Bomani Jones Interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates for Playboy
Making the case that the United States government owes black people for what it has done to them is an unlikely way to become a household name, but that’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates did two years ago. “The Case for Reparations” was the cover story of the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, and the publication says the piece brought more unique visitors to its site in a single day than any other magazine story it had ever run. Coates’s thorough defense of a revolutionary idea became a star turn. ¶ Then came Between the World and Me, a 176-page essay that doubles as a letter to his now 15-year-old son. In it, Coates covers police brutality, spirituality and coming-of-age in ways that capture how much has and hasn’t changed since his adolescence.
Focusing on all the things that threaten black bodies and the fear produced by that condition, he soberly reports on the struggles inextricably linked to blackness, trading the traditional tale of freedom and redemption for one supported by history instead of hope. The book was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, yielding its author a National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship and ending up as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Coates went from simply being critically acclaimed to being compared to James Baldwin by no less an authority than Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.
He’s as shocked by all this as anyone else. A Kanye-esque college dropout sharing stages with some of the world’s preeminent scholars just six years after losing three jobs in seven years? That would be enough to drive the average intellectual past the point of hubris. But not Coates, who seems unable to process his current success without keeping an intimate acquaintance with tougher times.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was born on September 30, 1975 in Baltimore and grew up on the west side of the city, the part of town made famous by HBO’s The Wire. His first book, The Beautiful Struggle, tells the story of his upbringing, the product of a pan-African resistance to the toxicity of the 1980s—both the political rhetoric and the poison flooding the streets. After struggling through high school, Coates went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where his father worked as a librarian. Although bright and well-read, the teacher’s son wasn’t a good student, and he left to pursue a career in journalism.
He bounced from job to job—fired from Philadelphia Weekly, “basically forced out” of The Village Voice, laid off from Time (nine years later he would appear on the Time 100 list)—before landing at The Atlantic in 2008, initially as a blogger. His posts were pointed, precise and parsimonious. The only side he consistently took was the one born of logic. He called out Barack Obama for his sweeping critiques of black America the same way he responded to similar sentiments from the right. He matter-of-factly confronted questions of race, rejecting optimistic narratives and basing his conclusions on centuries of irrefutable American history. That work helped build trust and a following that made “The Case for Reparations” possible, which led to Ta-Nehisi Coates becoming more prominent than he thinks he should be.
He’s thirsty for challenges. That’s why he agreed to write a series of Black Panther comics for Marvel and why he currently lives in Paris. His approach is self-assured but short on delusion, qualities reflected in his demeanor as well as his work.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones met Coates at a café in Paris’s third arrondissement, across the street from the apartment he shares with his wife and son. They talked over dinner and resumed the conversation the next morning at a Latin Quarter hotel. “He’s uncommonly warm and gracious when he’s comfortable, with a big laugh and frequent smile,” Jones says. “Some of that faded when he talked about harder times, but discomfort never stopped him from saying what he felt. He’s similar in person to how he comes across on the page: honest, measured and emotive—and as brilliant as most of us think he is, which is more than he thinks of himself.”
When did you realize you had become somebody?
When I came to The Atlantic I’d been writing for 12 years. The Atlantic is seen as this arbiter of sophisticated ideas, well ensconced in the mainstream consensus, and then they bring in this dude. I wasn’t making the case for reparations back then, but I was saying that sort of shit. I could see the reaction, and it built a little bit, and then when “The Case for Reparations” came out—holy shit. But even then it was like, “This is one story, and I’ll go back to my life.” I thought Between the World and Me would hit people who read shit. When we did BookExpo America, the book-trade joint, there was a line of people to get the galleys. I was like, “What the fuck?” And I knew it was some shit when somebody said to me on Twitter, “Oh, you’ve got to be a celebrity to get this book?” [laughs] Who the fuck wants a galley? And then when you’ve gotten love from Toni Morrison—it still didn’t hit me. When I started seeing the reaction to it I thought, Oh, this is different.
Having Toni Morrison compare you to James Baldwin sounds like a big deal.
