January 12th, 2018

Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down for an interview with Dennis Young at Deadspin. Coates nailed the interview on the first question.

Dennis Young: Right at the beginning of your book, you talk about the Cosby article and how it was in some ways a “failure.” And daily blogging is great because you can fail all the time—you write again that day, or the next day. How has writing changed for you now that you can’t do that, that you can’t fail publicly now?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Oh, I think you still can. And I think you still will. I think all writers do. The only question is, are you gonna admit it or not? That’s the real difference. But you’re gonna fail. There’s just no way around that. I don’t know how one finishes their career and feels like “every piece of published writing I have is a success.” I do think it’s true that the writing that’s published in a book or in a magazine tends to be more finished, fact-checked, copy edited and all of that, but failure better be a part of your process if you’re trying to grow.

I have read the works of many writers who make me want to hide under a rock when I attempt to translate my thoughts into prose, but regardless of the esteem with which I hold these writers—Coates included—I recognize that while they will always soar closer to the light than I can dream, they are just as unlikely to reach that end as I am.

What Coates has to say about never being finished is also good:

You should never say you’re done with a question, you should never declare that you found the answer. I guess it’s true, I felt like certain things had been answered for me. But there are always other related questions that I maybe hadn’t taken into consideration when I wrote that.

When I was learning to paint in watercolors, I shared a few with my father who had a Fine Arts degree and was very good. He told me that he always hated water colors because you couldn’t fiddle with them.

When you’re painting in oils, the painting is never really finished. You can always take a palette knife to the canvas the next day are repaint a section. With watercolors, if you try to change something, you likely to just end up with mud.

I learned that lesson when I was writing on tight deadline for a publication that had three deadlines—0800, 1300 and 2100—each day. Often my editor would be standing over my typewriter (yes an actual clacking typewriter) ripping copy from the machine as I wrote. Meatball journalism has certain benefits that we miss in the age of laptops.

Because I’m struggling with writing a major African American character in my current novel, I paid particular attention to what Coates had to say about his own 19th century research:

Dennis Young: Do you think that instead of claiming power over black people being the animating force behind Trump’s election, it was power over Latinos?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t think those are in competition at all. The answer is yes! Yes to both. For instance, if you look at the history of white supremacy in this country, it has rarely been the case that it was singularly directed at black people to the exclusion of all other groups.

When Al Smith, a Catholic and the governor of New York, was running for president, when he goes down South [in 1928], what is he greeted with? He’s greeted with burning crosses, because he’s Catholic.

White supremacy has never been an either/or phenomenon. It’s never been like that. There have been different moments when different groups are more prominent. I think black people have been particularly prominent. But there have obviously been huge swaths of history where Native Americans were the primary [target].

What I think about black people in this country is I think the construction and idea of niggers is central to the idea of being white [Emphasis mine, JH]. If you completely took that out, you would have a really hard time defining “white.” Or “white” would have to be something totally different. Notice I don’t mean actually black people, but the construction of and the stereotypes that they put on black people. I think that’s central to being white. That doesn’t mean that those forces aren’t or can’t be directed at other people.

It’s very, very important that I be clear about this. That is not to diminish Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, for instance. It is certainly not to diminish the anti-Latino rhetoric. When I talk about the white supremacy of the Klan in Mississippi in the 1920s, it’s not to diminish their anti-Catholicism. This thing, man, it forms, and it shifts, and it moves around, and it takes different shapes. There was a piece just this Sunday in the New York Times on the alt-right and these racists, and how they love Asian women.

But what I would argue is, in general, and there are always exceptions, is the one element that you have always needed is the construct of the nigger. In America, that’s the one thing whiteness and white supremacy has not been able to do without. It has been essential to it.

Coates finishes up with his view on sexual harassment, violence and rape and how the conversation has taught him a little bit about what it might mean to White:

Dennis Young: I want to go back to what we were talking about with Diana’s work, with news of sexual harassment in sports reaching people it maybe wouldn’t otherwise. I just listened to the interview you did with Marc Maron, and you said that before Harvey Weinstein and everything that’s come after, you had no idea that it was like that. Why do you think you had no idea?

Ta-Nehisi Coasts: Why would I? When you’re in not just the protected class—by which I mean a class that’s not actually going through the thing which has happened, the oppression—but you’re actually in a class where you’re benefiting from it…You could say—I feel so white having this conversation. Like, I’ve learned what it means to be white. It’s about power, right? White people say “well, I didn’t do X, Y, and Z.” Okay, you didn’t do X, Y, and Z but I can give you all the ways in which you’re benefiting from the fact that X, Y, and Z happened.

So I think “well, I’ve never harassed anybody,” right? But I could also give you all the ways in which I benefit from a climate that makes harassment possible. I know it’s there. And I guess I was kind of aware of that, but if it doesn’t happen to you, if it’s not really happening around you, in your space, how would you know?

It probably was happening around you with women you know, right?

Okay, and I’ve heard that before. It wasn’t like I hadn’t had women around me say X, Y, and Z happened to me. But to understand it as a pervasive thing that is basically true and exerts influence throughout the workplace…that’s another thing.

There are plenty of white people who understand that there is racism in the world. Do they get that? Yes. One of their black friends says that the cops stopped them and did something—yeah, okay, okay, I get that. But that ain’t the same as seeing Eric Garner choked to death. That’s different. It’s not the same as seeing cops down in Ferguson in SWAT gear pointing at people saying “I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off,” on camera.

So that’s the equivalent of Jodi Kantor reporting on Harvey Weinstein pulling out his dick.

That’s exactly it. It’s not like if somebody told me “Hey, sexual harassment is a pervasive and huge problem,” I would have been like “No it’s not.” I would have said “Yeah, that’s probably true.” But to feel it, and to understand that it’s true, instead of saying that I suspect X, Y, and Z? Totally different.

And when you’re in the class with power, you gotta be an extraordinary person to see it that way. And I am not a particularly extraordinary man.

I get it a lot more now when white people come up to me with reactions to the work. I don’t know that I completely understood that before. I get the desire to say “not every white person.” One of the things I got right away was that that can’t be my response to anyone that I’m talking to, to say to any woman “Yeah, but I didn’t.”

This is what this is like. Okay, I get it now. I got the urge to say that, I understand like the guilt and the embarrassment. Even if you didn’t do X, Y, and Z, you’re still implicated in it. Because you are implicated in it ultimately.


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