tv Democracy Now PBS November 27, 2015 12:00pm-1:01pm PST
♪ ♪ [music break] >> from pacifica, this is democracy now. >> people think about african-american communities. a lot of things come to mind, but one thing that does not come to mind is simply how afraid we are of our bodies, how afraid we are for our children, how afraid we are for our loved ones on a daily basis. amy: we spend the hour with ta-nehisi coates author of the best-selling book "between the world and me," written as a letter to his teenage son, samori. we will hear him speak in his
hometown of baltimore at the union baptist church and we will hear him afterwards. ta-nehisi coates: there is a reaction when our children hear something that has a racist component to assure them that somehow everything will be ok, that some justice will win out in the end. my study, my very elementary, pedestrian, autodidact extent study of history does not demonstrate that to be true. my own life does not necessarily demonstrate that to be true. my belief is in the chaos of the world, and you have to find your piece -- peace within the chaos. even within the chaos, with no assurance you will see any victory within your lifetime. amy: ta-nehisi coates for the hour, all that and more coming up. to democracy now, democracynow.org, the war and peace report. i'm amy goodman.
today, we spend the hour with ta-nehisi coates, author of an explosive new book about white supremacy and being black in america, called "between the world and me," written as a letter to his teenage son, samori. ta-nehisi coates is a national correspondent at "the atlantic" where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. he received the george polk award for his atlantic cover story, "the case for reparations." his book, "between the world and me," is called "required reading" by toni morrison. she writes, quote, "i've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after james baldwin died. clearly it is ta-nehisi coates." well, in july, ta-nehisi coates launched his book in his hometown of baltimore. he spoke at the historic union baptist church. ta-nehisi coates: this book proceeded from a notion, and there are a couple of main notions that are really at work here. and one of the dominant ideas in the book, between the world and me, which is, you know,
effectively an extended essay told in a letter form to my son, is the notion of fear, because i think like when people think about african-american communities, there are a lot of things that come to mind, but one of the things that does not come to mind, i think, enough in the mainstream conversation is simply how afraid we are of our bodies, how afraid we are for our children, how afraid we are for our loved ones, on a daily basis. and, you know, i understood this as a very, very young person, as i talk about it in the book. you know, from my earliest memories, i was talking to dad about this a little while ago, and i think about my first memories, my first memories of going, my first coherent memories of going with my mother and father to see marshall "eddie" conway in prison, and understanding that there are black men, you know, in prison. that was like my first memory. he had done something, or somebody accused him of something. something had happened where he did not have the full freedom and control of his body, and
that was something that happened to people who look like me, even though i didn't quite understand how and why that happened. and then, as you grow up in the community, and you have to go out into the world and navigate, i have said this several times, in many places. i have my memories of going to middle school here in baltimore, and i think about how much of my mental space was possessed with keeping my body safe, how much of it dealt with how i was dressed, who i was walking with, what neighborhood i was walking through, once i got to school how i conducted myself in the school, and not so much in such a way that would be obedient to my teachers, but in a way that would keep me safe from the amount of violence. i mean, i was talking in this interview the other day i was , saying that any sort of policy that you think about in this country that has to do with race ultimately comes back, for black folks, to securing our bodies, the physical safety of our body. and so we have these kind of high and abstract debates about, you know, affirmative action. and in the minds of certain
people, we think those conversations are literally just about "is my kid going to get into harvard or not?" but behind that, for us, as black people, is a conversation of "is my kid going to be able to have the means to live in a neighborhood where he or she walks outside the house and they're not looking over their shoulder, and they're not watching their back, and they're -- they don't have to do the sort of things that i have to do, the threat of violence is always there? now, one of the horrifying things-and this is what, you know, i'm going to read about tonight-even for those of us who escape those neighborhoods, even for those of us who make it somewhere and are able to do something and live in better places, the threat never quite leaves us, because once we're no longer afraid of the neighborhood, it turns out we actually have to have some fear for the very people we pay taxes to protect us. and that's what we've been hearing about for the past year over this country. we've been seeing a lot of that. and it seems like there's a kind of national conversation going on right now about those who are
paid to protect us, who sometimes end up inflicting lethal harm upon us. but for me, this conversation is old, and i'm sure for many of you the conversation is quite old. it's the cameras that are new. it's not the violence that's new. we are not in the midst of a new wave of anything. we're, you know, in a new technological wave, you know? and this is not unprecedented. you know, the sort of violence that folks saw in the 1960s, in selma, for instance, or on bloody sunday, that sort of violence was not, in fact, actually new. that's what white supremacy, what racism is. it is an act of violence. what was new was the cameras. there was certain technology that was able to take that into the living rooms of america. and we're going through a similar thing right now, but the violence is not new. when i think about the first time i really, really became aware of this, beyond theory, it was in the instance of the killing of a good friend of mine. a friend of mine i should say to , clarify our relationship, a friend of mine by the name of prince jones, who i went to howard university with.