Yeah, but when she said that, I feel like people misconstrued it. I felt her point was “It’s a space I felt I was looking for, a certain kind of analysis that I’m not getting, and I got it from this book—not from everything he’ll write after it, not from anything he wrote before. It’s just this book.” I mean, Baldwin is not just The Fire Next Time.
I took it as her saying “This dude might be the next Baldwin.” Do you often downplay your work?
The Baldwin thing, for me, was intentional. I love The Fire Next Time. You’ve got this essay in book form; dude is using journalism, using first person, the history, the literary criticism, all just kind of mashed together. He’s talking about the most essential conflict of his day. Now here we are in this era, and motherfuckers are uploading videos of people getting choked to death, beaten on the street, black president. This seems like the moment for that form. Where’s that book? My editor said to me, “The road is littered with motherfuckers who tried to do that.” My agent knew Baldwin. She said, “You just don’t come across as a Jimmy.” [laughs] But she said, “I think you can do it.” I tried the first time; it did not work. Second time, did not work. Third time—we’ve got something there.
What happened between the second and third drafts?
Between the second and third time, I literally printed out every page, went sentence by sentence and came up with a completely different structure. I assigned each paragraph to each heading where I thought it should belong, then I sat down and typed the whole thing out just to run it through the machine again. So it’s not that I’m downplaying it. It’s hard to step back and think about it as a finished thing. The fact of the matter is I’ve got to go do that again, and then again, and then again, and each time different. I’ve got to do some other shit now, and it’s got to be of that caliber. It might fail, and there’s no dishonor in failure.
Since the book has come out, what’s the biggest change you’ve noticed?
The book has given me and my family a level of financial security I never thought we would have and thus the freedom to go out and think, Okay, how are we really going to go out here and do this now? At the same time, I didn’t realize how much heat there was.
Some of that heat came from Cornel West, who basically said you were a neoliberal darling who wouldn’t criticize Obama. Others, including author bell hooks, suggested the book was written more for white people than for your son.
The book couldn’t have been out more than three days, and I saw this note. “Look, Cornel West is going after him.” It was on a Facebook post, and it was clear it had almost nothing to do with the book. Then bell hooks and Kevin Powell got together and went after the book with some bullshit. It was like all the people I was reading in the 1990s were attacking the book. I was like, Damn, what the fuck is this?
You had become a figure.
Right. And so you lose yourself. They really are not talking about you. Glenn Loury was talking like, “Yeah, I only flipped through the first few pages, but this dude was bragging to his son about how he can find a gun.” I wrote to him and was like, “Dude, you need to read the book. I didn’t say none of that shit.” My elders got their knives out. I don’t want to say everybody, but people I’d really studied and learned from. It’s like, That’s what it is now?
Did any of the criticism hurt?
All of it hurt. I had criticized Cornel for going after Obama, but not in that sort of personal way. The bell hooks shit hurt because she was talking about my son. The Loury shit, that hurt. Eventually I figured out that they were aiming at the gaze of white folks. I didn’t account for how much that shit controls everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone somewhere and the question has been “What’s up with white people reading your book?” It alters everything. You’re talking about money right there. But I think on top of that it’s the prestige part. “Oh, you’re a MacArthur genius now?” Now people have to look at you a certain way and talk to you a certain way, and that has nothing to do with what you’re actually saying. People start shouting out your name and they ain’t even talking about you.
People start shouting out your name and they ain’t even talking about you.
White people are not just reading it but have also gotten behind it. Is that hard to comprehend?
It’s easy. The number of white people who read books is really small. I mean, what are we, a country of 300 million? Two hundred million white folks? They haven’t read Between the World and Me.Another thing: A lot of the shit people think is crazy is not crazy at all in academia. If you talk to historians or sociologists and ask, “Is racism one of the most consistent themes in American history, without which you would have trouble conceiving of the country at all?” they say, “Hell, yeah. I would go further than that.” Is this country reading its own historians? It was really radical in my folks’ home, and I thought some of that shit was crazy. Then I started reading these historians. A lot of it wasn’t crazy, and a lot of it was true. There are enough “elite” people in academia who can provide the evidence for it. You might not like how it sounds, but the consensus in academia is pretty clear. When I saw that? I ain’t got to fight you with what’s on 125th. I can fight you with your own people. That’s Harvard and Yale. I’ve got your history department. Like that great Chuck D line, “You check out the books they own.”
