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Ta-Nehisi Coates Talks New Book, Trump's America, Progress And Immigration

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Theresa Hogue
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Wikimedia Commons
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking to Oregon State University

Few writers have shifted political discourse in recent years quite as much as Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

His seminal longform essay “The Case For Reparations” single-handedly forced a nationwide discussion about reparations for African-American descendants of slaves. After that, his memoir “Between the World and Me” was broadly hailed as the most thought-provoking meditation on race in the U.S. in an entire generation. And there’s over a decade of columns he wrote for The Atlantic that gave rise to innumerable other conversations.

But since 2018, Coates has taken a step away from non-fiction writing. He's focused on other projects, including completing his first novel, "The Water Dancer," which was released in September. The novel tells the tale of Hiram Walker, who was born into slavery in Virginia, and who comes to realize he possesses supernatural powers that could help him and others gain freedom.

On Monday, Nov. 4, Coates will be in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center discussing the book. WLRN briefly talked with him in advance of the appearance.

WLRN: The central character in "The Water Dancer," Hiram Walker, has a photogenic memory, but there is one gap in it when it comes to remembering his mother. It seems to me that that's kind of a metaphor for the gaps in our collective consciousness that you've written a lot about in your in your non-fiction. What is it about that particular memory that resonates so much in your work?

COATES: I think that much of what plagues us today is actually just rooted in an inability to really recall certain things, to really recall what happened with the Civil War, to really recall what happened during a period of enslavement, to really recall what happened during a period of reconstruction and then redemption.

I think when people say things like, looking on Donald Trump and say: “This is not America” — I think they've forgotten certain things. I think when people want to harken back to an earlier age of civility or a time when they believe America wasn't so divided, I think they've forgotten certain things. And so, that's probably a theme that is running through my work, because I think so much of politics is premised on the annihilation of American history as it actually happened.

The slave experience, one of the things at its core is this separation of families, mothers being taken from their children. Was the reality of some of the policies of the Trump administration at the forefront in your mind, or were they present in your mind when you were writing this or did it just kind of happen?

I can’t remember when this happened, but I believe it started happening when I was, if not almost done, done. But I think what it is, is when people oppress other people wanted the first things they attack as their families, as an institution. And so that it has some resonance in that. I don't think it's a mistake. It wasn't intentional by me. It's just that, oppression has certain recurring features.

At one point in the novel, you get the sense that there's not a consensus about what freedom means. And I'm wondering, how important is that question to you about how to define freedom, how to define progress, and what it means for people when they're making decisions to go along the way towards freedom or towards whatever goal they're looking for?

I don't know. I think one of the things that Hiram has to accept in the novel is an understanding that you're always chained to something, you’re always committed to something. I think at the beginning is a very individualistic notion of freedom that basically extends to himself and, you know, the girl he's in love with. Not much further. And I think a really important part of the novel is him understanding that part of actually being free is his commitment to other people.

This week, you're gonna be talking in Miami, where about half the population is foreign born. Specifically the American context of slavery, as it's written, was not directly experienced by a lot of people that live in immigrant populations. And I was really interested in knowing what importance do you think it is for immigrant populations to get an understanding of slavery — as it was and now as it continues to exist — in the American context here?

I think they should understand the country that they're coming into. A country that they're becoming a part of. Countries are like families, and it's not all good in any family. One family may be a little bit more healthier than the other. You may prefer one family to another, but there is no family that is without its secrets and without it shames. 

And so I think when people go through a process of becoming American, I think it's very, very important to impress upon them that they are not just inheriting George Washington crossing the Delaware or Thomas Jefferson penning the Declaration of Independence. They also inheriting Thomas Jefferson the slaver, George Washington the slaver, Andrew Jackson, the slave holder. 

A country's heritage is what it is. And if one is to inherit the great things and the good things and the beautiful things about a country, one has to inherit the bad things too.