as a brief aside, when you write things, they're forced to become abstract, or when you interview people, they become abstract. and then, whenever you're forced to talk about them, they immediately become real, and all the emotions that you feel about those people come back. i'm going tory to control myself here. prince jones was a fellow student of mine at howard university. he was a tall, beautiful young man. he hailed from a prosperous family, a family that had not always been prosperous. his mother, you know, was the child of sharecroppers, had worked her way up through life out of poverty in louisiana and had risen to become a prominent radiologist. prince was in prince george's county, maryland, driving. it was late at night. he had just dropped off his young daughter. he was going to see his fiancee. and he was in a jeep, an suv. the suv he was in was being
followed, as it turned out, by the police, the prince george's county police. and i'm in baltimore, so you guys know about the reputation of the prince george's county police. i don't need to give any sort of lectures on that. the gentleman who was following him had come to work that night as an undercover police officer and had dressed up as a drug dealer, so he was, you know, literally dressed as a criminal, to appear as a criminal. he was in an unmarked car. he thought prince jones was someone else who he was supposed to be doing surveillance on. he tracked prince jones from prince george's county, maryland, through washington, d.c., and into fairfax, virginia, where, as far as i'm concerned, he effectively executed him. in the story he tells, because he's the only witness, and, you know he's the only person whose , version of events we actually have, the story he tells is that once they got to fairfax, they got into a dark cul-de-sac, and prince rammed his car. and he said before prince rammed his car, he got out of the car, and he pulled a gun on prince, and he identified himself as a
police officer, but he didn't produce his badge. by his own admission, he didn't produce his badge. by his testimony, prince got back in the car, into his truck, and rammed the guy, the police officer's car, and the police officer shot and killed him. this happened in 2000. i believe my son was about a month old at that point. you know, you talk about fears for, like, bringing a black child into the world, like it was immediately real. you know, it was just suddenly like so visceral, like right there. and the most terrifying thing for me was when i thought about, like, myself. like, i couldn't distance myself from what prince had done, even in the version of events as given by the officer, whether they're true or not. even in, you know, the most sympathetic version of events given by the officer, i could not distance myself from whatever actions prince jones had taken in that case. i had to imagine myself followed through three jurisdictions by somebody who did not identify themself as a police officer,
who was literally dressed to appear as a criminal. and i had to think about all the fears that i had to have, you know, as i was going through the neighborhood here in baltimore and all the fears that prince must have had, going to visit my fiancee and worrying about her, and seeing this dude pull a gun out on me and claim to be a police. well, i don't know if you're a police officer. and once i got into his shoes, it was very, very easy for me to see myself how i could have been killed in much the same way. and this was horrifying. and so, for normal americans, you know, once they rise up and get out of certain neighborhoods or go certain places, you know, they feel a kind of safety that black people never feel. fear is one of the dominant emotions of the black experience. fear. and it does-no amount of money you can earn can ever take you away from that. you can be president of the united states -- [applause] and you can be afraid for your body. you can be the first lady of the
united states, and you can be afraid for your body. you can be afraid for the bodies of your two little girls. it does not go away. there's no escape from that. well, prince's story stayed with me for a number of years, and i wrote about it in little places, but i couldn't get like his mom out of my head. i kept wondering, because i knew this woman had done all this, and i couldn't get her out of my head, and i wondered, like, how she lived. i wondered how she carried that. and i reached out, and i made contact with her, and i was able to go see her. and so the portion of the book i'm going to read tonight tells the story about our conversation. as i said, between the world and me is written as a letter to my son, so all of the yous and all of the sort of, you know, things, it's me addressing him, who is not here right now. he's somewhere in the middle of vermont right now. this story, you know, goes a lot of places. it goes to howard university, goes to paris, france.
it moves quite a bit. but at this point, we're at the end, and we're trying to get some sort of resolution or some sort of conclusion on everything we've seen. so i'll go ahead and read. "in the years after prince jones died, i thought often of those who were left to make their lives in the shadow of his death. i thought of his fiancee and wondered what it meant to see the future upended with no explanation. i wondered what she would tell his daughter, and i wondered how his daughter would imagine her father, when she would miss him, how she would detail the loss. but mostly i wondered about prince's mother, and the question i mostly asked myself was always the same -- how did she live? i searched for her phone number online. i emailed her. she responded. then i called and made an appointment to visit. and living she was, just outside of philadelphia in a small gated community of affluent homes. it was a rainy tuesday when i
arrived. i had taken the train in from new york and then picked up a rental car. i was thinking of prince a lot in those months before. you, your mother, and i had gone to homecoming at the mecca, and so many of my friends were there, and prince was not. dr. jones greeted me at the door. she was lovely, polite, brown. she appeared to be somewhere in that range between forty and seventy years, when it is difficult to precisely ascertain a black person's precise age. whenever i read that in front of white people, nobody laughs. [laughter] she was well composed, given the subject of our conversation, and for most of the visit i struggled to separate how she actually felt from what i felt she must be feeling. what i felt, right then, was that she was smiling through pained eyes, that the reason for my visit spread sadness like a dark quilt over the whole house. i seem to recall music.
