Exclusive - Ta-Nehisi Coates Extended Interview

December 13, 2016 - Ta-Nehisi Coates 12/13/2016 Views: 101,882

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the Atlantic article "My President Was Black," weighs in on Barack Obama's time in the White House and his ability to transcend racial barriers. (21:14)

Watch Full Episode

Please welcome Ta-Nehisi Coates.

-♪ -(cheering, applause)

-Welcome. -See I gave youthe black handshake?

The black... Dude.

You know what's so funny isyou wrote about that in the...

I was reading the piece lastnight and I was like, "Oh, man,

I didn't even..." It's justthe moment in time where you go,

-"Barack Obama straddlestwo lines." -Yeah, yeah.

You know, where he is,yes, president,

but you cannot denythat your president was black.

-Right, right, right.-And it's that small moment

where you go, like,"Do I-do I make it, do I not?"

-Right, right, right.-So, yeah. But, uh,

-welcome to the show.-Thanks, man.

Yeah, man. It's, uh, it's beenquite a journey for you.

I remember the first timewe spoke and you had

exploded onto the scene.Your book, a best seller,

everyone talking about you.

And your lifehas changed since then.

-Little bit.-A little bit? A lottle bit.

Uh, a lot of bit.It's odd, too.

Because I've been writingfor 20 years.

And for about 18 of those years,

-no one cared.-Yeah.

And then, like, a bunchof people were suddenly looking.

So, it's, like, the...it's, like, the weirdest thing,

you know what I mean?It's like, if you do this...

Like, if you just singon corners, like, for...

and that's just what you do,you just sing on...

you just like singing oncorners, and then, one day,

there are a lot of peoplelooking at the corner.

You know what I mean?And you can't quite figure out,

like, why-why they're there.You feel like you've been

-doing the same thing thewhole time, so... -Well, I...

I guess, maybe, it wasa combination of you

hitting your peak and, maybe,America reaching a place

where your voice was somethingthat was... that is needed.

Um, what would you sayis the best and worst part

of "having celebrity," though?

Oh, man, I can't believeI'm gonna say this.

I-I have to give youan honest answer. Um...

it is very challenging

to be a college dropout

trying to be a writer,financially.

Um, my life is a lot lessfinancially challenging now.

-Yeah. -I have to say thatthat's the best part.

-I just got to be honestabout that. -Well, I hope so.

It would be weird if you weren'thonest about that. Yeah.

Yeah, I mean, that's just true.Um... probably the worst part

is the amount of people lookingat you. I mean, that-that...

I mean, I-I... You know,I was one of these people

who probablya few years ago was like,

"I don't understandwhat's wrong with Kanye West."

And I kind of understanda little bit now,

you know what I mean?Like, I kind of... I just...

I kind of got it. I'm notsaying, you know, he should have

gone to see Trump, but I kind ofget it a little bit,

-you know what I mean? So...-No, I-I hear

what you're saying.Like, I think one of the pieces

that resonated with me was whereyou talked about how people

-no longer see you as a humanbeing. -No, they don't.

-No, no, no, not at all.-They see you as an object.

Not at all, not at all.Like you-you really are, um...

I-I don't even knowhow to describe it.

Like, they'll talk to you-- andthis is, like, good and bad--

like, even when they'recomplimenting you...

and it's, like, it's going,like, right past you.

Like they're talkingto some image of you.

And, you know, you have thiswhole thing that you can't

figure out whypeople are being nice to you,

whether they're beinggenuine or not.

And even when they're being meanto you, you know, it's like,

you-you're like, you're notreally being mean to me.

You know what I mean? Like,it's, like, some other thing.

-It's-it's the idea of you.-Yeah, the idea of you, yeah.

And that idea is exacerbatedby-by the writing.

Because people do look to yourwriting now. I-I know...

And, you know I've heard youtalk about it bit, you know,

even the last time we werehere... how you-you sort of

shunned that. You go, "Hey, Iwrite and these are my opinions

-"and that's that.I'm not dictating. -Yeah. Yeah.

I'm-I'm not putting in a place."

