostly hospitals, that sort of thing. And that was really how I learned the geography of New York. You drove everywhere; you drove into Manhattan, Queens, deep out into Brooklyn, and it was fascinating.
At the same time I was still writing. The Village Voice had this minority fellowship and I got that gig. I was so excited because this was something quasi-stable, a little bit of money. The first day I got there, I went in to talk to this woman about the job and I remember telling someone, “I’m here to see such-and-such person,” and they phoned up and I sat down and must’ve sat there for an hour and nobody came to get me.
Then the security guard, he must’ve felt some pity for me, he said “Yeah I’m sorry man.” So I went home and emailed the woman again and said this is what happened and she said, “Oh I’m so sorry, I got caught up in this meeting da-da-da-dah, will you come back tomorrow?” I remember being angry about that, right? I thought it was really disrespectful and I called two of my friends, one of whom was my first editor, David Carr – he’s at the New York Times now – and I was really angry and I said, “This happened; why the hell do I have to go back?” and he said, “ ‘Cause you do. You just do. Eat shit. Move on. Do what you have to do. At this point you’re a kid; keep going.” So I went back and she stood me up again.
I sat there, yeah, and she said again, “I’m sorry,” and I called them again and I said, “Can you believe this shit happened?” and he (David Carr) said, “Yeah, that’s what happens here. Sorry, it does not sound that unusual to me. Go back again. This could be your key to something.” And I went back again and she did show up this time. So I started working there (The Village Voice) as a minority fellow.
After that was over I freelanced regularly for them and at the end of the year I got hired. That lasted about a year. But The Village Voice at that point had become a kind of toxic place. There’s a generation of writers who had been really, really prominent in the 60s and 70s and they had a great degree of capital built up. My experience was that the paper seemed to be trying to move them out and in trying to move them out, it got nasty between them, right? And the nastiness between them bled over into how everyone was dealt with. So like I said, it was a toxic environment. At that point they weren’t really investing in bringing in new blood. There was no sort of, you know, actual plan to move forward and it was nasty place. It was a really, really nasty place socially. I would try to come in there and keep my head down and I was not ultimately very successful at that but I really tried to do it, I really tried to do it.
At the end of that gig they came up with this idea; the idea was they wanted a column about black males and they wanted it to run weekly and they wanted me to write that column and I went home and I told my wife, “If I take that gig that will be the end of my career as a writer, you can just forget it because it’s a horrible idea and my writing – I won’t make that good, it will make me bad, that’s what’ll happen.”
It’s the opposite of what you were describing from your experience at Howard, where it’s not about being a black writer, it’s about being a writer.
Yeah, and it felt like the opposite of what I do right now. Even though I write about race a lot people don’t understand the difference of you being interested in writing about race and someone saying that’s what you do. So anyway, I came in a couple of days later and… I should back up a little bit. Preceding that – I didn’t want to tell this story but I think I probably should.
The story was: the Voice had this column “Press Clips” and “Press Clips” was really important to them and I didn’t quite understand why. Nevertheless, they fired the person who wrote it – as they often did without a plan – and, you know, they didn’t have anybody else to write it so they asked me to write it. So I did this and I would not by any measure say that I was particularly good at it. In fact, I hoped to only do it for a little while and then go on to something else. Whatever. I was worried about my kid, that’s what I was thinking about. So I did that. And here I was out to eat lunch with somebody one day, somebody close to me, and they said, “Hey this Press Clips thing, this is your beat, right?” And I said “Yeah,” and they said, “Well you know I hear that they’re interviewing people for that job,” and I thought, “Jesus, they actually assigned this to me but then they’re trying to shop it around at the same time.”
They admitted they were doing that and that it was absolutely horrible and that they shouldn’t have done it and – how do I say this? That gave me a sense of where I was working, like now I knew where I was working and what I was working with. So when this whole thing about black males happened – I just thought, you know, part of writing is that you have to able to trust people and you have to believe that not only are they looking out for the product’s interest but they’re looking out for your interests. And it became pretty clear to me that that would not happen. So, I left. And I left without any sort of anything, without any gig lined up, without any sense of where I might go, what might happen. I didn’t have any of that.