Did you get any pushback from people who’d worked on reparations for years about you becoming the face of that movement?
By and large people were extremely excited to see this taken seriously. This is what my pops and that generation fought for. This is what was supposed to happen. This is the fruit. The 1960s and 1970s, a lot of the shit they were saying, it’s like a scientist who intuitively feels himself to be correct but doesn’t have the science. “Everything I know about this tells me it’s that way. I ain’t got the scholarship, but I know what direction it’s supposed to go.” For the next generation, folks like us, we went off to school, read some things. I was able to bring to bear tools they didn’t necessarily have. And it was like, “Everything you thought was intuitively correct? I got it now. You used to say this whole thing was built on slavery—got it. Footnoting and everything, we got it.” How many black folks wanted to do something like this but just couldn’t?
How was it growing up as a pan-African in the 1980s and 1990s?
I’ve always felt black, but I always felt a little outside that real black shit. “Come on, man, we don’t celebrate Christmas, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, we don’t go to church.” Really? That’s what we’re doing now? It became cool when I was 13, when Public Enemy came out.
And you had to carry that name.
Oh my God, that was the worst. I’m like, “Can I just get a normal name?” And then I went out in the world and realized this was a normal name. [laughs] I had a crush on a girl whose name was Mwaneisha. I knew plenty of girls with names like that. What was I supposed to say about that, you know?
Does the class difference between how you grew up and how your son is growing up ever worry you?
No. I feel like I learned certain stuff the way I grew up, and those things helped me later. But the amount of violence in black communities is just off the hook, so I think it’s a net negative. You’ve got to put it on balance. I think everybody who goes through that says, “Well, I’m gonna toughen him up.” See, these white folks ain’t got to be tough. Tough is for people without money.
Is there anything related to race that you once believed and now look back on and say, “What was I thinking?”
Yeah, there are crazy things that I believed. That whole iceman thing was total bullshit.
I take it you’re talking about Michael Bradley’s book The Iceman Inheritance,which attributes white racism to, among other things, sexual maladaptation in Caucasians.
See, these motherfuckers believe shit now and argue on it. I’ve had these fights with Andrew Sullivan about IQ. That’s his iceman. There’s no science behind this shit. But see, you’ve got institutions and guns behind it, right? You’ve got a whole power structure behind it that allows them to stand on the crazy shit I could not go out on. When I went to Howard they were like, “Ain’t no way you’re going to leave here talking that shit.” These motherfuckers get to go to Harvard and come out talking that shit. Charles Murray did this bubble study. Did you see that shit?
I did not.
How to determine whether you live in a bubble or not. It’s totally based on white people. No black person would take that study and have it tell them anything about their life. This motherfucker got the backing of Washington. These motherfuckers just get to spout crazy. This cat Marty Peretz, who used to run The New Republic, was an active racist and bigot spouting the worst poison in the world. This guy is in high reaches of society, getting degrees from Harvard. My pops said this shit to me one time: “The African’s right to be wrong is sacred.” When we’re wrong, it’s craziness, but when they’re wrong, it’s…Harvard.
In your back-and-forths with Sullivan and Jonathan Chait, they seemed to be wondering what was wrong with you. What was your thought when people said you seemed down, when you believed you were dealing in facts?
That’s what they say when they can’t fight you. They abandon the whole thought of any sort of empirical, historical, evidence-based argument, and they say, “Well, I don’t like where you’re coming from.” It’s like if I tell you I have empirical evidence that the world is going to end in five days and you’re like, “I don’t like how that sounds. Why are you bumming me out?” That’s something people apply to the dialogue around racism but they don’t apply to other shit. Kathryn Schulz won a Pulitzer Prize for this incredible piece that basically says the Pacific Northwest is going to get hit by a huge tsunami that will kill a lot of people. It’s the most pessimistic, dire shit you’d ever want to read. What if they said to Schulz, “You could sing us a song”? When people can’t fight you, they say, “Why are you so pessimistic?” It’s a different question than “Are you correct?”
You also wrote in the book about being an atheist. Did you have any reservations about sharing that?
No. I don’t know why either.