But this articleis really powerful.

"My President Was Black."

What does that title mean?

Well, there was a moment,uh, during the inauguration

that, you know, uh,a lot of folks watching...

And I watched with, you know,Young Jeezy

and, uh, Jay Z on stage, andthey do "My President Is Black,"

and it was such a joyous,beautiful moment.

And I wanted to conjure that,but at the same time, uh,

make it a little bit elegiac.

-Like, this thinghad actually ended. -Yeah.

And so it-it kind of, you know,just all sort of fit together.

A-And this is a piece where youspent... it seems like

you spent a lot of time with thepresident, writing this piece.

We did, we actually did spendquite... I was sort of surprised

that he spent that much timewith me, actually.

Because, you know,the fact that, um,

-I had been, you know,critical of him. -Yes.

Uh, specifically about,you know, how he dealt with

African-Americans in the past--it was a known thing,

-obviously, to him and theWhite House. -Well-well...

Well, let's-let's get into that,because you do talk about that

in the article. You've alwaysbeen critical of the president,

uh, with regards to howhe addresses black audiences

versus how he addressesa white audience

-about African-Americans.-Right.

Like, what was your biggestcriticism of that?

Well, I... There were twothings. I mean, I-I felt like

the president, in one respect,

you know, wanted to be,as he said,

the president of all people,but in-in other respects,

wanted to, you know, get, youknow, the sort of black pass.

So, when it came to policy, whenit came to talking about policy,

it was always "I'm the presidentof all people,

I can't do anything specificor special for black people."

But then, when it came to, youknow, talking about, you know,

what we, you know, nowunderstand or what we call,

-you know, res-respectabilitypolitics... -Yeah.

...he was saying thingsto black folks that, probably,

I would have less of a problemwith if he were the-if he were

not the president of the UnitedStates and thus the bearer

of the heritageand the, you know, legacy

of why black folks are ina lot of these conditions

in the first place.

Here-Here's a questionI have, though.

If you are in that position,

how do you straddle the line,

you know, between-betweensaying to...

-Because you are thepresident... -Right, you are.

-and you're talkingto a black audience. -Right.

Like, is it the differencebetween nobody hearing you

-say this to a black audience-Right.

or is it the fact that you aresaying it to a black audience?

I think it's the fact thatyou're-you're the president now.

Like, you just... it's justa different sort of position.

You're no longer Barack inthe hood, you know what I mean?

Like, you... It's true,you're black. Like...

That-that sounds likea dope movie title, by the way.

-Barack in the Hood. -I'mjust gonna throw it out there.

-Barack in the Hood. -Right.Right, right. But you're not...

-That's not who you are anymore.I mean, you represent -Yeah.

Andrew Johnson.You represent Andrew Jackson.

You represent Woodrow Wilson.You have the heritage,

you know, of-of a countrythat, you know,

for most of its history,in terms of its policy,

has not been particularlyfriendly towards black folks.

And so my feeling was when youthen, you know, address them,

you know, in this sort of way--you know, why don't you pull up

your pants, why don't youwork hard, or why don't you...

You know, I just, um...Man, boy,

it just-just totally, completelyrubbed me the wrong way.

You were...you were in a unique situation,

-where you could talk tothe president about that. -Yeah.

I don't know how effectiveI was. But, yeah, yeah,

no, I was. I-I was, and, um...

It's the weirdest thing,you know what I mean?

Because it's like you'renot gonna beat the president.

-You're just... you're just not.You're not. -I... Yeah. I know.

But you still got to fight,right? So you still have

to go in there and you got to,you know... They...

'Cause what he would do ishe would summon you,

-you know what I mean? He wouldsummon these reporters. -Yes.

And, like, he's very tricky,right? Because what he would do

is... The first time I did it,he sat me right next to him,

'cause there's these assignedplaces where you have to sit,

right? So everybody has to sitdown. And then he comes in.

-So it's like, you know,"Say it to my face." -Yes.

You know what I mean? "You wasall bold when you was writin'.

"You can touch my face as well."You're right next to him. Yeah.

