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14 Questions with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Sep 12 2018
Photo by
Anna Webber/Getty Images/The New Yorker
Photo by
Anna Webber/Getty Images/The New Yorker
Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks
Sep 12 2018
B

asketball is my first love, but it’s not my only one. From the small town in Iowa where I grew up, to Chapel Hill where I went to college, to the Bay Area and now to Dallas, I’ve been lucky to get to meet a wide variety of people, each with their own beliefs, dreams, habits and ways of looking at the world. Interacting with different people who have different stories sparked my curiosity about what makes people not only good at what they do, but also good, period. I am drawn to leaders who set out to make positive changes in their communities.

In that spirit, I’m going to be interviewing people I admire this season. I want to get to know them better and then share our conversations here.

My latest interview is with one of my favorite writers, Ta-Nahisi Coates.


Harrison Barnes

Well, first of all, I want to say thank you for the time. I truly do appreciate it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Oh, it’s nothing, man.

Barnes

Let me start with your most recent book, We Were Eight Years in Power. What was your inspiration for this book?

Coates

Wow, you know, I guess it was becoming aware, toward the end of the Obama years, that I had been doing journalism in what was going to be viewed as a historic period. There’s the element of the first black president. I had been fortunate enough to do quite a bit of journalism during that period. And some of it — you know, in fact, all of it — was in some way related to Obama. Not to say he was necessarily always the topic, but it was related. So I felt, on one level, this strong desire to compile something that was like a historical document.

But at the same time, there was this other story, which was my own personal story about … I mean, how do I put this? About how the presidency had affected me personally. So, it really is a combination of those two impulses.

Barnes

Yeah, you know, it’s interesting to think back about your relationship with Obama — to see the very first interaction, where you kind of go at him at the White House, to you guys actually being almost friendly on the way out.

Coates

Haha … I don’t know if I’m fortunate enough to call him my friend — I don’t know if I’m on that level, man. I will say one thing on that: Even as a critic … part of the job of a journalist is trying to understand people. You’re trying to understand what’s going on and why people are thinking the way they are. So I think once he got toward the end, I was trying to get some idea of where this dude is coming from and what his worldview is.

Barnes

You cover a lot of ground in that book — did you feel any pressure trying to write such a comprehensive book about the Obama presidency?

Coates

I put a lot of pressure on myself, you know? I have really, really high expectations to produce a document that I’m proud of. And that’s the thing that means more than anything to me. I just don’t want to embarrass myself, man.

Barnes

Yeah, I definitely get that. If you think back to when you were writing the book, how did your views change from the time you submitted your final draft until now?

Coates

Well, I mean, when that book was published, I thought we were in a really, really bad place. Trump had just won. If possible, I guess now I feel like we’re in a worse place.

Barnes

That’s where I was going with the next question. In the epilogue, you touch on the transition from the Obama administration to the beginning of the Trump administration.

Coates

Yes.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Barnes

What are your thoughts about where we are now?

Coates

I don’t know, man. We’re in trouble. The travel ban passed through the Supreme Court. They’re looking to curb voting. We still aren’t sure the degree to which Russia was involved in the election — although, it was clear that they were involved to some degree. We’ve got a guy who’s threatened to fire the person leading that investigation. So … none of it’s good, you know? It’s a tough time.

Barnes

You definitely come across like a realist.

Coates

Mm-hmm.

Barnes

So, where do you think we go from here? Do things get better?

Coates

I mean, I don’t like predicting the future because you just don’t know. And I say this in my book, too: There’s no way in the world that I would’ve predicted the first black president. I just would not have seen that coming, you know? But one thing that people should note is that history doesn’t get made on its own. This stuff has to be changed by actual people. So I think while I can’t predict what’s going to happen, I’m pretty sure what it will take to steer things in the right direction — and that’s folks struggling and just buckling down to fight.

Barnes

If you had one message for the youth of today, what would it be?

Coates

Study. But I don’t mean like study in school. I mean, that’s good, too. But when I think about things that helped me out, ultimately, it was just trying to be as aware as I possibly could — and studying as much as I possibly could — about what was going on. You know, I read a ton when I was younger. A ton. Beyond, like, even just newspapers. I read a ton of books, you know? Especially in these times right now, folks need to study and be aware.