jazz or gospel playing in the back. but conflicting with that i also remember a deep quiet overcoming everything. i thought that perhaps she had been crying. i could not tell for sure. she led me into her large living room. there was no one else in the house. it was early january. her christmas tree was still standing at the end of the room, and there were stockings bearing the name of her daughter and her lost son, and there was a framed picture of him, prince jones, on a display table. she brought me water in a heavy glass. she drank tea. she told me that she was born and raised outside opelousas, louisiana, that her ancestors had been enslaved in that very same region, and that as a consequence of that enslavement, a great fear echoed down through the ages. it first became clear to me when i was four, she told me. my mother and i were going into the city. we got on the greyhound bus. i was behind my mother. she wasn't holding my hand at the time and i plopped down in the first seat i found.
a few minutes later my mother was looking for me and she took me to the back of the bus and explained why i couldn't sit there. we were very poor, and most of the black people around us, who i knew were poor also, and the images i had of white america were from going into the city and seeing who was behind the counter in the stores and seeing who my mother worked for. it became clear that there was a distance. this chasm makes itself known to us in all kinds of ways. a little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents, are we niggers and what does this mean? sometimes it is lelelesubtle-the simple observation of who lives where and works what jobs and who does not. sometimes it is all at once. i have never asked you how you became personally aware of the distance. was it michael brown? i don't think i want to know. but i know that it has happened to you already, that you have deduced that you are privileged and yet still different from other privileged children,
because you are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country. what i want you to know is that it is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility. it is your responsibility because you are surrounded by the dreamers. it has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair. the breach is as intentional as policy, as intentional as the forgetting that follows. the breach allows for the efficient sorting of the plundered from the plunderers, the enslaved from the enslavers, sharecroppers from landholders, cannibals from food. dr. jones was reserved. she was what people once referred to as "a lady," and in that sense reminded me of my grandmother, who was a single mother in the projects but always spoke as though she had nice things. and when dr. jones described her motive for escaping the dearth that marked the sharecropper life of her father and all the others around her, when she remembered herself saying, i not
am going to live like this. i saw the iron in her eyes, and i remembered the iron in my grandmother's eyes. you must barely remember her by now. you were six when she died. i remember her, of course, but by the time i knew her, her exploits for instance, she , scrubbed white people's floors during the day and went to school at night -- were legend. but i still could feel the power and the rectitude that propelled her out of the projects and into homeownership. it was the same power i felt in the presence of dr. jones. when she was in second grade, she and another child made a pact that they would both become doctors, and she held up her end of the bargain. but first she integrated the high school in her town. at the beginning she fought the white children who insulted her. at the end they voted her class president. she ran track. it was a great entree, she told me, but it only brought her so far into their world. at football games the other students would cheer the star black running back, and then when a black player on the other team got the ball, they'd yell, 'kill that nigger! kill that
nigger!' they would yell this sitting right next to her, as though she really were not there. she gave bible recitations as a child and she told me the story of her recruitment into this business. her mother took her to audition for the junior choir. afterward the choir director said, honey i think you should , talk. she was laughing lightly now, not uproariously, still in control of her body. i felt that she was warming up. as she talked of the church, i thought of your grandfather, the one you know, and how his first intellectual adventures were found in the recitation of bible passages. i thought of your mother, who did the same. and i thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. i often wonder if in that distance i've missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that i might have
transmitted to you. i wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything i have ever understood drove mable jones to an exceptional life. she went to college on full scholarship. she went to med school at louisiana state university. she served in the navy. she took up radiology. she did not then know any other black radiologists. i assumed that this would have been hard on her, but she was insulted by the assumption. she could not acknowledge any discomfort, and she did not speak of herself as remarkable, because it conceded too much, because it sanctified ibal expectation when the only expectation that mattered should be rooted in an assessment of mable jones. and by those lights, there was nothing surprising in her success, because mable jones was always pedal to the floor, not over or around, but through, and if she was going to do it, it must be done to death. her disposition toward life was that of an elite athlete who knows the opponent is dirty and
the refs are on the take, but also knows that the championship is one game away. she called her son, prince jones, rocky in honor of her grandfather, who went by rock. i asked about his childhood, because the fact is that i had not known prince all that well. he was among the people i would be happy to see at a party, whom i would describe as a friend, a good brother. though i could not really account for his comings and goings. so she sketched him for me so that i might better understand. she said that he once hammered a nail into an electrical socket and shorted out the entire house. she said that he once dressed himself in a suit and tie, got down on one knee, and sang "three times a lady" to her. she said that he'd gone to private school his entire life. schools filled with dreamers. but he made friends wherever he went, in louisiana and later in texas. i asked her how his friends' parents treated her.