My wife was not like, “Man you gotta have have something.” She said, “Okay, you said you gotta leave, you gotta leave then.” She totally, totally supported it. So I left.
But the good thing is that by then I had begun to write for some other people so by then, you know, I was a writer. I had a few contacts, not a lot, but I had a few. I went to TIME magazine. And a few months after I got to TIME they had layoffs.
And they have been having layoffs every year since. I didn’t get laid off then but the next round that they had was about a year and a half later and I did get laid off. And at that point I was like, “somebody must be sending me a message.” I knew I was gonna write, I just thought maybe I’d have to make my career doing something else. So I wanted to be a cab driver, that’s what I really wanted to do.
Yeah. My wife was like, “You can’t do that.”
The good news was that when I left TIME, I had been working on this little story about Bill Cosby and the most upsetting thing about getting laid off was the notion that that story was gonna die. I was so sad about that. And the good news was that my old editor, David Carr, had this contact at The Atlantic and I had this story and I really, really wanted this story to come out and lo and behold they said yes. That would’ve been 2007 and I have not looked back since.
That’s a pretty great place to sort of stumble into, right? The Atlantic, that’s a good home for a writer.
Yeah, it’s a great home. No matter what happens from here on in, I just feel like I will always owe them. There’s no question about that at all.
They didn’t just take the story; they took the story and they took it at great length, like 6,000 words or even 8,000 words, which is looooong. Really, really long. But it was the sort of long writing I had come into the business doing when I was at the city paper. They didn’t just take it, they said, “You gotta do what you do. Go do what you think you should do.” It had been, like, 10 years since somebody had said something like that to me.
That must’ve been incredible.
It was but it was also deeply scary while I was working on it. Because at the same time I was writing my first book and I just remember thinking, “If this don’t amount to nothing then I really got to find some other way because this is it right here.” You know? Somebody says, “You go do you, you do what you think you can do,” and if nothing comes of it then that’s who you are, you know? This was the moment when I knew, “Okay, this article and the book are really going to be unvarnished me and if it don’t move nobody then, okay, that’s what it is.” I would’ve kept writing but, again, it would’ve gone on that list of things I was not very good at.
So terrifying, so much at stake.
Yeah, yeah, but it worked out.
While you were freelancing, what was life like?
We lived in Brooklyn for a year and then we moved to Harlem and we lived in Harlem basically for about six years, from 2004 to 2010. At 131st and Lenox Ave., which I loved. I really, really loved Harlem. It was everything I loved about, you know, African-American communities but it was multiplied by ten.
What was life like? Life was like a struggle. I mean, life was always a struggle but it was so fast, everything was so fast. There would be all these moments where we thought we were about to have to leave the city and something would happen… and I can remember thinking, like we could just fail, we could just fail and we would know who we were, we were failures and that would be okay. We could accept that we’re failures. But during that time there was no immediate verdict on anything, you know? There were always opportunities whispering out there in the wind but no assurance that any of that stuff was going to work out.
And then we got this kid! This is how he grew up! This is how he grew up, you know, and I think about that. I think, “Man, you came up in this.” Wow. It’s not like coming up in poverty or anything like that, but coming up in a really chaotic environment where your parents are growing up with you. I came to New York and I realized that when you’re a parent in your twenties, you are like a teen parent basically.
It was wild, it was wild.
And looking back at that time, is there something that you think that you would tell your twenty-something self that you think it would’ve benefited you to know?
No, no, nobody can tell you about getting punched in the face, you gotta get punched in the face.
You just have to let it happen?
Yeah I think so. I think all of it really needed to happen.
And would you give any advice to young writers who are struggling to sort of get their bearings?
Yes: keep going, keep going, don’t quit. Failure has a lot more to do with who quits than it does with who has talent.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Liz Lynch