Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015 National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction
Between the World and Me
(Spiegel & Grau/Penguin Random House)
Even though he tells me, "You aren't really conscious of what you're doing always," it's hard to read 2008's The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates's of growing up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood and his 2015 book Between the World and Me, which starts off addressed to his son, and not think of the deeper connection between the two books. His memoir was about the things his own father taught him as a young growing up in Baltimore, while Between the World and Me is Coates bridging what came before him and what's happening today to give his son some context and understanding of the black experience in America. Both books are about parents teaching their children about the world, and it's that very personal nature of the father talking directly to his son that makes Between the World and Me impossible to put down once you open it up.
Jason Diamond: When you were starting to plan out Between the World and Me, did it initially start out with the idea to address it to your son?
It needed to be something bracing, direct, and aggressive, and at the same time reflect how I actually talk in my house.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No. I had the idea to do it after that. I tried to write it, and I wrote like four different drafts of it, and went back and fourth with my editor. Once we had a pretty decent draft, Chris [Jackson, Coates’s editor] really felt like it was still missing something, and that was where I came up with the idea for the letter. If I recall, we were going to write a straight essay, and then I was going to have a letter to my son after that, but it never got to that. I have some scraps of what that letter would have looked like, but that ended up in Between the World and Me because when I thought of it, I was like, ‘hell, why don’t I angle the whole thing to the boy.’ The dangerous thing about that is that I didn’t want to be corny, like that can be really corny. One of the things that Chris told me, many people had tried to take the ball from Baldwin, to do some sort of impression of The Fire Next Time because it’s such a seminal essay, and most of them had failed. I was really conscious of that. I thought about that, that It could be syrupy, it couldn’t be the talk in any cliche form. It needed to be something bracing, direct, and aggressive, and at the same time reflect how I actually talk in my house.
JD: How do you handle being compared to somebody with a legacy like James Baldwin’s? Does it take you by surprise to hear people say things like you’re “the next Baldwin” or this generation’s version of him?
TC: To be honest, I had heard it before. There were people that said that about my other work. I actually think his influence in my writing was there before Between the World and Me. Baldwin–excuse my language–didn’t give a fuck. He just didn’t care, and I mean that in the best sense of the world. He just kind of said, ‘this is what I see.’ And he’s seemed so stripped of all the kind of maudlin bullshit that you have to do when you talk about black people or America. He didn’t play, and that as a writer is such a radical declaration of your humanity, and I really wanted to do that.
JD: And that comes through in his writing just as it does when you watch something like his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley…
TC: Well Buckley’s just full of shit. He’s just blowing hot air. It’s the enemy of writing, the enemy of any sort of truth seeking, the enemy of trying to actually understand something.
JD: I read that Toni Morrison was one of the only people you reached out to for an endorsement. What did it mean to you to get that endorsement from her?
And our greatest living representation of that tradition is Toni Morrison.
TC: I didn’t want anybody else, I mean there was one other person, E. L. Doctorow, but he was sick. Doctorow because of the way he interacts with history, but Toni Morrison is the goddess of black literature right now. There’s a tradition that’s behind Between The World and Me that I’m really trying to evoke, and it’s not just Baldwin, it’s Richard Wright, it’s Sonia Sanchez, it’s [Amiri] Baraka; all of that is in there, it’s all baked into that text even though Baldwin is the most obvious one. And our greatest living representation of that tradition is Toni Morrison.
JD: One of my favorite quotes in the book is, “I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might understand the breach between the world and me.” Do you get any closer to understanding that breach by writing?
TC: Yes. That’s the primary reason to write. You just understand more and more and more, and you just begin to get it. You see the architecture. It’s the sky slowly revealing itself, and suddenly you can see the stars and how they relate to each other, and you can see Mars and Venus. Yes, that’s the reason to write.
Jason Diamond is the author of the forthcoming memoir Searching for John Hughes (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016). He's the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and an associate editor at Men's Journal.