Ta-Nehisi Coates has built his writing reputation on his ability to mine America’s past, both recent and distant, to locate the roots of our present racial disparities.
That’s what he did at Davidson College Monday night, as he explained how the fatal police shooting of a college friend inspired him to explore state-sanctioned violence against black Americans. That search, he said, led him to a distressing conclusion – that “the presumption of criminality of black people is deeply written into the bones of this country.”
Coates delivered Davidson’s Reynolds Lecture at the college’s Belk Arena to a diverse, sold-out crowd of nearly 4,000 – his largest audience, he said, in more than six weeks on tour for his new memoir, “Between the World and Me.”
The book, written in the form of a letter to his 14-year-old son, debuted in July at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The Times called it “a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America.” Since its publication, Coates has been named a finalist for the National Book Award and the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, has written on mass incarceration of blacks and racist government housing policies. His work has come as recent events – deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police, the massacre of African-American churchgoers in Charleston – fuel fresh interest in our country’s racial history.
“Between the World and Me” was Coates’ response to the 2000 death of his former Howard University classmate, killed by an undercover police officer in a case of mistaken identity. “I was convinced that had he been white, that would never have happened,” Coates said.
But there was that presumption of criminality, he argued, a presumption he found woven through our history – in laws against aiding fugitive slaves, in slave codes that made it a crime to learn to read, in terrorism that disenfranchised black people “at the barrel of a rifle.”
Don’t forget, he said, that even African-American heroes – Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. – were in their day regarded as criminals. King was “bugged and harassed to the day of his death.”
For detractors who would argue that slavery and Jim Crow shouldn’t be dredged up because they happened a long time ago, Coates offered a response: “When we celebrate Presidents’ Day, no one says, ‘That happened a long time ago.’ When we talk about the Greatest Generation, no one says, ‘That happened a long time ago.’ ”
“If Thomas Jefferson matters, then Sally Hemings matters too,” he said, drawing applause.
Coates spoke for about 45 minutes, then answered questions from Davidson students.
“How do you go about breaking down these injustices?” one asked.
“I can only tell you what I do,” Coates replied. “I write for myself,” to understand the truth about America. “I write to have some degree of liberty from the lie.”