Aspen Times Weekly: Between the World and Ta-Nehisi Coates | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Between the World and Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Andrew Travers

Since Ta-Nehisi Coates' last visit to Aspen in July, he's received a MacArthur "genius" grant, been nominated for the National Book Award (winner to be announced Nov. 18) and his blistering, best-selling "Between the World and Me" has quickly become (or should be) required reading for Americans.

The book, structured as a letter to his 14-year-old son, talks about the black experience in 21st century America — where unarmed African-American men and boys live under threat of bodily harm at the hands of police. For people trying to make sense of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and too many others, "Between the World and Me" is indispensable. Short, unsparing and uncompromising, this book has become a central part of the national dialogue on race and has solidified Coates' place as our generation's James Baldwin.

One of his events at Aspen Ideas Fest, two weeks before the publication of "Between the World and Me," indicated the way Ta-Nehisi would elevate and change the national conversation.

A regular at Ideas Fest since 2008 and now a national correspondent at The Atlantic, Coates was on stage with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for a debate on race and American's culture of violence, moderated by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. The crowd spilled over into the lobby of the Aspen Institute's Doerr-Hosier Center. Just before the debate began, Landrieu said, "I hope they love me," to which Coates responded, "I hope they hate me."

Goldberg dubbed this "the classic public intellectual/politician split." But, based on the riveting hour-long conversation that followed, it actually said more about Coates and his fed-up, uncompromising stance than it said about intellectuals or politicians in general. The debate turned less polite than most Institute events, as Coates challenged Landrieu on point after point, rather than patting the mayor on the back for his much-lauded initiatives to turn the tide of gun violence against young black men in New Orleans.

When Landrieu mentioned "black-on-black crime," Coates dismissed the term and the idea of black-on-black crime as a phenomenon. "I think it's actually inaccurate," he said, arguing that murderers everywhere tend to kill their neighbors and that if crime rates are higher in predominantly black inner-city neighborhoods, it's because of ongoing, centuries-old policies of structural racism and white supremacy.

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"You're talking about the most segregated population in America, through the vast majority of the 20th century and into the 21st century," he said. "I don't know who else would do the killing."

Coates talked, as he does in the book, about how as a young man in Baltimore, all of his choices revolved around avoiding violence against him — from what he wore to how he walked to school.

Asked what he would do if her were mayor of New Orleans, Coates laughed and said, "I don't know what I'd do if I were mayor, but I could tell you what I'd do if I was king." Emptying prisons, including those convicted of violent gun crimes, and returning them to their communities, would be a priority. Reforming criminal justice, social services, education and housing policy would follow.

When Landrieu brought up personal responsibility in neglected communities, he did so by using a metaphor in which Coates pushed him onto the ground: "If you knocked me off the chair last week, that's on you, but if you come back and I'm still on the floor this week, that's on me," he said.

Coates flatly disagreed, saying, "It's never not my fault if I knocked you off the chair." Discussion of the chair metaphor nearly derailed the conversation. But it brought into focus his argument — first glimpsed on a summer morning in Aspen and now at the center of a national conversation — that violence has been forced upon African-Americans from the arrival of African slaves in 1619 through Jim Crow, segregation and the recent tragedies that spawned the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

atravers@aspentimes.com