Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book We Were Eight Years In Power is eight previously published Atlantic essays each preceded by a new piece of writing that describes Coates’s intellectual, financial, and emotional state at the time of the piece, and musings on the Obama years. The eight new essays trace his journey from what he says is his “failure” as a writer to the groundbreaking and award-winning trio of “The Case For Reparations,” Between The World And Me, and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
He spoke to Deadspin earlier this week about that journey, his quiet return to watching football, how being a man in the post-Harvey Weinstein era has taught him what it’s like to be white, and much more.
Deadspin: Right at the beginning of your book, you talk about the Cosby article and how it was in some ways a “failure.” And daily blogging is great because you can fail all the time—you write again that day, or the next day. How has writing changed for you now that you can’t do that, that you can’t fail publicly now?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Oh, I think you still can. And I think you still will. I think all writers do. The only question is, are you gonna admit it or not? That’s the real difference. But you’re gonna fail. There’s just no way around that. I don’t know how one finishes their career and feels like “every piece of published writing I have is a success.” I do think it’s true that the writing that’s published in a book or in a magazine tends to be more finished, fact-checked, copy edited and all of that, but failure better be a part of your process if you’re trying to grow.
Oh, I meant you specifically. I know I can fail, I screwed up a blog last week.
I will, it’s gonna happen. There’s no way around it.
You’ve mentioned before how you gained from creating a salon in your comments section, but how mechanically did you change on a prose level when you were cranking out multiple posts a day?
It got a lot better, because every time it was practice, it was regular daily practice. Even when I was writing informal stuff for the blog, I was thinking about how it was written and how it would sound. I always thought about that.
It gave me a lot of opportunity to get better, you know?
Yeah, that’s the fun thing about blogging, you can fine-tune really minor things, like even dropping one link for the commenters to go at it.
Exactly, exactly. And then it puts you in conversation with people. So from people who saw things differently than you...you might learn something, actually. I said in the book, I often did learn things from people who were ostensibly just internet commenters, but were often so much more.
I dug up this old blog where you call Neal Brennan a “tour guide” and say “Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time...Get your ass in the water. Swim like me.” What water is your ass in now?
Oh, Jesus, man. I’m constantly in the water. If I told you specifically, then I’d have to tell you what I’m writing, which I don’t want to do. I can tell you that I’m writing this comic book, that obviously is—you talk about learning publicly, that is a constant learning thing. It’s not a natural deal.
Just the smallest thing is the idea of how few words you get on the page and how much has to be said just with pictures. It’s a totally, totally different thing.
I am still very much perfecting my French, so that’s another thing. That is always embarrassing. That is never not embarrassing, trying to deal with your French.
You almost never hear a writer admit it the way you do in this book: “It was, in many ways, an end point for my inquiries.” What does that feel like—to be 10, 15 years in public trying to answer a question and getting to “All right, I answered it”?
I thought I was done. But I’m doing this thing right now, and there’s so many other questions. There’s so many other questions.
I think I can say this, I’ll give you an example. I’m doing a lot of reading right now; a lot of my work is focused on slavery, and it’s mostly been slavery in the South. So you’re talking about roughly the 19th century. But slavery in continental America is quite old, it lasted for 350 years, commenced in 1619 in Virginia. So I’m doing all this reading on slavery in New England right now, and I am discovering so much. You should never say you’re done with a question, you should never declare that you found the answer. I guess it’s true, I felt like certain things had been answered for me. But there are always other related questions that I maybe hadn’t taken into consideration when I wrote that.
For instance, I didn’t even wonder why, I didn’t know this was a question: why Northern attitudes about race and about black people actually enjoyed so much proximity to Southern white attitudes. That’s being clarified for me. And I’ll have more on this later. There is more to be answered. I don’t know if this is the form I’ll continue answering it in. But it’s deep, man. It is not a shallow wading pool. It’s deep. It’s a sea! It really is. So understanding this—or trying, I shouldn’t say understanding—and being in process, you just learn so much about the country, and it’s a phenomenal thing.
So I know I just wrote that in the book. And it is kind of true, but it’s not totally true.
When you say you don’t think the form will be the same, what do you mean?
I think I’m still pursuing it in comic books, right now. I write Black Panther, but race is not a strong element in Black Panther, there’s not a lot about race in Black Panther. The question about race is ultimately just a question about power, it really is. It’s how human beings organize themselves around power, how they exploit, how they use it. That is at the heart of the comic book. Even though race is not at the heart of the comic book, a lot of it, because it’s about power, and I’ve studied race as a way of looking at power, it actually is informed by race, if that makes sense.
