Ta-Nehisi Coates talks literature and social justice at the Morrison Center

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The Morrison Center is not a building many would consider exciting. However, come on the right night, and crowds will liven the quiet structure of beige brick for events ranging from lectures to Broadway musicals. Monday evening was such a night, one in which people bustled to the door to avoid the cool fall evening. Ta-Nehisi Coates, an accomplished writer and journalist would speak to the long sold-out auditorium of excited fans that night. 

As the crowds settled in, Kurt Zwolfer, executive director of The Cabin, a literary arts center that hosts the Distinguished Lecture Series, welcomed the crowd. He was followed by Boise State President Marlene Tromp, who took the stage to introduce the highly-anticipated guest. 

“I have to tell you, it warms a Victorianist’s heart to hear people applaud like that for literature and books, so thank you,” Tromp said. 

She continued that Coates’ accomplishments include writing for Time and The Atlantic, as well as three nonfiction books: “We Were Eight Years in Power,” “The Beautiful Struggle” and “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award. He also currently writes the Black Panther and Captain America comic series. His first novel, “The Water Dancer,” was released three weeks ago. 

After Tromp finished her introduction, she welcomed Coates and his interviewer Mitchell S. Jackson, a fellow writer, to the stage. 

“Here’s the thing, this is my first novel,” Coates said. “I don’t know if 200 people in New York want to hear what I’ve got to say, but 2,000 people in Boise? I was like, ‘Alright, if you say so.’” 

Coates then gave a short reading from the beginning of the novel he has worked on for over 10 years. Afterward, he took a seat alongside Jackson to begin the discussion of the evening. 

Jackson quoted from W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, formative thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance, to preface his first question on African-American art as propaganda versus art washed of political content. A crowd member shouted to the speakers in the middle of Jackson’s question that it was too long. The hall fell silent until Coates asked Jackson to continue. 

“When I was in college, there was always this question like do we have some sort of responsibility as writers, as poets to our community to represent, or should we just be writing about leaves in the fall,” Coates said. 

Coates said that he would associate himself more with Du Bois in his idea of propaganda, though he didn’t like the word propaganda. 

“When people talk about black art as with politics and they say it’s, you know, propaganda et cetera, that is to say ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was not propaganda or ‘Gone With the Wind’ was not propaganda. I would say most art has some sort of political content, has some way of dealing with the world,” Coates said. 

Jackson then asked about how Coates went about making decisions about his book, such as who the narrator would be. 

“I knew I wanted to do an interracial family in Virginia, because I don’t think people realize how much of African American identity is built on what, today, we’d call biraciality. Slavery is rape. Slavery is always rape, so when you’re talking about the African American community, you are talking about the descendants of some 250 years of rape,” Coates explained.

Coates said that telling the story of a biracial boy allowed him to convey the story of someone learning to find himself outside of what society asked him to be because he could not be a white man.

“Black people in this country have a very, very long history of trying to forge alliances with people who are not black, but who clearly share similar interests,” Coates said. “And one of the great tragedies of America is how largely unsuccessful that effort has been. It doesn’t mean that it’s not an effort that should continue, but the history of America is largely that effort being completely crushed.”

Coates continued that he feels intelligence and talent are overrated by society, and that wisdom and work-ethic are very underrated. The key to writing is to write regardless of how it sounds in the moment and to push through and look at it despite how painful it is, according to Coates.

“My advice to young writers is: you’ve got to fill that page,” Coates said. “It’s an act of literary cowardice to not fill the page, to give up because it hurts, because it pains you to look at your prose and see how bad they are. It all starts off bad.”

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