I mean, you could say you worship a different god in America.
Right, you can be spiritual. It’s difficult to explain my perspective in that book without talking about atheism. So much of the black perspective is built on this notion of transcendent spiritual victory, and I had to explain why I was estranged from that. You know what I mean? How I’m going to get around that. I’ve got to tell them; otherwise, it’s not going to be true. There’s another question: Why are all these black church people reading Between the World and Me? I mean, people are teaching the book in church. That I did not expect.
Do you worry about going further than your audience is ready to go?
No, because I wrote for 12 years and had no audience. I’m prepared for it to go. I loved writing before this and I will love writing after this. I loved it when it made no money. I love it now that it makes more money. I will love it when it goes back to making no money again. It’s not for that. And the minute you let them take it from you, the minute it becomes for them, you are lost.
How good do you think you are at writing?
I’m a good writer. I think there are very few people who can do journalism, do history, form an argument, an argument with a brain, and then write in such a way that it gets at your heart also. I’m thinking about Isabel Wilkerson. I think of Nikole Hannah-Jones. I think Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker is really good at that. I’m talking about making an argument that’s simple, with all this evidence, and writing about it in a beautiful way. There are very few people who can do all of it at the same time, and that’s because very few people actually try.
Coming up on hip-hop really taught me the beauty of poetry. Reading comic books taught me the beauty of poetry. Studying poetry after that, I had this obsession with how language sounded. Coming out of my household and being a history major at Howard gave me a deep appreciation for history. Working under David Carr as a journalist gave me a deep appreciation for actually going out and talking to people. So I had a variety of experiences, but it’s not mystical. It’s not in the genes or in the bones.
You’ve said that when you look at yourself in the mirror you see a guy who got fired three times. Do you think there will ever be a point when you’ll look in the mirror and see the dude who changed the game with Between the World and Me?
No, because that remains to be seen. And the game could get changed back. Listen, I went and started this damn comic book, Black Panther, and it’s like, Oh yeah, this is hard. Things don’t just flow out of your brain. It’s not like, Hey, I’m brilliant. Show up, paper right here,bam, another banger. No—you sit and you struggle with yourself and you stop cutting your hair. I’m not cutting my hair right now. You stop shaving, like I’m not shaving right now. You remember that you can fail. I’ve failed several times. The fact that everybody else don’t see that don’t give me the right to not see it.
Did you think when you said you were voting for Bernie Sanders that it would turn into a de facto endorsement?
No, I didn’t see that coming at all. [laughs] I’ve got to be more self-aware. But after that, it became really hard to write about the election. I damn near can’t write anything without people being like, “Oh, this dude is weighing in.” I don’t know why people say, “You’re voting for Bernie Sanders; that enforces my vote for him.” You need to think for yourself.
Has being in France changed the way you view yourself as an American?
France was the first place where that was the first thing people saw when I talked. It reminds me that the first thing they think in America is, Oh, you’re black. Here, the first thing they think is, You’re American, maybe black American. They’re racist as hell, but the sociology that comes out of slavery is a little different from the sociology that comes out of colonialism. France colonized all sorts of people—Asian people, black people, whoever. So the relationship is a little different. It’s not a good relationship. But America has a very specific thing with black people. Here, the people who get it the worst are actually the Muslims, so it’s not like they’re cured. But slavery did something to America; it did some shit.
Are you looking forward to going back to the States?
Yeah. And then coming back here. [laughs]
What do you miss?
My friends, mostly. My friends and my family.
Nothing particular to the country?
The country is the people to me, and I miss the people. There are things I don’t have here that are very different but that I don’t miss. I don’t know if you’ll see this over the next few days or whether you’ve seen it already, but America is a much freer place. France is actually maybe a culturally more conservative place. “We ain’t open on Sunday. Deal with it. Period.” In America, somebody’s trying to make some money; somebody’s always saying, “I’m open over here. What’s up?” You know, my butcher ain’t open on Monday. And during the week he shuts down from 12 to three. He works, like, 20 hours the whole week.
I want the notion of there having to be “the voice” for black folks completely obliterated.
What role does hip-hop play in your work?