by then i was the chief of radiology at the local hospital she said. ,so they treated me with respect. she said this with no love in her eye, coldly, as though she were explaining a mathematical function. like his mother, prince was smart. in high school he was admitted to a texas magnet school for math and science, where students acquire college credit. despite the school drawing from a state with roughly the population of angola, australia, or afghanistan, prince was the only black child. i asked dr. jones if she had wanted him to go to howard. she smiled and said no. then she added, it is so nice to be able to talk about this. this relaxed me a little, because i could think of myself as something more than an intrusion. i asked where she had wanted him to go for college. she said, 'harvard. and if not harvard, princeton. and if not princeton, yale. and if not yale, columbia. and if not columbia, stanford. he was that caliber of student. but like at least one third of
all the students who i knew who came to howard, prince was tired of having to represent to other people. these howard students were not like me. they were the children of the jackie robinson elite, whose parents rose up out of the ghettos, and the sharecropping fields, went out into the suburbs, only to find that they carried the mark with them and they could not escape. even when they succeeded, as so many of them did, they were singled out, made examples of, transfigured into parables of diversity. they were symbols and markers, never children or young adults. and so they come to howard to be normal. and even more, to see how broad the black normal really is. prince did not apply to harvard, nor princeton, nor yale, nor columbia, nor stanford. he only wanted the mecca. i asked dr. jones if she regretted prince choosing howard. she gasped. it was as though i had pushed too hard on a bruise. no, she said. dead.et that he is
she said this with great composure and greater pain. she said this with all of the odd poise and direction that the great american injury demands of you. have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the '60s, a hard, serious look? have you ever looked at the faces? the faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. they betray almost no emotion. they look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything ever known to me. i think they are fastened to their god, a god whom i cannot know. but, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. or perhaps it is not armor at all. perhaps it is life extension, a kind of loan allowing you to take the assaults heaped upon you now and pay down the debt later. whatever it is, that same look i see in those pictures, noble and vacuous, that was the look i saw in mable jones. it was in her sharp brown eyes, which welled but did not break.
she held so much under her control, and i was sure the days since her rocky was plundered, since her lineage was robbed, had demanded nothing less. and she could not lean on her country for help. when it came to her son, dr. jones's country did what it does , it forgot him. the forgetting is habit, it is yet another necessary component of the dream. they have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery. the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote. the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. they have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. i am convinced that the dreamers, at least the dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. in the dream they are buck rogers, prince aragorn, an entire race of skywalkers.
to awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. it is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans. amy ta-nehisi coates, speaking : at the union baptist church in baltimore on the launch of his new best-seller, between the world and me, a book that's based on a letter to his teenage son. we come back to the speech in a moment. ♪ ♪ 11/24/15 11/24/15 democracy now! test [music break]
amy goodman: this is democracy now!, democracynow.org, the war and peace report. i'm amy goodman, as we go back to the speech of ta-nehisi coates, the best-selling author whose new book is called between the world and me, based on a letter to his teenage son. he was speaking at the union baptist church in baltimore. ta-nehisi coates: dr. jones was
asleep when the phone rang. it was 5:00 a.m. and on the phone was a detective telling her she should drive to washington. rocky was in the hospital. rocky had been shot. she drove with her daughter. she was sure he was still alive. she paused several times as she explained this to me. she went directly to the icu. rocky was not there. a group of men with authority, doctors, lawyers, detectives, took her into a room and told her he was gone. she paused again. she did not cry. composure was too important now. it wasn't unlike -- was unlike anything i had felt before she , told me. it was extremely physically painful. so much so that whenever a thought of him would come to mind, all i could do was pray and ask for mercy. i thought i was going to lose my mind and go crazy. i felt sick. i felt like i was dying. i asked if she expected that the
police officer who had shot prince would be charged. she said, yes. her voice was a cocktail of emotions. she spoke like an american, with the same expectations of fairness, even fairness belated and begrudged, that she took into medical school all those years ago. and she spoke like a black woman, with all the pain that undercuts those exact feelings. i now wondered about her daughter, who'd been recently married. there was a picture on display of this daughter and her new husband. dr. jones was not optimistic. she was intensely worried about her daughter bringing a son into america, because she could not save him, she could not secure his body from the ritual violence that claimed her son. she compared america to rome. she said she thought the glory days of this country had long ago passed, and even those glory days were sullied, because they had been built on the bodies of others. and we can't get the message, she said. we don't understand that we are