Right, right, right, right.And then the second time, I was,

like, right across from him,right? So it's like, you know,

"What you got to say now?"You gonna say... You know,

you're-you're all bravewhen you got your, you know...

your little laptop over there.But, you know...

-but, you know, here it is, youknow. -You know, what's funny--

-I picture him saying thisto you, where he's like, -Right.

-"Uh, where's your laptop now?Uh, yeah. -Yeah, yeah, yeah.

"Uh, you're all brave when yougot your laptop. -Right, right.

Say it to my face. Say it to myface." That's funny. That's...

Right, right, right. But you-yougot to say it. And, you know,

the story I always tell is, thefirst time, I felt like I went

really, really soft. And I camehome, I told my wife, I said,

"Man, I-I went...I went so soft."

And when I was going downthe second time,

she said,"Listen, you go down there

"and you don't take no stuff.You don't play.

You tell himexactly how you feel, son."

Like, she was like...You know what I mean?

And I wentand I-I kind of overdid it.

I was a little too...Like, it was like,

"Wait, he's stillthe president."

-"I don't want your water! Aah!"-Right, right, right.

Yeah, it was like that.

So I could never quite get itcalibrated,

-you know what I mean?-Let's-let's talk about that.

Just-just generally. 'Cause thisis the gist of this article.

-Yeah. -It's you talkingabout Barack Obama trying

-to calibrate. It's you,as Ta-Nehisi Coates, -Mm-hmm.

trying to ca-calibrate. Thatseems to be the recurring theme

that you hearbeing talked about,

especially when it comesto black discourse in America.

-Right. -In South Africa,it's the same. I know.

-It's-it's a different historybut a shared history, -Right.

at the same time. And it isalways the conversation,

-"How do you calibrate? Howextreme should you be? -Yeah.

How much conversationshould you have? What..."

What was the one thingyou noticed,

being with the presidentfor so long,

in terms of his calibration?

Well, first of all, I...

So, this was, like,a-a different piece than, like,

-everything else I've written.Like, I felt like, -Yeah.

when it came timeto write this piece...

Like, I've taken my shots.People know how I feel.

Like, this is not, you know...Like, I-I could not rehash

the same argument I was having.This was, you know,

I guess, an attempt to really,really understand him.

The first thing I, you know,immediately, you know,

felt that I understood wasthat he...

was able to addresswhite Americans in a way

that I-I just think very fewAfrican-Americans could.

-And why-why is that? -(sighs)Because I think Barack Obama

was born into a home, um,

not just to a white womanand white grandparents

but a white woman and whitegrandparents who, shockingly,

told him it was okaythat he was black

and that he should not beashamed of it

and that he should,in fact, be proud of it.

Um, he... And I think, also...I think, in addition to that,

you know-- and he says this--part of the reason

why that was possibleis the sheer physical distance

of being in Hawaiiand not growing up against some

of the grinding pressuresof, you know, Jim Crow.

And so I think he just...

That-That's a very,very unique circumstance,

you know, to-to grow up in, andI think it does kind of shape

your approach, um,in a good way,

in the sense if you want to havethe ambition to be president

of the United Statesbut perhaps in a bad way

when it comesto actually having to deal

with the force and the pressuresof American racism.

And you can't actually escape itanymore.

But-but, now, this is...this is a paradox.

And this is where I struggle.Because one thing I love

about you is that you arethe eternal pessimist.


No, because I sometimes feellike I'm too optimistic.

And when I read your stuff,I go, like, "Yeah, mayb...

You know what, Trevor,just come back to real life."

-I think the world will becomebetter and the moral arc -Right.

-and I'm like, "We can do it,guys. We can..." -Right. Right.

-I really think like that.And your writing takes me -Wow.

the other way. Yeah. You-youknow, I-I find that balance

in between. But I go... When youtalk about that, essentially,

what you're saying isBarack Obama,

-in your opinion,may not have ascended -Mm-hmm.

to the highest officein the land

were he not someonewho was able to see beyond

what white people had doneto black people in America.