Barnes

Would you maybe also add, “delete Twitter”? I know you deleted your account a while back. How has your life been different without social media?

Coates

So much better. You know, one of those things about Twitter is, like, even when you’re not on Twitter, you’re on Twitter. Your friends will send you links that they want you to see — so there’s no getting off of it. I feel better. I feel like I’m more pleasant. I think Twitter a lot of times is just really negative, you know?

Barnes

You’re speaking the truth there. Let’s get back to your work for a bit. You were tapped by Marvel to write the new series for Black Panther. Even though the film was different from the comics, how did it feel to be part of a film that touched so many lives, both in and outside the black community?

Coates

Tremendous. Tremendous, man. I got the opportunity to go to the premiere. People see me and do the Wakanda salute. It’s big. And that is the genius of Ryan Coogler, that film. But, you know, for me to have any role at all in it, it’s just tremendous.

Mike Marsland/WireImage

Barnes

You went from a small blog that only you and your father read, to a thought leader in the black community. What responsibilities come with your celebrity and what have you learned about yourself?

Coates

I think the biggest thing is not to alter what I’m doing — to not be responsive to that in a bad way. By which I mean, not end up in a situation where I’m seeking any sort of fame or chasing any sort of clicks, or anything like that. I think I gotta stay true, you know? I gotta stay the same way that I was that got me here. Obviously, I gotta make some adjustments because there’re more people watching.

Barnes

If you could go to dinner with three people, dead or alive, who would they be?

Coates

My grandmother, who died. Her mother. And her mother.

Barnes

That’s a looong ways back. That’s really interesting. That’s the first time I’ve heard that answer.

Coates

I just have so many questions. I’m in this space where I’m thinking a lot about ancestry and where I’m from and information that’s been lost across generations. I have a lot of questions.

Barnes

Have you taken one of those ancestry tests?

Coates

I have, and that’s probably why I’m thinking about this a lot. I did that show, Finding Your Roots, and they put together a family tree. So I got a lot of names, but I don’t have everybody. It’s a lot to think about.

Barnes

How important is it to pass your family history on to the next generation?

Coates

Huge, absolutely huge. Because I didn’t know any of that when I was a kid.

Barnes

You know, so much of your work has become required reading for college students and young people in general. What were some of your literary and cultural inspirations growing up?

Coates

Well, first of all, it was hip-hop. I always tell people: Hip-hop was the first place where I saw people using words in a way that I would identify as beautiful, you know? And probably the second-biggest one was comic books. I got a ton of comic books as a kid.

Barnes

Well, then that begs the questions: What were some of your favorite comics? And who were your music inspirations?

Coates

I loved The Amazing Spider Man. I loved Uncanny X-Men. Those were my favorites. As far as music, Rakim, Nas, a lot of Raekwon. Those are probably the biggest ones. And even now I listen to these guys and I think about how they capture these complex emotions, and about my own attempts to do that. So from that perspective, a Kendrick Lamar is obviously gonna be huge for me.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images/American Express

Barnes

Love Kendrick, yeah. What’s something that you thought was true when you were younger that you see differently now?

Coates

I thought travel was pointless. I didn’t come up in a family that traveled a lot. I didn’t understand how important that was.

Barnes

And now? I know you lived in Paris for a little while. How has travel changed your perspective?

Coates

I mean, it’s the closest we get to seeing, like, an alien civilization….

Barnes

Haha.

Coates

You know — to see people living totally different from how you do. It’s a beautiful thing.

Barnes

That’s true, man. My last question for you is: What’s next? What’s the next thing that you want to achieve?

Coates

There’s a lot going on besides writing, man. My young son is about to go off to college. My wife is entering her third year of med school. I want to be as supportive as I can. So I got a lot of family goals right now.

Barnes

Good stuff, man. I wish you and your family the best. Thanks for answering my questions today.

Coates

Anytime, anytime. Talk to you soon, Harrison.

Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks