In mid-November, I visited with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, author of a memoir—The Beautiful Struggle—about his father’s influence during his childhood in Baltimore, and, this year, an MLK Scholar at MIT. We talked about his impressions of MIT students and his growth as a writer, and we touched upon his research of the Civil War, the setting for an upcoming book. You can read Coates’ blog at theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.
Andrew Whitacre: What brought you to MIT and your MLK fellowship?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Tom Levenson brought me. He was reading my blog, reading some of my writing. He asked me if I was interested in coming to MIT. I said, who wouldn’t be?
Are you teaching?
I’m teaching this semester—one class, “Writing and Reading the Essay”, which I’m greatly enjoying.
In one of your Atlantic posts, you talked about the “sucker punch”. What was that?
It was about the Romney campaign, how they never saw defeat in the election coming, that they felt sucker-punched. I was and have been sort of amazed. There was this thing going on in the election where these guys who were into stats and mathematics, not just Nate Silver, who did a good job telling what was going to happen. And no one believed it—I shouldn’t say no one believed it, but there was this theory that somehow these guys were simply reflecting some kind of liberal bias. It’s one of these things where if you believe something, you tell yourself something enough times, you really come to believe it.
Do you have any sense of how those bubbles get formed? Liberals tend to think of themselves more self-critical than conservatives.
Well, we did it in ’04, with John Kerry, where people for some reason remember it as an upset for Bush. It was not an upset at all. If you go back and look at the polls, the polls said Bush was probably going to win, and that’s what happened. I think there’s some kind of righteousness that comes out of that, that sort of pose, this feeling that you were cheated. We have certain prejudices against information that challenges our world-view. I think that’s just true of human beings, period. I think one of the things that has happened with liberals in the last twenty years—at least in media, where I’ve had a chance to study liberal and conservative media—is liberalism has come to be about the fight. The fights within. So you can have straight-down-the-line-liberal publication like The Nation, but you also have publications like The New Republic, Slate. These are places where they cut their teeth on being counterintuitive: tell me what they other guy won’t say. Those are very different things than what’s happening in conservative media, where the media pretty much exists to fall in with the Republican Party. That’s really where they are. And to the extent that you differ from orthodoxy, you find yourself pushed out. Take someone like David Frum, who’s writing for the Daily Beast, which is not, in any respect, a conservative publication—that’s not what they’re doing. Why is he there rather than a conservative outlet?
What was your reaction, on election night, when Fox News had Karl Rove on and he refused to let the election be called?
I was watching Fox News when that happened. I thought it was the exact phenomenon we’re talking about. I thought Rove, though—he had something very different: he had money at stake. He had taken all this money from billionaires, telling them “This is what’s going to happen.” He didn’t just have an interest like “I am a conservative, so I have an interest” but interests like “I have millions”.
What do you think about growing up in Baltimore compared to where you are now?
It’s very different. I didn’t know what MIT was growing up in Baltimore. It’s incredibly different. I knew a lot about black schools around the country. That was about it. It wasn’t all that developed. I knew my parents wanted me to go to college. But I never had any particular sense I could go to a Harvard or MIT or Columbia or Yale.
What do you think you’ll be able to get from the resources here?
I get the most from the students. Watching them, how hard they work. It’s inspirational.
You feel that same way about their humanities work?
Oh yeah! My class, they work extremely hard, even though it’s not science at all. One of the things people say, not just here but in general, is the humanities tend to be easier than the sciences. Which I always thought was a shame. Practicing the humanities is not easy at all. If you want to be a world-class literary scholar or literary scholar of any repute, a world-class historian, a James MacPherson, it’s really hard. The humanities, I strongly feel, should demonstrate that. They should reflect that. It should not be the case that your experience in school is all that different from what you have out in the world when you try to practice that art form. So I work really, really hard to make the class count as much as I can coming in the first time.
As that first-timer, have you had to learn a lot on the fly about being a teacher?
Not really. I actually think it’s an advantage. The only thing I know how to teach is how it’s practiced. To the best of my ability I try to emulate what my relationship would be with my editor. The rigor with which you write actual essays. I try to practice the craft. I try to push them the same way. We talk about craft all the time. We talk about sentences, why some sentences are strong, why some sentences are not. They want the push. I grew to appreciate that. I gobbled it all up.
