Playboy Interview TA-Nehisi Coates
Playboy Africa|December 2020
A candid conversation with the public intellectual, comicbook writer and all-around brilliant American on rap, racism, reparations and more
Bomani Jones

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.”

PLAYBOY: When did you realize you had become somebody?

COATES: 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.

PLAYBOY: Having Toni Morrison compare you to James Baldwin sounds like a big deal.

COATES: 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.

PLAYBOY: I took it as her saying “This dude might be the next Baldwin.” Do you often downplay your work?

COATES: 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.

PLAYBOY: What happened between the second and third drafts?

COATES: 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.

PLAYBOY: Since the book has come out, what’s the biggest change you’ve noticed?

COATES: 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.

PLAYBOY: 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.

COATES: 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?

PLAYBOY: You had become a figure.

COATES: 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?

PLAYBOY: Did any of the criticism hurt?

COATES: 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.

PLAYBOY: White people are not just reading it but have also gotten behind it. Is that hard to comprehend?

COATES: 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.”

PLAYBOY: Did you get any pushback from people who’d worked on reparations for years about you becoming the face of that movement?

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