embracing our deaths. i asked dr. jones if her mother was still alive. she told me her mother passed away in 2002, at the age of eighty-nine. i asked dr. jones how her mother had taken prince's death, and her voice retreated into an almost-whisper, and dr. jones said, i don't know that she did. she alluded to 12 years a slave. there he was she said, speaking , of solomon northup. he had means. he had a family. he was living like a human being. and one racist act took him back. and the same is true of me. i spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. and one racist act. it's all it takes. and then she talked again of all that she had, through great industry, through unceasing labor, acquired in the long journey from grinding poverty. she spoke of how her children had been raised in the lap of luxury -- annual ski trips, jaunts off to europe. she said that when her daughter
was studying shakespeare in high school, she took her daughter to england. and when her daughter got her license at sixteen, a mazda 626 was waiting out front. i sensed some connection to this, some desire to give and the raw poverty of her youth. i sensed that it was all as much for her as it was for her children. she said that prince had never taken to material things. he loved to read. he loved to travel. but when he turned twenty-three, she bought him a jeep. she had a huge purple bow put on it. she told me that she still could see him there, looking at the jeep and simply saying, thank you. without interruption she added, and that was the jeep he was killed in. after i left, i sat in the car for a few minutes. i thought of all that prince's mother had invested in him, and all that was lost. i thought of the loneliness that sent him to the mecca, and how the mecca, how we, could not save him, how we ultimately
cannot save ourselves.sit-ins, the protestors with their stoic faces, the ones i'd once scorned for hurling their bodies at the worst things in life. perhaps they had known something terrible about the world. perhaps they so willingly parted with the security and sanctity of the black body because neither security nor sanctity existed in the first place. and all those old photographs from the all those films i 1960's, beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, were not shameful, indeed were not shameful at all -- all-they were just true. we are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of america. and this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement. to awaken the dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their
need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. you, samori, you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of them coming into consciousness. our moment is too brief. our bodies are too precious. and you are here now, and you must live. and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else's country, but in your own home. the warmth of dark energies that drew me to the mecca, that drew out prince jones, the warmth of our particular world, is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable. i think back to our trip to homecoming. i think back to the warm blasts rolling over us. we were at the football game. we were sitting in the bleachers with old friends and their children, caring for neither fumbles nor first downs.
i remember looking toward the goalposts and watching a pack of alumni cheerleaders so enamored with howard university that they donned their old colors and took out their old uniforms just a little bit so they'd fit. i remember them dancing. they'd shake, freeze, shake again, and when the crowd yelled , do it, do it, do it, a black woman two rows in front of me, in her tightest jeans, stood and shook as though she was not somebody's momma and the past twenty years had barely been a week. i remember walking down to the tailgate party without you. i could not bring you, but i have no problem telling you what i saw-the entire diaspora around me. hustlers lawyers, kappas, , busters, doctors, barbers, deltas, drunkards, geeks, and nerds. the dj hollered into the mic. the young folks pushed toward him. a young man pulled out a bottle of cognac and twisted the cap. a girl with him smiled, tilted
her head back, imbibed, laughed. and i felt myself disappearing into all of their bodies. the birthmark of damnation faded, and i could feel the weight of my arms and i could feel the heave in my breath and i was not talking then, because there was no point. that was a moment, a joyous moment, beyond their dream. a moment imbued by a power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill. this power, this black power, originates in a view of the american galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet. black power is the dungeon-side view of monticello, which is to say, the view taken in struggle. and black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. even the dreamers, lost in their great reverie, feel it, for it is billie that they reach for in sadness, and mobb deep is what
they holler in boldness, and isley is what they hum in love, and dre is what they yell in revelry, and aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. we have made something down here. we have taken the one-drop rule of dreamers and flipped them. they made us into a race. but we made ourselves into a people. here at the mecca, under the pain of selection, we have made a home. as do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials, and hopscotch squares. as do black people dancing it out at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded like the survivors of catastrophe. as do black people toasting their cognac and german beers, passing their blunts and debating mcs. as do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon these shores. that was the love power that drew prince jones. the power is not just divinity but a deep knowledge of how
fragile everything, even the dream, especially the dream dream-really is. , sitting in that car i thought of dr. jones's predictions of national doom. i had heard such predictions all my life from malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the dreamers must reap what they sow. i saw the same prediction in the words of marcus garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of middle passage undead. no. when i left the mecca, i knew that that was all too pat, and knowing that the dreamers should reap what they had sown, we would reap it right along with them. plunder has matured into habit, and habit into addiction. and the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, and then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. this is not a belief in prophecy, it is a belief in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.