Yeah. I mean, I guess, um...

"see beyond" strikes meas a little bit much.

Um, I think if he weremore personally wounded...

He was not traumatized by it.Do you understand? Like...

-Like, when I grew up in...-I get what you're saying, yeah.

When I grew upin West Baltimore, like,

anything associated, like-- andI'm talking about my childhood--

-Yeah. -...associatedwith white people,

-99% of the timewas something malevolent. -Yes.

Like, it was an explanatoryforce for something bad.

And in some cases,it was a direct, you know,

explanatory, you know, force.

You know, why do you livein the neighborhood you live in?

Why are you worried, you know,in that neighborhood

about your personal safety?

Why is that neighborhoodshaped that way?

Why do the policedeal with you?

And that's not his experience.

-Why are the schoolsthe way they are? -Yeah.

Who has the power?Who does not?

That's not, you know,the sort of...

experience that he had,

and so, his approach wasvery, very different, I think.

But now, this is the problemI have with the pessimism is,

I go, you are basically saying

that you needall of those ingredients

to ever havea black president again.

Like, there's one linewhere you wrote, where you...

I mean, I'll paraphrase,but it was basically you saying,

"We watched the president..."

-And you talkingabout the BET party... -Mm-hmm.

...the last partythat the president threw,

and it was a black audience

that had come togetherto celebrate.

And, you know,the feeling was one of loss,

-but almost a future lossgoing... -Yeah.

-"We will never see this again."-Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You genuinely believe that?

I don't know. Like, I-I...

It's harder predict, 'causemaybe there's another path

-that I'm not seeing.I didn't see this. -Yes. Okay.

It's not like I could havewritten this in advance, right?

-Yeah. -This is onlymy assessment of how he did it.

-Yes.-You know understand?

Like,maybe there's some other path

that I'm completely missing,

'cause I certainly didn't seethis path at all.

Um, that's how he did,and I don't think

many African-Americanscould have done it the same way.

-You know?-It's strange. It's...

What I picked up in the article,it's almost like you're saying,

strangely enough,white people can see the anger,

and then they fear that anger,and so they respond differently

to that personwho's in front of them.

It might not even be the anger.

It's just, like,the fact of the matter.

I mean, like, if I haveto go into down state Illinois,

-I don't know these people.-Yeah.

He literally relatesto these people.

Do you understand? Like, it'smy grandparents right here.

-I hear what you're saying.-And it's very, like, I...

You know, the chances of meactually, you know,

walking into, you know,the kind of places

-that he walked into, you know,having... -Well,

I'm not gonna lie. I knowI have a similar thing.

Like, sometimes people sayto me, they go,

-"Why aren't you angrierat white people?" -Mm-hmm.

Or "Why aren't you angrierabout everything?"

And I go, "I cannot condemnall of them,

'cause I know lovefrom some white people."

We don't want you to condemnall of them.

-No. But, I mean,some people do, though. -Right.

-Some people want you to labelit across the board. -Yeah.

-Uh-huh. -But I go,"But when I see a white man,

-I see my father."-Mm-hmm.

I go, "There's a person whoI know who loved me

and a black woman and blackpeople..." -Right, right.

-"...and my family." Do you getwhat I'm saying? -Right.

-So sometimesit is that relatability. -Right.

Um... when you're going throughthe story of Barack Obama,

one thing I found interestingwas how

it sort of related to whatyou talk about in your book.

Many people of colorcan relate to it.

But it's like,even as a president,

it feels like Barack Obama hadto be twice as good.

Oh, he definitely did. I mean,there's just no question.

I mean, it wasall of this sort of reporting

after, you know, the electionthat said,

"Well, Barack Obamawon these voters,

"and Donald Trump won these...

That provesthat there's no racism."

No, no, no, no, no, no.

If I have to, you know,jump six feet

to get the same thing thatyou have to jump two feet for,

that's how racism works.

It's not global and complete,you can't do it.

It's really about raising...

In a sense, it just meansthat you got

to clear a higher standard.You know what I mean?

And, you know, to be president,he had to be, you know, a...


