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Northwestern University

An Evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Award-winning author visits Northwestern for a candid discussion about contemporary times

By Daniel P. Smith

Ta-Nehisi Coates is comfortable in his own skin.

And on Jan. 31, as Coates settled into a chair before a capacity crowd at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, he proved as much.

Humble and thoughtful, Coates, one of the nation’s leading voices on race and politics, touched on far-reaching topics both personal and public during a nearly 90-minute discussion hosted by Northwestern’s student-run Contemporary Thought Speaker Series.

Answering questions from moderator Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern, as well as current Northwestern students, Coates covered politics and fatherhood, his literary life and experiences as a “black kid from Baltimore.”

Nodding as Pattillo opined, “We are not living in lighthearted times,” Coates charged that the election of Donald Trump was the “clearest evidence of white supremacy” and told the audience that racism is not something confined to America’s deep, distant past.

“I’m concerned about people who live on the other side of the ledger, those who live under the boot,” Coates said.

As a national correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates championed the freedom he’s been provided by his editors and noted his earnest desire to tackle complex social questions, evident by his daring 2014 piece titled “The Case for Reparations.”

“If you’re going to make a case for reparations … you better have all of your evidence behind you,” said Coates, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient.

Coates also addressed themes that weave through his best-selling memoir, Between The World and Me, the 2015 National Book Award-winning tome that explores the sobering plight of growing up black in the U.S.

Between The World and Me is not a book you write to try to bridge a gap,” he acknowledged.

While the memoir cemented Coates’ unlikely rise from college dropout to a spot on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list last year, the New York resident expressed unease with his swelling fame. Researchers now react to him differently, he said,  and he shuns opportunities to be the spokesperson for black America.

“We need more Between The World and Me’s,” Coates said. “We need more [voices], not less.”

Addressing a student question about creating meaningful social change, Coates touted genuine passion.

“It should be inside-out, not outside-in,” he said. “It should start with what you love doing.”

That closing message resonated with many in attendance, including American Studies major Ben Levey ’17. “Those words reminded me that there’s always a way to make your dreams align with creating a better, more equitable world,” Levey said.

Added Ben Zimmermann ’18, a political science major and CTSS co-chair, “[Coates] is an example of how you don’t just say you want to change the world, but rather how you turn your true passions into making a difference.”

The CTSS event was co-sponsored by the Office of the President, Weinberg College’s Simeon Leland Fund, the Office of Student Affairs, the Buffett Institute for Global Studies and the Department of Political Science.

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