The dude’s in this mythical country Wakanda where everybody’s black. So obviously you don’t have the same context of race. But certainly the issues of power, of organizing power, are still there. So it can be expressed in all sorts of ways.
That does kind of transition to something I’ve been curious about in rereading “The First White President.” Do you think that instead of claiming power over black people being the animating force behind Trump’s election, it was power over Latinos?
I don’t think those are in competition at all. The answer is yes! Yes to both. For instance, if you look at the history of white supremacy in this country, it has rarely been the case that it was singularly directed at black people to the exclusion of all other groups.
When Al Smith, a Catholic and the governor of New York, was running for president, when he goes down South [in 1928], what is he greeted with? He’s greeted with burning crosses, because he’s Catholic.
White supremacy has never been an either/or phenomenon. It’s never been like that. There have been different moments when different groups are more prominent. I think black people have been particularly prominent. But there have obviously been huge swaths of history where Native Americans were the primary [target].
What I think about black people in this country is I think the construction and idea of niggers is central to the idea of being white. If you completely took that out, you would have a really hard time defining “white.” Or “white” would have to be something totally different. Notice I don’t mean actually black people, but the construction of and the stereotypes that they put on black people. I think that’s central to being white. That doesn’t mean that those forces aren’t or can’t be directed at other people.
It’s very, very important that I be clear about this. That is not to diminish Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, for instance. It is certainly not to diminish the anti-Latino rhetoric. When I talk about the white supremacy of the Klan in Mississippi in the 1920s, it’s not to diminish their anti-Catholicism. This thing, man, it forms, and it shifts, and it moves around, and it takes different shapes. There was a piece just this Sunday in the New York Times on the alt-right and these racists, and how they love Asian women.
But what I would argue is, in general, and there are always exceptions, is the one element that you have always needed is the construct of the nigger. In America, that’s the one thing whiteness and white supremacy has not been able to do without. It has been essential to it.
I don’t think that therefore means, back in the last election, did black people get it worse than Latinos? I don’t know that we did. Did we get it worse than Muslims? I don’t know that we did, I wouldn’t say it that way. But I do think that anti-black construct was central to Trump, is central to Trump, I don’t think without a black president you have Trump. I think it’s a direct reaction to blackness. So I think it’s essential.
I can’t remember if your line is from one of the old or new essays in the book, but it’s essentially “that word I can’t say would make more of that word I can’t say.”*
That goes back to what I was saying about power. There’s nothing white about white supremacy. It’s not about blonde hair, blue eyes, or lighter skin. That’s the way in which it’s expressed, but that’s not the elements of it. It’s not like if we all looked the same, it would go away. The problem is not that we look different from each other, that’s not the issue.
Did he call somebody a nigga? What did he do?
The Bills GM claims there was a “misunderstanding” and the Jaguars player just said “racist slurs.” I can guess what he said.
The other player is black?
Yeah. Are you watching football again after Junior Seau’s death drove you away?
I was away, I lived in Paris for a year. And I was also here because I was on book tour for Between The World And Me. I basically lived out of hotels for six months, and this was in the fall. I went from city to city and hotel to hotel doing the tour, and there would always be Sundays, man. I have watched the NFL since I was five years old, I remember the Dallas Cowboys and Danny White, post-Roger Staubach. And I watched it from when I was five all those years up until Junior Seau committed suicide.
I was away, I had this tremendous longing for home, and there was nothing more comfortable than turning on a football game on Sunday. It gave me and it gives you this language where you can talk to anybody—not literally anybody—but people who can be very, very different can talk about what happened on Sunday.
So yeah, I did come back.
I don’t know to do with this. I watched Cam Newton when he went down the other day, though I guess it’s not what it looked like it was. And I saw that cat, the Texans quarterback, Savage...It’s not appointment TV like it used to be for me. That don’t make it better, I’m talking about how I feel. I don’t be like, “I gotta watch the football game, so I can’t do X, Y, and Z,” which is how I used to be. If I’m home and I’m not doing anything, I’ll put on the football game on as background music, which I did not do after Junior Seau died. That’s the difference.
I don’t know, man. It’s a hard game to watch. It’s a really, really hard game to watch. We always knew how the ownership was, but you really see the ownership with how they pull Trump up, how they treat Kaepernick—which is not surprising, but it’s a hard game to watch.
But right now, on mute, I’m looking at the Jon Gruden press conference. They played this really over-the-top trailer to introduce this dude as the head coach. One of the things that struck me when I was away was, for people who are football fans in America, how much of our lives we put into it, and I’m including myself in that. It feels somehow life and death, and I’ve increasingly wondered whether it should, like what’s that about?
The way I’ve justified it to myself is that in late capitalism, anything I consume is ethically compromised—
Oh, come on! That don’t work.
That don’t work. That don’t work. That don’t work. And I’m not saying I’m better. But I mean, come on. Come on. Come on. That doesn’t work. That just doesn’t work!
But it’s hard, because what is the expectation here? And this doesn’t make it work, this is just a true thing about human beings, but who’s clean in all of their lives? None of us are clean. You try to be clean, you strive to be clean. None of us are clean, man.
I eat meat, but yeah, I see where the handwaving doesn’t cut it.
So do I. I used to want to go to the Super Bowl. I would never go to the Super Bowl now, for all sorts of reasons. I used to really want to see a live game, I don’t think I will ever go see a live pro football game.
I just feel like I wouldn’t enjoy it, that doesn’t make me clean. It’s actually quite selfish. I just don’t feel like I used to feel about it.
I used to love NFL Films. Wow. Jesus.
Is there anything in sports that’s bringing you the joy that NFL Films brought you when you were 15?
This is a great time for the NBA, man. You can see some great basketball, some really really really incredibly basketball. Harden was out, but I watched the Houston-Golden State game the other night—that was ridiculous. I was watching that thinking, yo, I don’t think anybody can beat Golden State, because I thought Houston gave everything they had. They just couldn’t do it.
I love watching Kawhi Leonard. I love watching Kawhi Leonard play. I think that dude is incredible.
I’m glad we did get away from the blogging thing, but as a Deadspin reader, what can we do better?
Man, you know what you can do better? You can publish more Dave McKenna articles. Is McKenna still writing for you guys?
Yeah, he’s working on a big story. Wow. McKenna is going to take that as “I’m so slow that Coates didn’t know I was working here any more.”
No! No, no, no, no, no, don’t put it in those terms!
[Ed. note: McKenna did publish a blog the day before we spoke.]
You know how I know Dave, right?
You both worked at the Washington City Paper.
We did, but I knew Dave before that. I used to read McKenna’s stuff in City Paper when I was a student at Howard before I even started. He was the best thing going on at that paper, man. He used to write a weekly column, and it was fuckin’ hilarious. He was Deadspin before there was Deadspin. So I’m happy he ended up at Deadspin. In much the way that we were Gawker before Gawker, McKenna was Deadspin before that. Deadspin was waiting for him.
I’m not saying [Diana Moskovitz] just writes about this, but she did a lot of the Ezekiel Elliott stuff, she writes a lot about sexual harassment, she is incredible. You could publish more stuff from her.
I think it gets missed because she’s writing about sports, but she will give you the most nuanced—and by nuanced, I don’t mean “on the other hand” ish, I mean nuance with an actual opinion—she will give you the most nuanced writing about sexual harassment that you’ll ever want to read. And I don’t think people are seeing it because it’s in sports. I mean sports fans who read Deadspin are seeing it, but it’s weird, because where else are you going to read a feminist take on sexual harassment in the Ezekiel Elliott case, or on how the NFL handles spousal abuse. You’re not gonna get that anywhere other than Deadspin right now. I wish more people saw it. Maybe more people do and I’m downplaying it too much. But she’s excellent.
That reminds me of—actually, I want to revisit one other thing and then we’ll go back to what Diana writes about. You mentioned alt-weeklies being Gawker before Gawker and Dave being Deadspin before Deadspin, which are both obviously true. There’s no Gawker right now, though, so who is keeping the blog alive? Or if no one is, what place does the blog have now?
It’s mostly gone, it’s sad. It shouldn’t have left. I think it was a mistake. I think a lot of the conversation moved on to Twitter, I think that was the big mistake. I think letting that go was stupid.
Yeah like, it’s true that podcasts are the new talk radio, and I don’t think that’s a bad development, but the idea that Twitter is the new blogs—to me at least, it can’t replace it.
No, it can’t. I don’t know. For whatever reason, people moved away from it, but I don’t think the issue was people won’t read it or you had a format issue. I mean maybe people couldn’t figure out how to monetize it, maybe that is what it was. But just as a basic format, I don’t know, I thought blogging was excellent, I really did.
I was sad when we moved away from it at The Atlantic. I don’t know. As you started this interview saying, blogging filled that space where things you were still trying to figure out, you could still be in process. And now, you really can’t be in process in public any more. It’s sad.
