Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at Princeton University

By Jimin Kang 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist and 2015 National Book Award recipient for his memoir Between the World and Me, believes that it is “good” for him to maintain a distance from social movements—even though his work, which largely focuses on cultural, social and political issues regarding African-Americans, has galvanized many conversations on race relations in the United States.  

“As a writer, I am really hesitant to act as a judge,” he said to an audience of approximately 900 at a recent event held at Princeton University. When asked by the moderator, Princeton professor Dr. Keenaga-Yamahtta Taylor, about the “Black Lives Matter” movement that began as a response to the police shooting death of African-American teenager in 2012, Coates said that he “couldn’t make it an agenda” for his writing “to advance Black Lives Matter.” 

“I have deep sympathy for Black Lives Matter,” he said, but he believes that the responsibilities of a writer “are very different” from the responsibilities of an activist. He acknowledged that it is difficult for a writer to “feel like you somehow can’t say anything” in response to “people you love and believe.”

For that reason, Coates finds it challenging to write about Barack Obama’s presidency. 

“Black people love that dude,” he said, referring to Obama, who was the first black president of the United States. “And I’ve always found myself [thinking], how do I write respectfully of that love? How do I talk about that and at the same time [write about] policy critiques?”

He acknowledged, however, that Obama’s presidency was significant for African-Americans because it represented “progress”—a word he used to represent the process leading up to key historical events like emancipation or the election of the first black president. 

Yet he commented on the danger of taking “too much comfort” in what “progress” might look like.

“We could have ‘progress’ for the rest of African-American history and black people could still be unequal,” he says. In that vein, Coates believes that the only way of achieving equality for African-Americans is “when white people can find an interest in it.” 

“If power cannot find its own interest in something, it generally doesn’t do it,” he said. Yet when asked what implications this would have for the resistance movements that have been led by African-Americans in the past, he said: “I think it’s important to bracket off black resistance as important in and of itself.”

Coates, on top of being a prose writer, is also the current author of “The Black Panther” comic series. He was a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2015 and is currently a distinguished writer-in-residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.  

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