I always considered myself a failed MC. That was what I really wanted to do. I was listening to that old Quincy Jones album Back on the Block. Big Daddy Kane says, “Back up and give the brother room to let poetry bloom to whom it might concern or consume.” I heard that and thought, Good God, there’s so much in that. It’s the kind of faux majesty of it, “to whom.” It’s actually really regal. I heard something like that as a kid, and it was like these cats were taking the language from its inventors and retrofitting it to explain their reality. Nas didn’t need to go to Harvard, or even Howard, to become masterful in the use of language. I think great rappers, because of how stuff is structured, really understand on an intuitive level how to get across as much information as possible in the smallest amount of space.
In terms of literary inspirations, hip-hop’s got to be number one, and I’m talking above actual literature. Aesthetically, it defines how I try to write. You really have to think hard about every single word. Probably a hundred years from now people will look back on something like Illmatic, some of that Wu-Tang stuff, some of the Kendrick stuff, some of the other stuff, and they’re just going to be like, “Holy hell.” You’re talking some of the greatest wordsmiths of our age.
Have you been able to impart some of that to your son?
My son is doing it for me now. I did when he was younger, but music requires the time to actually dig, you know what I’m saying? He has always been open to stuff I play, but now he’s the one who tells me, “Yo, you should check this out.” He got me on the new Rihanna album. He’s like, “Man, you really would like this.”
So you trust his taste in music.
He has great taste in music. I don’t know if it’s because I was relatively young when he was born—I was 24—but I don’t have that whole “Cut that off! I’m going to show you how we used to do it back in the day!” I took him to this foreign-language camp about a summer ago, and one of my great memories is just listening to his music all the way up there. It was good stuff too.
How is learning French going?
It’s always hard. I’m in my fourth year of studying, and I think I speak like a four-year-old child, which is progress. My first summer here I actually took classes, and at the end I was like, I think I have some sort of brain injury. Coming back, it was a lot easier. I’ve had to go out and talk about the book. I can generally understand the questions from the person who’s giving them to me, but I usually have the answers translated. And sometimes I actually give the answer in French.
That has to be humbling.
I think I seek out difficulty. At this point, when people are handing you things and giving you all these accolades, and you go somewhere and they’re basically, “Who are you? You can’t even talk to us.” You know what I mean? Like, “You really ain’t shit.” It takes it back. I need that in my life.
With these recurring themes in history, how do you avoid writing about the same thing over and over?
You just don’t write. I’ve been trying for the past two weeks to write about the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act without rewriting. I wrote “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” back in October, and then when Bill Clinton went crazy——
When he was trying to defend his crime bill to Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia earlier this year?
Yeah. I was sitting there trying to write, and I got about three paragraphs in and was like, this is deceptive. It’s just saying the same shit. You said it, and either they heard you or they didn’t. It’s not up to you.
Does the fact that these things keep happening make you question the utility of your work?
No, because you have no control over that. Ida B. Wells went all through the South, reporting on lynchings and everything. Nothing changed, not in her lifetime. If nothing ever changes, that does not relieve me of the responsibility to tell the truth as I see it.
Some would make the argument that you have become the voice on these issues. How does that make you feel?
It makes me sad that people don’t read more black writers. I want the notion of there having to be “the voice” for black folks completely obliterated. There is no one voice on climate change. There’s no one person on sports. I think that allows for a kind of laziness among nonblack people who don’t want to read other people’s shit. It saves them from having to compare me with other writers who are not black. It allows them to say, “You’re king of the blacks over here.” The journalism I’m making stands up with any of these white folks you want to put up. If you want to have a conversation about where I stand in my field, we can talk about that. I’m black, very proud to be black, standing within the tradition of other black writers. That’s my culture, that’s my ethnicity, that’s my struggle, that’s my tradition, that’s my literature, but don’t use that as an excuse not to explore that tradition.
Are you comfortable with being thought of as perhaps the best voice on these issues?
No, because when people say that, they are often unqualified. Very few black people say that to me. Why do we think about black folks like this? I’m practicing a craft, and if you want to talk about best, compare me to other craftsmen. I’m interested in a particular question, but why would you compare me only to other people who are interested only in that question?
When was the last time somebody important to you fundamentally disagreed with something you’d written or done?