...scholarly,intelligent president,

or the Harvard, you know, Law Review,

the product of someof our, you know,

greatest educationalinstitutions,

capable of talkingto two different worlds,

and Donald Trumphad to be rich and white.

That was it.That's the difference.

Well, that's not fair.Orange, but...

-(laughing): That's right.-But I hear what you're saying.

-(laughter, applause & cheering)-I hear what you're saying.

But okay, let me challenge youon this, though.

-I agree with most of whatyou're saying. -Right, right.

I genuinely do, and I grapplewith this every single day.

But then I go,if you look at Obama

-and you track his progress...-Mm-hmm.

-...a lot of the things thatBarack Obama ran on... -Mm-hmm.

are... ideas and policies

-that Donald Trump has run on.-Mm.

And not... We're not talkingabout the major,

disgusting ideasthat Donald Trump has.

-Mm-hmm. Right. -You know, thedeplorable ideas that he has.

Reprehensible, you know...feelings.

-I'm talking more specificallyaround NAFTA. -Right.

-Trade policies.-Right.

Policies that affectthose swing states

that we know to be the whiteworking class bastion.


Couldn't it be arguedthat Barack Obama

and Donald Trumptapped into the same thing?

-Mm. -You know, they both knewthat if I go and talk

to that factory workerand tell him

I'm against those trade deals,that person will vote for me.

Couldn't you arguethat it's that and not racism?

Um... I don't thinkit's either-or.

-I actually don't think it'seither-or. -Oh, interesting.

Um, I don't really have thedata, but my understanding is,

Hillary Clinton didn't reallycampaign in Wisconsin.

-Yeah. -You know, and I thinkthat was a major, major mistake.

He spent a lot of time,you know, investing, you know?

I think he just...

I mean,you can see what you want

about how high the barrier is.

He just thoughthe could clear it--

you know what I mean--if he went and talked to folks.

You know? Um,and that's a great achievement,

but it's also a very, very,very difficult achievement.

-And I know I keep goingback to this. -Yeah.

I think the...'Cause it has to be said.

I think the very thingthat made that possible

when it came time to govern

was the reason whyhe was so caught off guard

and so surprised... by the kindof reaction that he got.

-Which I think...-You mean from congress,

-Oh, yeah.-from, you know, like,

-Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.-the obstruction, yeah.

I mean, I mean, black folks,you know, who had come up,

you know, differently--you know, not the way he came up

in Hawaii-- might have beensomewhat shocked by...

but not really surprised.

I mean, if you told us that,you know what,

congress isn't gonna workwith him at all,

well, that accordswith what we know about...

Nothing about that there,you know what I mean?

Like, that's not reallyparticularly surprising.

But he as a senatorhad these great relationships,

you know, in the senate.

When he was in the legislaturein Illinois,

he had these sortsof great relationships.

But see, now you're president,you understand?

You're the titular headof the country.

You know what I mean?You are the highest executive

in the country--

it's a very, very,very different relationship.

And the notion that a partythat's been heavily racialized

in a way that, you know,the Republican Party has been,

would freak outat the sight of that

is not shockingto black folks at all.

Let's talk aboutthe racialized aspect

-before we move on.-Mm-hmm.

That has beenone of the biggest themes

that has been talked about,people saying, you know,

if Hillary talkedto white voters,

then maybe thiswouldn't have happened.

-Right. -This is the productof making it all about race.

-Right. -If you alldidn't keep bringing up race,

-Right. -we wouldn'thave needed to do this.

Yeah, again, I justdon't think it's either/or,

you know what I mean?I think it probably is true

that she probablyshould have spent more time

in some of those statestalking to folks.

I think that's...that's true, you know?

I'm never against that,you know?

Um, at the same time,I, you know,

I don't think that that means

that you have to not talkabout race at all.

And given howthe Democratic Party is,

this isn't 20 years ago.

I mean, if you'regonna be competitive

in the Democratic Party,I mean,

if you're gonna winSouth Carolina,

you're gonna win Georgia,North Carolina, Texas,

you got to talkto black and brown people.

