There are a few things you should know when entering a friendly sparring session with Ta-Nehisi Coates. The much-buzzed-about 38-year-old national political and cultural correspondent at the Atlantic has little patience for bullshit. And once he detects it, he pounces, with a focus bordering on obsession. If Bill Clinton is the Secretary of Explaining Stuff, call Ta-Nehisi Coates the straight no-chaser voice of the hip-hop Obama age and beyond.
Coates is a self proclaimed ex-football fanatic who quit his Sunday ritual after it was discovered that the NFL had systematically lied about the debilitating effects of brain injuries. (“I’ll watch it if I’m at a bar,” the former Dallas Cowboy fan admits. “But … it puts you at a moral quandary, given how the NFL treats its laborers.”) And Coates is just as hard-core about his historical fixation on the Civil War as he is discussing the lyrical genius of hip-hop deity Rakim.
Indeed, Coates, who grew up in Baltimore and attended Howard University before dropping out to become a journalist, has always had a lot to say. It’s the reason he was brazen enough to release his 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, at an age when most writers are still trying to figure it all out. Whether it’s his passionate views on race or getting his pop culture fix for the day, Coates has built a reputation as one of the most respected voices of his generation. OZY caught up with the married father of one, and, true to form, we let the conversation go big and wide — on everything from the murder of Jordan Davis to why the D.O.C. may just be the most underrated hip-hop MC to ever pick up a mic.
OZY: You have been very passionate about the Jordan Davis case. A lot of the discussion has been over the lack of value of black men. You note that this is just part of America’s long and oftentimes tragic history in regards to African-Americans, and that it’s always been that way.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: It really regrettably is. This is the tough thing for African-Americans to try to reconcile ourselves to our only home, and that is the tradition to treat us as subhuman; to treat our labor, our families and our lives as basically usable by people who are not black. This is just an extension of that. It’s a little bit unrealistic for us to expect a legacy of that sort to be worked out in a courtroom. It don’t work out like that.
Inevitably Davis’ murder has sparked comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s shooting death. What comes to mind when you hear George Zimmerman complain that he has become President Obama’s scapegoat? And how do you view Obama becoming this go-to ultimate bogeyman for everything that seems wrong in the world?
But that is where we are, and it’s totally consistent with our history. The difference with Obama is black people are usually protesting stuff and challenging the system to do things for them. But here is a black dude in Obama that has actual power. That he would become the lightning rod for white populace and white racists and people with every grievance in the world — and I know George Zimmerman isn’t white, but this is not particularly surprising. This is what you expect to happen.
But you have an aging rock star turned conservative firebrand like Ted Nugent actually calling the president of the United States a ”subhuman mongrel.” That seems to be on another level, where people feel like they can get away with saying anything about a black person whether he or she is president or not, right?
Yeah, but the question is when was there a time when they couldn’t get away with those things?
Has it been a daunting task for you holding that responsibility of having such an impact voice at the Atlantic as that professional journalist, family man, African-American super dude?
No … work is difficult. But I don’t think too much about that aspect of it because this is what I wanted first of all. I asked for this and I’m lucky to have it and I wouldn’t really have it any other way. It’s very hard to complain about that. The actual work is difficult, but that’s life. If you are going to do anything worth doing it’s probably going to be difficult.
Because of your status you have become a pretty easy target for some folks who view you as the black cultural tour guide; that you are at the Atlantic to walk white folks through the zoo. Is that type of criticism par-for-the-course or do you take offense to being labeled that way?
Well we live in this era, fortunately, where people can publish what they want. That’s generally a good thing. And the expectation that everyone who does that is going to say something nice about you [laughs] … that’s beyond any sort of realistic idea. I try to engage with people who are being really constructive in their criticism. I do my best to do that. In terms of the specificity of the charge the majority of my readers are going to be white. But I try to work really hard to write for my people even if the majority of the people who are going to read it are not going to be my people. And frankly at the end of the day that’s kind of what any sort of white person who is self aware and wants to know something about the world would want. I don’t want my hand held when I’m reading about subjects which I have little information. Because really that’s what we are saying, right? That white people don’t really know that much about black people. And that’s definitely true. But I try not to dumb it down. I try to write like I was back on the yard at Howard. It’s not diversity training. That’s not what I’m doing.