I wrote a column defending the use of the word nigger, and my buddy Ben and his wife, Janai—they’re mentioned in the book—were like, “It’s total bullshit.”
Why is that the thing that gets people so charged up?
The nigger thing? I understand if you’re black and you say, “Man, I had white people call me this shit all my life. They called me this shit when they hit me upside the head, and I don’t want to hear it.” I understand that. But that ain’t everybody’s experience. I’ve never had a white person call me a nigger. I had somebody call me le négre here in France, but I was 38 years old and I couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t mean anything. So not all of us come out of that experience.
How would you describe the eight years of Obama’s presidency?
I think he did a tremendous job, and I say that with all my criticism of how he talks about black folks and how he talks to black folks. I say that with all my criticism of the morality or the lack of morality in terms of drone warfare. You’re not voting for a civil rights leader; you’re voting for a president of the United States within the boundaries of what presidents do. And within the boundaries of what presidents do, he’s easily the greatest president in my lifetime. I don’t think people understand what he had to navigate. It’s a hard job already. You’ve got people on TV—and this is just the small end of it—on the internet, everywhere, sending out pictures of you and your wife looking like apes. You’ve got officials in the opposing party e-mailing pictures of watermelon patches in front of the White House. You have an opposition party where somewhere on the order of 50 or 60 percent don’t think you are legally president. You’re giving the State of the Union address and some white dude from South Carolina stands up and yells, “You lie.” Just open, blatant disrespect. You say the most sensible things in the world and people lose their mind, almost scuttling your top agenda in terms of legislation. You’ve got to be a certain motherfucker to be able to manage all that in your head. Their leading presidential candidate right now is the person who claimed our president was born somewhere else and asked to see his grades. You’re dealing with a party where racism is a significant undercurrent. I mean, whew.
Were you surprised by the level of obstruction?
I was surprised by how much his very presence drew out the racism in the country. I didn’t know these folks were basically going to double down. There’s stuff we don’t even remember. In the 2012 Republican primary, Newt Gingrich just comes out and calls this dude a food-stamp president. I mean, just says it. This is a respectable figure in American politics right now. Five years from now, people will be looking back on this presidency and talking about how great the times were. Ten years from now, Republicans will be talking about how whoever is the Democratic nominee at that point is not like Obama and how magisterial Obama was. Twenty-five, 30 years from now, they’re going to put his face on the money, if we still have money. And 50 years from now—it might not even take that long—he will be considered one of the greatest presidents in American history.
Did you have to reconcile what you wanted Obama to be with what he turned out to be?
No. I think my politics are significantly more radical than that of most people in the black community. That the first black president would not have my politics or my way of addressing folks is not particularly surprising to me. That does not relieve me of my responsibility to say, “This is wrong and here’s why.” But I understand where he’s coming from. I think Obama loves black people. I think he likes being black. Is it a mistake that he’s attracted to Chicago—for my money, the capital of black America—and participates within the institutions there? That he married a woman who is from there and lives there? I don’t think you do any of that without having a sincere affection for black folks. You can feel somebody has a sincere appreciation for black folks and just think they’re dead wrong.
What’s the importance to you of having a black family in the White House?
That shit replaced The Cosby Show, didn’t it? I think it’s important, because culture is important. If having no black family there was important, then having one there is important. When you’re the most famous black folks in the country—I mean, I don’t want to fall too much into the romance of it, but imagery matters. That’s the most public picture of us for eight years. That has to have some impact on white people, and I’m talking about white children. Part of the way racism works is through imagery, through reinforcing certain ideas. It’s not policy, but symbols matter.
The women in your life don’t get mentioned much in your books. Is there a reason for that?
Well, the woman in my life is in the second book. She has her own life, and she deserves that. The book is dedicated to her. I would not be here without her. But she deserves her space. I don’t particularly enjoy all the attention, and I know just from talking to her that she would not enjoy it. To some extent, it’s the type of book that both those were. To another extent, I just don’t want to drag her into this.
So it’s protection as much as it is respect?
Or more respect than protection. I don’t know if she needs protection, but respect, yeah.
Tell me that I’m wrong, and that’s cool. I look for that. I still feel like a student.
