Beautiful People 2015: Ta-Nehisi Coates
PAPER is proud to present a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates -- journalist, author of the nation-shaking Atlantic cover story "The Case for Reparations" and member of the Beautiful People Class of 2015. Read on for his take on the American Dream (the theme of our April issue), and meet Ta-Nehisi's classmates here.
I know that you're a big Civil War fan and an admirer of Ulysses S. Grant. Why is he such an important figure to you?
For me it's a personal thing. Grant was not a person who, if you went and talked to the people around him when he was 12 years old, would say, "That guy is going to be president." He wasn't that sort of dude. He went to West Point and didn't really distinguish himself there, and he did distinguished himself in the Mexican-American war and later in the Civil War. I think we have this preoccupation with talent and obvious talent. For Grant, it was not obvious that he was going to be great. He had problems with alcohol and all sorts of issues. People think the Civil War is glamorous, like Robert E. Lee, dashing. And Grant was not like that. He was a rugged, everyday dude who just happened to be good at fighting. He inherited a slave through his wife, and he freed the slave. But you have to understand what that meant in the 1850s. People would let their slaves buy their freedom, because slaves were really expensive. It would be like walking away from your house, but he just did it on moral principle. He was the sort of dude that was a good dude when no one was looking, and I like that. I'm surrounded by people who were smart when they were young, and were told they were smart. And not undeservedly. But they were told that they would get things, and my path into the field of writing is much more Grant-like. Just coming out of West Baltimore and having to work in a particular way, so there's a lot about him I admire. He was also just a beautiful writer. Gorgeous, gorgeous writer, and not the dude you would think would be a gorgeous writer. His memoirs are incredible.
You've said before that every African American should leave the country once. What did you mean by that?
Not even black people in particular, but probably everybody. African Americans occupy a particular place in the world. You take this moment right now with Ferguson, stop and frisk. Every moment, you exist within a certain American dynamic. You can think that that's who you are, you can think that that's the world. But then you go to other places where you don't necessarily occupy that same status, and it gives you a chance to see yourself differently. It gives you a chance to get in touch with who you are as an individual. It's one of the rare opportunities to just live in it. I've actually never been called "nigger" by a white person, but the first time this happened I was in France. This woman looked at me, she said, "Oh, negre." It didn't even bother me that much, because it's like I'm not France's nigger. I'm not a part of whatever is going on there. She can't get me fired from my job. She can't call the cops and get my head bashed. I'm American. Obviously I don't want to be called that, but it was like if someone had yelled something at me randomly, just on the street. It really didn't hit me because I was outside of that dynamic. It's a very peculiar feeling. Black people in this country especially -- so much of their identity is derived from occupying a particular place. In this country you should leave and go somewhere where you're kind of unimportant and irrelevant. I think it's mentally healthy.
Who is on your shortlist of American heroes?
I like Lincoln. He's a dude who basically self-educated in a log cabin, comes up and goes from that position to believing that black veterans deserve the right to vote, which was a really, really radical position at that time. Can I name an artist? I love Nas. I know people don't think about that when they think about American heroes. I love the position in this culture that MCs occupy. I first learned to appreciate words from hip-hop, and when I heard Nas, it was the first thing that I heard that I felt was actually articulating what people felt. The intensity, the feeling of violence. And he did it so, so beautifully. I always tell people if they want to get some idea of what it was like to be a young black man, you just gotta listen to Illmatic. It's all there. I love Kendrick Lamar for similar reasons. These are the people I draw energy from as a writer. I love James Baldwin. As a writer he's probably the person I pull from the most. Ida B. Wells I adore, a journalist from the 1920s who witnessed a race riot, wrote about it and was run out of her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, on pain of death. They said, "We'll kill you if we see you down here again," and she kept going back to the South reporting on lynchings, endangering her life over and over again.
What do you personally feel patriotic about?
There are a lot of things. I think it's very hard to live in any country and be patriotic about politics. I think politics wherever you are is ultimately an ugly business. And I don't say that to demean people who are in the business of politics; you need people to be. When I think about America and the things I'm proud of, I love the culture here. The vibrancy, the sense of choice. I spend quite a bit of time in France, but there's a kind of uniformness to French culture. My wife, she wraps her head here in this African fabric. She would never do it in France. It just feels inappropriate; they have certain ways and they're set. One of the things I like about America is the great, great diversity in style and range. You really have good and bad. Freedom to live out who you want to be. I adore New York City, which people don't really think is American but I think it's ultimately the most American place. It's ultra America. The incredible amount of diversity and crazy shit you can see walking down the street. That's what it is: You go do your thing and I'll do mine. That's the American ideal, and that's totally here.
You've credited David Carr with helping launch your career when he hired you as an intern at the Washington City Paper. Did you get a sense of what he thought about this country?
Damn. I have this memory, and I'll try not to get emotional. We were at a party, and his wife was there and my wife was there. And he said, "A couple bums like you and me, we end up with two beautiful women. This is a great country, isn't it?" One of the things me and him bonded over is we came to New York and came into this field from such different angles -- me being African American and being from Baltimore and being a college dropout, I was so outside. I'm trying to say this and not make it sound resentful. There can be this resentful thing toward Ivy leagues, and I really don't have that. I'm just saying I was different. There aren't and there weren't that many African American magazine writers. Now Carr, the drugs and alcohol and being from Minnesota... He had this really rough way of talking, and he did not sound like a New Yorker at all. He sounded like he was from West Bumblefuck. And that's what made him cool. The long artistry of his life, I think, is what a lot of people want America to be. That possibility. You had this kid born out in Minnesota, and he had a good home. He fucked up for a good part of his life and did shit that he was not proud of. And to turn that around -- forget the career stuff. To become a father to two little girls like he did, and to be a really good father, a decent husband, to have another kid and to be a good father and then to come here and to become one of the best writers at the New York Times, I think that's what people think about. That's what they want America to be. Whether it is or not, that's another story, but I think that's what people want.
In regards to the protests surrounding Eric Garner and Michael Brown, did you ever join in?
No, because I'm a writer and that's not my place. It's no disrespect to people who protest, but writers have their jobs and protesters have theirs. You have to have your critical distance. I'm not saying I was unbiased; I'm not talking about objectivity. I was not objective at all. But I avoid rallies and marches and that type of thing unless I'm watching and observing.
What do you tell your son?
[laughs] I have a whole booking coming out in October that will hopefully answer that question. It's called Between the World and Me: Notes on the first 150 years of America.
What else is going on with you this year?
I'm leaving the country with my family in August. We're going to Paris and we'll live there for a year, so we're excited about that. My book comes out October 17th -- I can't believe it. It's largely about how you explain to young children Eric Garner, Michael Brown. How you explain all of this.
Styling by Jessica Zamora-Turner / Grooming by Alexis Williams at LVA Artists using Chanel Cosmetics and Aleksandra Sasha Nesterchuk using Kerastase France / Styling Assistant: Jordyn Payne / Location: Dune Studios
Ta-Nehisi wears a coat by Burberry Brit and a shirt by Tom Ford
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