Ta-Nehisi Coates Says He Has No Advice for Baltimore's Youth
Big, nappy, bush-fros, wisdom-lengthed locks, Fulani-inspired tribal jewels, and conspicuous waves of self-worth flooded the endless yet orderly line on 135th St. Sprinkles of light colored eyes above pale pink lips boasting about getting their tickets way back in August, began to induce an inkling of inquiry from within. Not identical to the sensational curiosity that lures the descendants of a people who wouldn’t have dared to be caught on this side of town 90 years ago, when this segregated library was first established; I am more so struggling with figuring out what caused this sudden urgency, not only to hear a Black man speak on the ugly truths of race and inequity but also to settle here in Harlem, a place that was once unfathomable and unfitting for them to inhabit. I wonder what their parent’s grandparent’s parents would think. I wonder what Malcolm X, who this very street was named after would think…
I was alone but amongst my people. Black and brown hands gripped Paper Mate ink pens, short-handing on steno pads. I walked down the aisle to sit front and center, passing countless flashing red voice-note blinkers and iPad video-recorders, just waiting to be cued.
I know this morning a great many will be publishing stories on the questions Nikole Hannah Jones asked Ta-Nehisi Coates last night. I was appreciative of her forwardness. Straight from the start she went in with, “You don’t write for white people. You write for Black people … white people are invited to listen but can you explain why white people love what you write?” He recalled growing up during an era when Black writers were burdened with having to “explain to white people.” “The history is the history. It’s disrespectful to soften the history for white people…” Head nods and cheers were shared between strangers like me and the 70 year old Black woman that I sat next to. Even the white people in my view laughed when he said, “You’ll have to ask the white people.” Completely admitting the truth about really not knowing why it is that they admire and support his work.
I captured 4 pages of copious notes ranging from Coates’ response to the Cornell West controversy to the interminable comparisons between him and James Baldwin, but I didn’t find much to analyze in between the lines of his responses. His words matched the tone of his books – raw, candid, and unapologetically honest with himself and with us as listeners.
As the discussion between Jones asked Coates ended, the Schomburg’s ushers followed an effective index card system for the Q&A portion of the night. I spent the last couple of weeks contemplating what I would ask him. The pretty usher lady patiently waited for me to write a question that I decided to ask solely because I knew it would transfer seamlessly into my classroom. I wished I could’ve been a little more colorful and specific with my language but I didn’t have time. She handed the thick stack to Jones, who then sifted between each card, carefully choosing one by one. I kept my fingers crossed and just when the president of the Schomburg came onto the stage to tell the crowd that he was allowing extra time for Coates to answer a couple more questions, she chose mine: What advice do you have for young Baltimore boys trying to make it out? He began by saying that he gets asked this question all of the time, yet, his answer didn’t seem rehearsed nor pre-meditated.
“I don’t want anybody to take this the wrong way… I don’t really have much advice. I don’t think I did anything that got me out. There was nothing that I did. What happened was, I had a mother and I had a father that just worked over time. And they dragged me. There was nothing I did. I don’t have access to wisdom on that… I was a really studious young person… and those things are good but that’s not just good for young Black boys in West Baltimore, that is good period. That advice is not for them… “Between the World and Me” is not a handbook. It’s very little ‘you need to do this, you need to do that.’ It is an expression of the condition; it is an attempt to express what it means as a national context … My advice is for the people with power in this country. That is where my advice is directed because they’re the folks that could actually do something to change the lives of us Black folks in this country and they know what they could do. It’s not hard to figure out. My advice to them is to think about your kids, think about your grand kids, think about your great grand kids, and think about the world that you want them to inherit. Don’t do what the founding fathers of this country did, which is to hand off a debt. It got us into a situation where 600,000 Americans got killed… Don’t do what the people who came out of that generation did … what they did was hand it down to their children and what we got was the longest domestic terrorist campaign in America. Don’t do that; don’t take a pass on it. Don’t do what the generations that came up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s did, who also took a pass on this and now we have these hoods that are red-lined and look a certain way, and we’re inheriting that, and folks are dealing with that and they are diluting themselves about why that is. You know, don’t do it. Face up to what’s going on. Take the hit. Do it for yourself, man, do it for your kids. Don’t do it for West Baltimore. Do it for your kids. Do it for your grand kids. Don’t pass this on to them. ‘Cause even though you steady not paying [the debt], it ain’t going away. It’s right there. It haunts us. Every level and not just Black people, it haunts the country.”
It’s now 5:37 PM and I have been grappling with how to end this post since 5 this morning. Do I provide my analysis of his unorthodox response for you all as readers? Or do I leave it there for you to independently reflect in the same way that I did? I have my thoughts and of course, I showed it to my students, who have their thoughts as well. I was going to share their's with you but in all honesty, I think Coates' response is thought provoking enough to stand on its own. As you watch the video you can see it in his face, the cliche route frustrates him too much to travel along. Sure, he could've came up with something for the kids but instead he used his voice as a vehicle to drive an audience that he knows is not only listening but has the money and power to enact change, eventually abolishing many of the obstacles that make it damn near impossible for young Black boys to "make it out". Now, not in this hour but in this lifetime, its not up to me to just write endings for these posts, it's up to us all to take action, if not for our cities, for ourselves and for our kids.