So you don't even havethe luxury anymore

of getting around it.

It's not a viable path...

through a Democratic primaryanymore.

And somebody, you know,if you're gonna be...

you know, a viable candidate,you got to figure out

how to balance those two things,and, you know,

that's the one thing he did do.

He did have that figured out,you know?

In terms of balancingand figuring out..

Oh, yeah, I mean,he could win in Iowa

and then go winin South Carolina.

I mean, these are two very,very, very different states.

You know? Um...

So that-that... you know,

Hillary never quitefigured that one out, you know?

Uh, let's switch gears

and talk a little bitabout the piece itself

and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

-'Cause I'm genuinelyfascinated by this. -Mm-hmm.

I will read something like this.

-Mm-hmm.-I process it in my mind,

I try and... I, you know,I argue with you in my...

-I don't agree to the pessimismand so on. -Right.

But for the most part,I'm with you.

-Right.-And then I'm always intrigued,

you know, by peoplewho will say, um...

"Oh, Ta-Nehisi Coates,why didn't you write about...

"Barack Obama's foreign policy?

"Why didn't you writeabout Barack Obama's

"leniency on Wall Street?

"Why did you leave thatout of the article? Why was...

That was glaringly obvious."Why didn't you write about that?

'Cause I can't. I can't.

And I think those people whohave specialties on Wall Street,

and I think those peoplewho have specialties

on foreign policy probably can'twrite with the depth that I can,

you know, about race.

This is not... it's not like I,you know, got an idea one day

to say, hey,I'm gonna write an article

about, you know,the president's legacy on race.

It's not like you can hand thatto any reporter.

And it's not becauseI'm particularly special.

It's just thatI've been thinking about this

all my life, and I'vebeen literally covering it

for the past eight years.This is the culmination

of a conversationof a series of questions

that I've been askingfor the past eight years.

The piece is organic.You can't just, you know, say,

hey, you know what,I'm gonna change my beat today

and go take this approach.

We published a piece, you know,a few months back

on Barack Obama'sforeign policy.

It's not my expectationthat, you know,

the author of that pieceis gonna do what I do.

-I'm with you.-You know what I mean?

When I read, you know,Jane Mayer in The New Yorker

on extraordinary rendition,it's not my expectation

that she's gonna be ableto come over here

and do, you know,what I do on race

and somehow make those links.

I mean, it's be nice,it'd be awesome.

I wish I could, you know?

But it requiresa depth of knowledge.

It's not just, you know,posing questions to people.

It's knowingwhat questions to pose,

it's knowing, you know,what the context is.

I mean,it's a very difficult thing.

Listen, I can sit in a barwith you all day and, you know,

go back and forth about,you know, drones,

go back and forth with youabout business,

as a voter, as a private citizenI can do that.

But this,it's a very, very hard thing.

It's a much,much higher standard

to actually write about it

with some depthand some intelligence.

And that would be a horriblereason to be sitting in a bar.

I mean, that's justa depressing conversation

if we're sitting theretalking about drones

and there's alcohol--drones and alcohol don't mix.

My type of party,my type of party, brother.

Yo, I just want to say to you,um, I love your writing,

-I love what you talk about.-Thanks, man.

Uh, you know, it's... it'sinteresting and strange to me

how much pressureis bestowed on you by people.

They go like: Oh, the Baldwinof this generation, the this...

And I go, no, you'rethe Ta-Nehisi Coates.

-And we appreciate you.-That's all I want.

-Thank you so muchfor your time. -Thanks so much.

-Thank you.-(cheering, applause)

My President Wasthe Black President.

Oh. My President...Let me do the turn again.

I always want to say itin different ways.

Oh, let's do that cheerone more time.

I want to shake his handone more time, one more time.

Sorry. You guys ready?

I will act likeI said "thank you" again.

But this one is just as genuineas the other one.

You guys, do that again.Thank you.

-Oh, no problem. Thank you.-(cheering, applause)

My President Was Black

is in the January/February issueof The Atlantic,

as well as onlineat theatlantic.com.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, everybody.