once, the dream's parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. but the dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion, a plunder with no known precedent. and this revolution has freed the dreamers to plunder not just the body of black humans but the body of the earth itself. the earth is not our creation. it has no respect for us. it has no use for us. and its vengeance is not the firen the cities but the fire in the sky. something more fierce than marcus garvey is riding on the whirlwind. something more awful than all of our african ancestors is rising with the seas. the two phenomena are known to each other. it was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. it is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into their
subdivided woods. and the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the dreamers themselves. i drove away from the house of mable jones thinking of all of this. i drove away, as always, thinking of you. i do not believe we can stop them, samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. and still i urge you to struggle. struggle for the memory of your ancestors. struggle for wisdom. struggle for the warmth of the mecca. struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, struggle for your name. but do not struggle for the dreamers. hope for them. pray for them, if you are so moved. but do not pin your struggle on their conversion. the dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. the dream is the same habit that
endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos. i saw these ghettos driving from dr. jones's home. they were the same ghettos i had seen in chicago all those years ago, the same ghettos where my mother was raised, where my father was raised. through the windshield i saw the mark of these ghettos-the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing. and i felt the old fear. through the windshield i saw the rain coming down in sheets. thank you. [applause] amy goodman: ta-nehisi coates, author of between the world and me, based on a letter to his teenage son. he was speaking on the launch of the book at the union baptist church in baltimore. if you'd like to get a copy of today's show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. when we come back, a conversation with ta-nehisi coates.
teenage son, samori. ta-nehisi is a national correspondent at "the atlantic," where he writes about culture, politics, social issues. he received the george polk award for his atlantic cover story "the case for , reparations," which he joined us in may to talk about. his book, between the world and me, is called "required reading" by toni morrison. she writes, "i've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after james baldwin died. clearly it is ta-nehisi coates," she writes. well, in july, juan gonzalez and i had a chance to sit down with ta-nehisi coates, before he moved with his family to paris, to talk about between the world and me and his upbringing. an: in the book, you talk about the influences on your life, and specifically when you first began reading malcolm x and the enormous influence he had on your life, and also the fact that your father was a member and a leader of the black panther party, and the influence that those movements, of malcolm
and the panthers, had on your consciousness in your upbringing. ta-nehisi coates: well, they had a tremendous influence. these are my first sources, you know, of skepticism, the notion that one should be skeptical of the narratives that one is presented with. that's the first place i learned it. one of the things that's really, really present in between the world and me is, i am in some ways outside of the african-american tradition. the african-american tradition, in the main, is very, very church-based, very, very christian. it accepts, you know, certain narratives about the world. i didn't really have that present in my house. as you said, my dad was in the black panther party. the mainstream sort of presentation of the civil rights movement was not something that i directly inherited. and beyond that, you know, i have to say, that just as a young man and as a boy going out and navigating the world, the ways in which the previous generation's struggle was presented to me did not particularly make sense. and so, notions of nonviolence, for instance, when i walked out into the streets of west
baltimore, seemed to have very, very little applicability. violence was essential to one's life there. it was everywhere. it was all around us. and then, when one looked out to the broader country, as i became more politically conscious, it was quite obvious that violence was essential to america-to its past, to its present and to its future. and so, there was some degree of distance from a between how my politics and how i viewed the world at that time and what was presented as my political heritage. and instead, i very much gravitated, you know, to my dad's sort of political activism with the black panther party, and really to malcolm x, who, you know, i would argue, influences this book, who had a very, very pragmatic, tactile view of america and of history. you know, i can remember in "message to the grass roots" him saying, you know, he's critiquing nonviolence, saying, "don't give up your life. preserve your life. it's the best thing you have going. and if you've got to give it up, make sure it's even-steven." and
and some hear that as braggadocio, but for me, it was a profound claim about the value of your body, that your body is the most essential thing you have, and it should not be sacrificed because these folks down in mississippi or alabama are out of their mind. preserve your body. and that, to me, was just so beautiful and so real. it was not esoteric. it made perfect sense to me. juan: and you say he was the most honest leader. ta-nehisi coates: he was the most honest man. he's the first honest man i knew of, somewhat. you know, i knew other honest men, but, you know, in a bit of hyperbole, he was the first honest man -- he was the first person i heard, and it matched what i saw when i walked outside. it matched what i saw when i opened up my history books about the country. it just seemed, you know, when he says, you know when malcolm , says, if violence is wrong in america, then violence is wrong -- that is such a, you know, essential critique, that should be levied, as far as i'm concerned, before any president that stands up on martin luther king day. either violence is wrong, or it's not. you know, one has to justify it. and so, that was just profound to me. amy: you talk about the fear,
