Ta-Nehisi Coates Talks Literature, Black Lives at Cabin Reading Series Q&A 

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Harrison Berry

It would be tough to imagine Ta-Nehisi Coates getting a warmer welcome in Boise. Approximately 2,000 people filled The Morrison Center on Oct. 7 for a Q&A involving him and author Mitchell S. Jackson, and he was introduced by none other than Boise State University President Marlene Tromp.

"It is a moment when it takes ... courage even to speak," she said, perhaps alluding to her own travails with members of the Idaho State Legislature over Boise State's diversity and inclusion efforts. "Ta-Nehisi Coates is among the bravest."

Coates, most recently the author of a historical novel, The Water Dancer, was himself taken aback at the introduction, calling it one of those moments when he wondered if someone was actually speaking about him or someone else. He was in Boise for The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series and Boise State's Distinguished Lecture series, and in a wide-ranging conversation with Jackson, he held forth on a wide range of topics, from the ins and outs of his new novel to race relations and his testimony before a special U.S. House Committee to discuss the case for reparations for slavery.

"What you're trying to do," he said about crafting his message for that hearing, "is make things as clear as you possibly can," adding that comments before the hearing from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) before the hearing made him "so obvious to use ... as a foil."

One of the foremost intellectuals of his generation, Coates has had a prestigious career as a writer of nonfiction. His first books, The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me, have been huge bestsellers, giving a human face and bold new voice to the plight of black Americans in the near wake of race turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ascendance of the Black Lives Matter movement. To his mind, flashpoints in African American-adjacent  race relations boil down to America's sordid history of slavery.

"Slavery is rape," Coates said. "Slavery is always rape. So when you talk about African American identity, you're talking about 450 years of rape."

It was a bold statement that garnered a lot of applause at The Morrison Center, but behind every bold statement on Monday night was an ocean of nuance. In The Water Dancer, enslaved and formerly enslaved characters grapple with questions of whether they should trust their sometimes-former masters or poor whites more. When asked about this by Jackson, Coates said African American groups have long sought ties with non-black people and groups that have commonalities like poverty or other kinds of disenfranchisement, only to be rebuffed—in part, he said, because many choose the power they aspire to over new power forged in cooperation.

"We are all, to various degrees, children of the master," he said.

As is so often the case with Coates, the conversation turned to current events—the conviction of Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer recently convicted of murder after she walked into the home of a black man and shot him. She was given a 10-year sentence for the crime. The case sparked a national conversation about race and equity within criminal justice system.

"I just think that when black men commit similar crimes, they should also not get more than 10 years," Coates said.

Things are moving quickly for The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series. On Tuesday, Oct. 15, it will host author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto and, most recently, The Dutch House), also at The Morrison Center. Tickets are still available for that engagement.


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