So you started at Howard University?
I did. I started there, went college there on and off for about five years and left without graduating.
Is there a story behind that?
Yeah, I started writing! And I liked it so much. I had never been a particularly good student, and writing was the first thing I’d ever done that looked like a career path that I was ever good at.
What would you consider your first success? Submitting a first piece?
Actually, probably writing for my college newspaper. I started in with a little poetry. I had people around me that told me I should keep going. You know, writing is done on your own time. You don’t have to sit in a meeting for hours, as you do in a classroom. It’s very much a practice thing. I gravitate to the idea of doing something. It’s not very theoretical. Most of it is pretty simple; you just have to keep doing it over and over again.
What’s the structure of your class?
It’s workshop. We spend most of the first month reading other people’s essays. And in the second we still did quite a bit of that but then started workshopping our own essays. Sometimes we’ll do sentence essays in class, try to write as strong a sentence as possible. Certain home projects. Today we had the workshop for the second essay, which was good. It was very good.
You once described President Obama as a “conservative revolutionary”. Is there anyone else you’d cite as an example of the same thing?
Plenty of people throughout African-American history. Malcolm X was a conservative revolutionary. Maybe not in that sense, but Lincoln…Lincoln’s a conservative revolutionary. People who preside over momentous change but do so in a really small-bore way, almost reluctantly and try to do it without upsetting society.
If the pace of change is the same in Obama’s second term, how do you think people will look back over what he did?
I think he’s been relatively effective. Quietly, but relatively effective. We’ll see. I don’t want to call that. We’ll see.
What do you expect for your son?
I don’t expect him to think about the world the way I think about the world. I don’t expect him to think about race or ethnicity the way I think about it. We’re raised in different times. He lives in a much more integrated world now.
Tell me a bit about your November event here with [journalist, MSNBC politics talk show host] Chris Hayes (video).
That was a lot of fun. I was shocked by how many people came out. We had to turn people away. I thought his message was all about the responsibility of people with access to elite institutions, education, power, etc. I thought bringing that here to MIT was incredible.
What were some of the arguments?
We talked about what is an institution, what are MIT’s responsibilities? Are we producing an elite that actually reflects this power/responsibility thing that is of the quality it needs to be. Do we even need an elite, is something I pushed him on. The best thing was, the next day he came to my class and talked to the kids.
The election of President Obama in ’08 was a very symbolic moment. What’s next? What would be meaningful to me would be if there was an African-American president that came from southeast DC. That would be pretty badass to me. After Obama’s election, what’s next, how do you top that?
I’d make the case that this is pretty badass, and once it happens, you find reasons to make it an exception. I think the test is, do we say we think this is an exception to the rule now—if someone had told us this in 2002, we would have been amazed that something like this would have happened—so…probably a woman. That’s very much is the next test.
Is there anything else you want to accomplish in your time at MIT? Is it just going around, meeting a lot of people? Is it just teaching class? Do they set any expectations for an MLK Scholar?
They just want me to be a good citizen in the community. That’s what I’m trying to do. Even in my daily interactions, I get so much. Having dropped out of college and being back on campus, it’s pretty amazing how I actually feel.
Is there any way you’d describe your writing style or particular interests—or contrast yourself with some of your peers?
I’m always interested in history. In this history of this country, in particular the history of race in this country that I try to work out in my work. That’ll continue. If there’s any difference, that’s a big one.
Do you feel like there’s something in U.S. history that’s been overly forgotten?
Ha, the Civil War. What actually happened. For a long time we thought about it as this whole brother-against-brother thing, two honorable sides, that that shouldn’t be forgotten. And when you look at the history, something that becomes immediately clear is that it’s not two honorable sides. In fact it’s something much, much darker, but at the same time something much more beautiful too when you find out what we were really fighting for, in the Civil War but also what came out of that.
What are the analogies you draw now from the Civil War?
It’s not direct stuff. More just an awareness of history. I try to draw lines. Long, long lines. Does everybody understand the relationship between race and citizenship? Which was what the Civil War was ultimately about, it’s what Lincoln ultimately died for. I try to trace a long arc of history to make it clear that things don’t just grow up out of nowhere.
What kind of projects are you looking to do in the future?
I want to be able to write here’s-what-I-think pieces for a long time. I enjoy it very much.