living in fear. ta-nehisi coates: yeah, i mean, and this -- to tie this into the previous question, life in baltimore was, is and will be for some time quite violent. i can remember, as i talk about in the book, being a young man coming out of my elementary school, seeing what should have been just an after-school yard fight and seeing one of these boys pull out a gun, and being very, very present at the age of, say, 11 years old that children were walking around with the ability to end the lives of other children, are going into middle school, and having an entire ritual totally devoted to making sure i was safe-you know, concerns about what i was wearing, concerns about who i was walking to school with, concerns about how many people i was walking to school with, concerns during lunchtime about where i was sitting, where i was spending my time. and at the same time being aware, dimly aware, that somewhere out in the world the majority of americans did not have to carry that fear with them, you know, and then eventually understanding how that was connected to our
politics. amy: speaking of your childhood, i wanted to go to marshall "eddie" conway, the former black panther leader in baltimore, maryland, who was released from prison last year after serving 44 years for a murder he denies committing. for years, eddie conway's supporters campaigned for him to be pardoned. democracy now! interviewed eddie conway less than 24 hours after his release. i asked him about his experience writing a memoir in prison called marshall law: the life & times of a baltimore black panther. marshall "eddie" conway: i think at some point i realized i was getting older, and i realized that i had a lot of experiences and a lot of history of things that had happened, and they hadn't been recorded. and i think they would have been lost to history, and they would have been lessons that had been learned through organizing in
prisons that other people could have used. so i think at some point i sat down, and i started writing, and i tried to capture what it was that we had tried to do during those turbulent years that george jackson was organizing in california and attica occurred in new york. amy: that was eddie conway, again, less than 24 hours after his release from prison, where he served 44 years. can you, ta-nehisi coates, talk about eddie conway's presence in your life, even behind bars? ta-nehisi coates: well, it's a little emotional for me, and i'll explain why. when people hear the term "political prisoner," especially on the left, it becomes a kind of abstraction. folks are aware of injustice, and they're aware that there are folks in prison who are in prison, you know, largely because of their activism.
eddie conway is central to my first memories. my parents used to take me to, when it was open, the baltimore city penitentiary to see eddie conway. i was talking to my dad about this recently. from the time i might have been one or two years old. i mean, literally, my first memories are of black men in jail, specifically of eddie conway. that was a huge, huge, huge influence on me, i mean, when you talk about like this notion of, just going back to your question, of violence, knowing that was present. and, you know, i had this conversation with my dad recently. i asked him, i said "well, why , did you take me into a prison? why would you take a three-year-old, four-year-old child into a prison? and my memories of this are mostly of being bored and seeing the gates and, you know, the kinds of things that children will remember. and he said, "i wanted you to see the face of the enemy. i wanted you to see what you were up against."
and so, in many ways, everything i've done as a journalist, up until and including this book, really begins like right back there. you know, it's very difficult for me to imagine myself here right now without those experiences. and let me just say how happy i am that he got out. you know, at some point in my mind, i probably began to conceive a world in which he would die in prison, and i'm happy he didn't. juan: i wanted to ask you about another part of the book. i mean, the whole book is impressive, but to me, one of the most impressive aspects of it was your description of life at howard university. and your description of the importance of howard university in the intellectual life of the african-american people in the united states. could you elaborate on that, what howard meant to you? and obviously, you say you did not spend much time in class. you spent it all in the library devouring all kinds of works. but if you could sort of give us a sense of that, for those who are listening and watching, of what the howard experience meant
to you? ta-nehisi coates: well, one of the things that-you know, this theme of the book of living under a system of plunder and about surviving and how you deal with that and how you struggle against it, within that are the beautiful things that black people have forged, you know, even under really, really perilous conditions. for me, howard university is one of the most loveliest, for me personally. to try to explain this, howard is one of several historically black colleges and universities, is, i think, rather unique in terms of its size and in terms of its scope. it is a beacon point, the mecca, as i call it, as it calls itself, you know, in the book, for the entire black diaspora around the world. and so, to come to howard university at the age of 17, as i did, and to see black people from montreal, to see black people from paris, to see black people from ghana, to see black people from south africa, to see black people from mississippi,
to see black people from oakland, to see biracial black people, to see black people with parents from india, to see black people with jewish parents, you know things that i had not , encountered in west baltimore. to see black people who took semesters off to go to other countries and live, to see black people with deep interests in other languages, it was tremendous. and really what it showed me is, even within what seems like a narrow band, which is to say, you know, black life, is in fact quite cosmopolitan, is in fact a beautiful, beautiful rainbow. and to see all of these people, you know, of all these different persuasions, and to have that heritage, you know. toni morrison went to howard. amiri baraka went to howard. lucille clifton went to howard. ossie davis went to howard. and i was aware of that when i was there. charles drew went to howard. thurgood marshall went to the law school. being aware of that and having all of that brought to bear, again, it's one of those things that i can't really separate from my career as a writer. amy goodman: ta-nehisi, you actually met with president