Another topic: the Civil War. How did you become obsessed with this dark chapter in our history, and what was the most important thing you learned from your studies of that period?
A different way that I probably write from other people is I’ll find one subject and just latch on to it as long as I can. So the writing is reflective of my thinking. The thing that got me into the Civil War was that I grew up in a household and community where people were very much aware of African-American history, and yet no one ever really talked about the Civil War. I didn’t understand why that was. I didn’t even know anything about the Civil War. What I found was the heart of America.
In what specific way?
OK, so, like, when you go through this Jordan Davis case, 600,000 people die in the Civil War and it’s gone as high as 800,000 … 2% of the population. It was an absolute catastrophe. And somebody could present you with those type of numbers and casualties, and you say to yourself, “Why would somebody die over that? What would compel people to die in those numbers?” Civil War was one of our first modern wars where you see trenches being dug for the first time. There was now the ability to slaughter people en masse in ways that you couldn’t before. You end up reading the words of the people of that time. You read the documents of succession for the states that were leaving the Union. And you see a state like Mississippi within the first paragraph outlining why it is leaving the Union: Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of African slavery. That none but the African can deal with subtropical temperatures, and that this is the basis of economy.
That spells it out, right?
Right. And then you see the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, stating why they are leaving … that white supremacy and slave labor is not just something we need to do. It’s actually a great idea. And Jefferson had it wrong when he said all men are created equal. Some men are not created equal. Some men must serve us. The way to understand this is in 1840-50, the majority of the exports at that time was cotton. And who was picking the cotton? So what you are seeing is a situation where slavery is not just a bad thing that happened in this country. This is the basis for America. It’s impossible to imagine America without slavery. Abraham Lincoln was killed because John Wilkes Booth was a believer in white supremacy. What force could be strong to not only kill 600,000 people, but to end it with the greatest president’s assassination? What you get to is white supremacy and slavery. And if that was true before 1860, and if it continued to be true after the Civil War where we got a campaign of domestic terrorism in the south, and if it’s true all the way into the 20th century, where you look at the safety net legislation of the New Deal, you see how racism shaped that legislation. And if it was true all the way to the 1960s, then it has to leave some sort of mark on the psychology of a country and the legacy of a country. That just doesn’t go away. The Civil War just exemplifies that. If white supremacy is so strong to compel people to die in those sorts of numbers, we are dealing with a serious force.
Of course, the go-to response to that would be that blacks have gotten the right to vote, have joined the middle class, and would do well to stop looking back at the past.…
But the way around that is clear. We don’t say that July 4 is the past so we should stop celebrating it. No one has a problem staying home for President’s Day, but that’s the past. We celebrate the birth of Christ. And how long ago did Christ die? We only have a problem with the past when we are charged to do something about it. When the past inconveniences us, we have a problem with it. But if we had no past, we could not be a country. We are at this very moment still paying pensions for World War I. We recognize that. If a state had no history, it really couldn’t be a state. It is essential that, in order for a state to function, it continues to do business beyond the lifespan of its citizens.
Let’s sidestep to a lighter subject. Give me five hip-hop albums that would perfectly represent the genre to someone who doesn’t listen to rap?
I think Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City  is foundational even though it’s fairly recent. I think it does things that gangsta rap and even the shit I loved failed to do. Nas’ Illmatic  is foundational to me. Outkast … I probably would pick Aquemeni . That’s foundational to me. And this is weird, but you know what I play a lot? That first D.O.C. album [No One Can Do It Better, 1989]. I still play it. It’s my favorite Dre production, and the D.O.C. was just so nasty, man. He was coming out of this crew that mostly everybody was like bitch, fuck, nigga. D.O.C. didn’t do that. Ice Cube and MC Ren had skills. But the D.O.C. killed it on some straight MC shit.
The D.O.C. was doing old man rap before it even existed.
Yeah, he was! And the last one would a be a toss-up between It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back [Public Enemy, 1988] and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx [Raekwon the Chef, 1995]. I played that a lot in college, and I still play it a lot now. The MC’ing on there is just ridiculous.
Why you should care
Because the rumors of the death of the American intelligentsia were perhaps a bit premature.