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Ta-Nehisi Coates talk in Indianapolis: notes

I promised Rooo I’d report back! The Indianapolis Public Library’s yearly McFadden Lecture was last night, a talk with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Tamara Winfrey Harris was the moderator; she was quoted just this week in a Jezebel article, is the author of The Sisters are Alright, and is the co-creator of the Letters to Black Girls project. I am not good at estimating crowd size, but Clowes Hall on the campus of Butler University was packed pretty full on the floor and balconies — was a nice turnout.

Illustration for article titled Ta-Nehisi Coates talk in Indianapolis: notes

It was a really nice evening, if far too short for my liking! We only had an hour with him on stage, it left us all wanting more. I bought a copy of his first Black Panther volume there (he didn’t do any signing), although he did not talk about any of those works. Below are a few notes—I didn’t take them constantly, and most of the time just listened. I am going to try to read We Were Eight Years in Power this year.


Introductory comments on race/racism: “The black experience is fundamental to the American experience,” and not just in pop culture. Black Americans have spent more time enslaved (250 years) than not (150 years). Slaves were the largest class of wealth in 1860. “If you subtracted black people from America, you don’t have America.” You can’t take the eggs out of the cake.


He’s cautiously optimistic, not a pessimist.

“Every society has its n_____s.” In Paris it’s Arabs, Moroccans, etc. Sometimes you can see a society better from outside.


“America is not special in its evils. It claims to be exceptional — be exceptional, then!”

On being called a “genius” since the MacArthur Fellowship:
- Sure, accolades are nice to hear, but it’s like people complimenting your kid when you know all the (bad) things he’s done.
- He enjoyed privilege as a lauded “genius” in Paris. But the better his French got (and the more “common” he appeared), the *less* privilege he had there. Ties back to point earlier about seeing reality better from outside.


Is it hard to learn/evolve with people hanging on your every word?
- Yes, public part is hard, but it’s a champagne problem, when people start reading. You become a symbol, not a person anymore.
- Have had the malt liquor problems, will take the champagne problems!

Why do you write?
- To feel good, and be at peace.

He has a novel coming out in September, The Water Dancer, but he didn’t want to talk about it! He knows that many non-fiction writers have attempted fiction, and not always been successful.


Racism is a category of power;” it’s nothing biological. When you challenge it, you challenge power. Same for sexism.

“To have balance, someone will have to have less.” People who have it don’t want to give it up; they have a vested interest. People who don’t want to see, won’t see. “This is not a failure to communicate!” People knew, Trump knows.


Author who influenced his writing (Q from 15-year-old)
- E.L. Doctorow, particularly Ragtime.

Black conservatism =/= black Republicanism. People want some feeling of control over their fates. He referenced this Atlantic article which I have not yet read.


What can I do to combat racism? (Q from 10-yr-old)
- Listen. “Reading is a form of listening.” “Try to understand more than act, you have a lot of time.”

How to combat gentrification?
- 20-1 wealth gap determines where you live. This is not incidental; it’s CREATED, part of white supremacy. “Slavery is theft of work.” Jim Crow has to do with voting and having a say on resources. Whatever black people contributed to society was taken from them. It’s not magic; it’s planned. “Gentrification is a cute word for theft.” Stop stealing; return what you stole. There’s little you can do in a capitalistic economy with this wealth gap. Segregation compounds the plunder; I didn’t steal just YOUR couch and TV, I stole EVERYONE’S couch and TV, you can’t even go to a neighbor’s and watch TV. Radical (and large) action is required to combat this; can’t really fight it at the level of personal action.

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