Speaking of Twitter, how’s life without it?
Good. Good. Good. Twitter is like, you have a partner, and y’all have a bad relationship, but you crazy about her. And you try to leave her, and you leave her, and you leave her and you come back. Finally, you catch her in bed with like, two other people. And that’s what you needed to see in order to break up with her. And that’s what I needed to see. I never should have been there, man.
Was it affecting you negatively when you were on there?
Yes, definitely. Emotionally, yeah. I felt bad every time I looked at Twitter. It was feeding some part of me. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was good, but mostly, I felt bad. And maybe that’s particular to things that have happened in my career. But it wasn’t a good space for me. I’m hesitant to speak for all writers, but I think for me as a writer, protecting the space I operate in to do that writing is really important.
In the age of blogging, I could read people’s reactions to stuff, I could go back and forth with them, I could engage in dialogue. But I can’t really do that anymore. And I certainly can’t do that on Twitter. Maybe I could still do it, but I certainly can’t do it on Twitter. I’ve had to shrink that space a little bit, unfortunately. I don’t know that that’s the greatest development. I think I said that in the book, too.**
When I was blogging, one of the things I knew was that you could not have an unmoderated comment section. I knew that, if you were going to have an unmoderated comment section, it was just going to go to shit. And Twitter is an unmoderated comment section. So, it is what it is.
I want to go back to what we were talking about with Diana’s work, with news of sexual harassment in sports reaching people it maybe wouldn’t otherwise. I just listened to the interview you did with Marc Maron, and you said that before Harvey Weinstein and everything that’s come after, you had no idea that it was like that. Why do you think you had no idea?
Why would I? When you’re in not just the protected class—by which I mean a class that’s not actually going through the thing which has happened, the oppression—but you’re actually in a class where you’re benefiting from it...You could say—I feel so white having this conversation. Like, I’ve learned what it means to be white. It’s about power, right? White people say “well, I didn’t do X, Y, and Z.” Okay, you didn’t do X, Y, and Z but I can give you all the ways in which you’re benefiting from the fact that X, Y, and Z happened.
So I think “well, I’ve never harassed anybody,” right? But I could also give you all the ways in which I benefit from a climate that makes harassment possible. I know it’s there. And I guess I was kind of aware of that, but if it doesn’t happen to you, if it’s not really happening around you, in your space, how would you know?
It probably was happening around you with women you know, right?
Okay, and I’ve heard that before. It wasn’t like I hadn’t had women around me say X, Y, and Z happened to me. But to understand it as a pervasive thing that is basically true and exerts influence throughout the workplace...that’s another thing.
There are plenty of white people who understand that there is racism in the world. Do they get that? Yes. One of their black friends says that the cops stopped them and did something—yeah, okay, okay, I get that. But that ain’t the same as seeing Eric Garner choked to death. That’s different. It’s not the same as seeing cops down in Ferguson in SWAT gear pointing at people saying “I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off,” on camera.
So that’s the equivalent of Jodi Kantor reporting on Harvey Weinstein pulling out his dick.
That’s exactly it. It’s not like if somebody told me “Hey, sexual harassment is a pervasive and huge problem,” I would have been like “No it’s not.” I would have said “Yeah, that’s probably true.” But to feel it, and to understand that it’s true, instead of saying that I suspect X, Y, and Z? Totally different.
And when you’re in the class with power, you gotta be an extraordinary person to see it that way. And I am not a particularly extraordinary man.
I get it a lot more now when white people come up to me with reactions to the work. I don’t know that I completely understood that before. I get the desire to say “not every white person.” One of the things I got right away was that that can’t be my response to anyone that I’m talking to, to say to any woman “Yeah, but I didn’t.”
This is what this is like. Okay, I get it now. I got the urge to say that, I understand like the guilt and the embarrassment. Even if you didn’t do X, Y, and Z, you’re still implicated in it. Because you are implicated in it ultimately.
*The line from the new essay “Notes From The Seventh Year” is “A separate society without would almost certainly replicate the same problems of power we made here. Niggers would make more niggers, either of themselves or of the unfortunate group they settled upon.”
**From the book’s “Notes From The Third Year”: “The great Ishmael Reed says writing is fighting, and I believed him. The blog was a gym, my commenters were my trainers...It was not perfect....But these days, with the blog gone and thus my old community gone, with the gym shuttered and boarded up, I feel myself in constant danger—even as I write this—of allowing the power of my punch, the speed of my hands, to lapse.”