Were you surprised by the discussion about the lack of women in Between the World and Me?
Not surprised. I wouldn’t change that about that book, though. That book is 176 pages. It is what it is. My view on art, though, is a little different from most people’s. When Girls first came out, there was this whole thing: “Why is Girlsso white?” I want Lena Dunham to make the show she wants to make; I just want other people to have the chance to make shows too. The problem is not that Lena Dunham’s world is totally white. That’s her world. She’s an artist. She’s not a policy maker. But there are other worlds too, and other people should have the opportunity to put those worlds on display. It’s the same forBetween the World and Me, and this takes it back to the whole thing of being the best or the most representative. A book can’t carry the entire weight of all the nuance and texture of the black community. It’s just one dude who not too long ago was on unemployment. What people need to do is read other folks. This is not the only African American memoir. There’s other stuff out there that should be explored.
What was unemployment like?
I was scared. I was scared for my son and, at that time, my girlfriend. I didn’t have anything else to offer the world, so this was going to be it. Either it was going to hit or it wasn’t, but this was what I was going to do. I had dropped out of school. I had no proof that I was capable of doing much else. I had been laid off from Time magazine. That was the third job I’d lost, and I was like, Maybe I don’t have it, but I have to do it; I don’t have anything else. So it was incredibly scary.
Dealing with your partner then, was it “You can do it!” or more like “So you know you’ve got to get a job, right?”
I wanted to drive a taxicab, but she was like, “I think you need to spend more time writing.” She’d say that over and over again. It was never “Go get a job.” I’m happy she was right. She had faith. “You’re going to go out and break the world. You just need to keep doing it.” She was right. That’s insane. I couldn’t see it.
Do you ever feel insecure when you’re around academics?
No, I just want to listen more. I wish they would stop asking me what I think. [laughs] No, I don’t feel insecure. They tell me I’m wrong and here’s why I’m wrong. I’ve had that before, and that’s cool. I look for that. I still feel like a student. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
In 25 years, how do you think we’ll remember the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think that depends on what happens. I think it has been pretty effective. This whole conversation about body cameras, retraining the New York Police Department, the way Ferguson went down and the report that came out, I think they’ve been tremendously effective. One of the reasons movements like that get criticized is they say, “Well, what are you about? What specific thing?” But you’ve seen specifics come out of this.
Why do you think this has happened at this time?
It’s totally the technology and the ability to get people assembled relatively quickly. It’s not original in the sense that, in large part, the civil rights movement was very much a product of TV cameras and photography. So it’s not totally surprising or unprecedented.
How do you feel about the way the presidential candidates have dealt with that movement?
They know it about as well as they can. I had high expectations for Bernie. I thought he would have known certain things. I don’t know how you’re a candidate on the left in the Democratic Party but not really competing for the black vote. You ain’t got to come out for reparations, but you’ve got to speak to these people who’ve lived their lives not just as colorless victims of Wall Street, because they’re black—not as some sort of accident but because of who they are. You’ve got to have some sort of facility with that, and I don’t think he does. I don’t think Bernie’s a bad person or doesn’t care about black people. I think you need staff around you to say, “Yo, when you go to South Carolina, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.” He just didn’t have that.
What do you think about Hillary Clinton?
I don’t know what’s going to happen under Hillary Clinton. Obviously she’s preferable to Donald Trump, and I don’t blame black folks who vote for her or support her. I get it. But I just don’t know. When I see her husband defending her use of the “superpredator,” come on. Talking about how the crime bill actually cut crime, come on. Stand back. Defending welfare reform at this hour? Here’s the thing that’s most damning for me: How do you take $600,000 from Goldman Sachs for speeches, knowing you’re going to run for president? Somebody says, “What were you doing?” and you say, “Well, that’s what they offered.” It’s a disturbing lack of personal judgment. So it scares me.
Is there anyone whose style you’d like to emulate?
Toni Morrison, because she doesn’t really talk. She does interviews, but she’s not, like, out there. People forget how viciously she was attacked in the 1980s, but at the end of the day, the work just stands for itself. Also, she has this kind of regalness.
I’d like to be quieter. I think I’d like to be quieter and let the work speak for itself.