obama twice. ta-nehisi coates: i did. amy can you talk about these : meetings, how you prepared for them, what you said to him? when was it? ta-nehisi coates: well, one of them was come interesting that you ask that after that question. the first one was after i levied quite a bit of critique of his morehouse speech, which i was not a fan of and am not a fan of now. i think that the president, i thought then, and i think now, that the president has a tendency, when it's convenient for him, to emphasize that he is the president of all america, and then, when it comes to issues of morality, to deliver a message that the president of all america has no right to deliver. the president of all america, the bearer of the heritage of america, the bearer of policy of america, which has, you know, for the vast, vast majority of its history has been a policy of plunder towards black people, has no right to lecture black people on morality. that's my position. you know, i understand an african-american man wanting to have a conversation with young people. but as the president of america,
as far as i'm concerned, you give up that right. you know, if there cannot be direct policy towards black people, then there should be no direct criticism towards black people either. having said that, i wrote the piece, and probably within a day, i got a call to come to the white house. i was not sure why. they didn't say, you know, what it was about. and i was there with a bunch of other reporters. and i asked him a question that was semi-related, and he sort of answered and then immediately launched into an attack on my piece. and i left that meeting quite disappointed, not disappointed in him, he did what i expected him to do, but disappointed in myself. i felt that i had not been particularly challenging. you know, i have to tell you, you sit in a room, it really is the president of the united states. you know, it's the guy with the launch codes. and he's, you know, just an extremely intelligent person. i had watched him joust and answer all of these questions. and it takes some amount of courage. i mean, those are the facts. the second time, i probably was a little bit more challenging.
amy: what did your wife tell you on the way to your second trip? [laughter] ta-nehisi coates: my wife said, "what would james baldwin do? and she was recounting-actually, she was not just-you know, she was recounting the encounter he had with john f. kennedy. that's what she was thinking about. it wasn't just a sort of blithe "what would james baldwin"-she was recounting how james baldwin had gave kennedy hell. and i arrived to this meeting. all the other journalists were in suits. i was not. i was in jeans. i was late, and i had been rained on. it was not, you know, propitious circumstances. but, you know, even in that meeting, i was deeply concerned about the liberal and the progressive notion that one should pursue policy based on class and not really deal with race. and i was concerned that as the aca was playing out, as obamacare, as they call it, was playing out, in fact, there were whole swaths of people in the southern states who were being left out, and, you know, a majority of those people were black people. and this is a tradition with class-based policy that goes all the way back to the new deal. so i thought it was very, very important to try to directly challenge as much as possible.
you're not going to beat the president. you're just, i mean, in that situation, just not, but as much as possible to raise questions about it. amy: let's turn to the man you have been compared to, james baldwin. let's turn to his book, the fire next time, dealing with issues of black identity and the state of racial struggle. in this speech, he speaks in '63 in oakland, california's castlemont high school. james baldwin: i think the other reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that i am throwing these suggestions out to you tonight is that in this country, every black man born in this country, until this present moment, is born into a country which assures him, in as many ways as it can find, that he is not worth the dirt he walks on.
every negro boy and every negro girl born in this country until this present moment undergoes the agony of trying to find in the body politic, in the body social, outside himself/herself, some image of himself or herself which is not demeaning. now, many, indeed, have survived, and at an incalculable cost, and many more have perished and are perishing every day. if you tell a child and do your best to prove to the child that he is not worth life, it is entirely possible that sooner or later the child begins to believe it. amy: that's james baldwin speaking in june of 1963, that audio from the pacifica radio archives. in this last minute we have with you, ta-nehisi coates, where
have we come in more than half a century? ta-nehisi coates: i think there's been some progress. i think if people like me appear impatient, it is with the fact that, you know, we are talking about a system that has basically been in place since 1619. progress is good. but until we live in a country in which white supremacy has been banished until we live in a , country where one can look at prisons, if we are to have them, and not see an eight-to-one ratio until we can look at a , country and not see black men comprising roughly 8 percent of the world's imprisoned population until we can have a , situation in which i can turn on the news or come on this show and be able to discuss other things besides sandra bland being threatened to "light her up, as he said, over a turn
signal until we have a situation , in which a tamir rice, you know, who's out playing, is not effectively committing a lethal crime or a crime that threatens his life until we have a , situation where kajieme powell, for the mere fact of being mentally ill, is not shot down in the street until we have , a situation in which a john crawford, who was shopping in wal-mart, is not shot down and executed in a store, -- progress is nice, but it is to be noted. and the struggle continues after that. amy goodman: ta-nehisi coates, author of "between the world and me." to see our whole interview, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. that does it for our show. produced by mike burke, carlo wills, nina guster, robbie karen, steve martinez, pedro rodriguez. tocial thanks
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