Ta-Nehisi Coates on Race, Hip-Hop and Being Praised by Toni Morrison

'Between the World and Me' author discusses his writing process and how hip-hop is one of his biggest aesthetic influences

Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, 'Between the World and Me,' wrestles with the racist violence at America's core. Credit: Andre Chung/The Washington Post/Getty

About three weeks ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates got a phone call from Chris Jackson, his editor at Random House's Spiegel & Grau imprint. Jackson was calling to propose moving up the publication of Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, from its planned release this fall to mid-July. "I thought it was crazy," says Coates, 39. "I was basically opposed to it. Then we had coffee, and he made the case. And it turns out they were right."

Between the World and Me, which arrived in stores this week, is an extraordinary piece of writing: a lyrical blend of history and memoir, framed as a letter to the author's 14-year-old son. It is also very timely. Over 152 riveting pages, Coates wrestles with the racist violence at America's core in unflinchingly honest terms – casting aside easy abstractions to lay bare the physical danger and fear that come with living in a black body. It's a deeply personal story with profound implications for everyone living in this country, and one that feels downright necessary this summer.

Coates meets me at his publisher's Manhattan office in the middle of a busy day of promotion for the book – after we talk, he's due to make appearances on Canadian radio and All In With Chris Hayes. "It's been pretty insane," he says. He's wearing a flat cap and a bilingual t-shirt ("Ce moment when you start penser en deux langues at the same temps"), with the laptop he used to write most of the book open on the table next to him. When a Random House employee brings him a cup of takeout coffee, he accepts it with relief.

The book's origins, Coates explains, date back to a 2011 contract that he inked to write a volume of essays about the Civil War. The project's focus shifted as he worked separately on "The Case for Reparations," a painstakingly researched cover story published last spring in The Atlantic, where he is a national correspondent. "That was a really empirical case," Coates says. "I wanted to think about the problem I was dealing with for reparations – this grand theft, this idea of plunder – from a more literary perspective, and I didn't know what that looked like." The crucial next step came when he reread James Baldwin's classic 1963 work The Fire Next Time. "I was so moved by the way he approached the problem," he says. "Baldwin was a writer, first and foremost. The Fire Next Time is a beautiful work of art. And I really wanted to make something beautiful."

We spoke for 45 minutes about literature, hip-hop, the meaning of hope and more.

How old were you when you first encountered James Baldwin's work?
I was about 13 or 14 when I heard Malcolm X's speech "Message to the Grass Roots." He's criticizing the March on Washington, and he says they wouldn't even let Baldwin get up and talk, because Baldwin's liable to say anything. I thought, "Who is this dude?" My exposure to him was as somebody who was slightly crazy, a guy who lobbed firebombs. Then I got to college and read The Fire Next Time and Going to Meet the Man, a short story collection. I have this fond memory of my time in college – I wasn't a great student, but my time was open and unrestricted. I remember sitting in this library at Howard University and reading The Fire Next Time in one session. It was such a pleasurable experience, to be lost in a work of art. I didn't really grasp the political points. Did I understand what Baldwin was saying about religion? No, not really. But I knew that it had been said really beautifully. I had that. When I went back to read The Fire Next Time, I remembered me as a 19-year-old kid, sitting in that library, lost. And I thought about how in this age, where the Internet is ubiquitous, it's very hard to have that experience. I had this vision of some 19-year-old kid sitting in a library somewhere, picking this book up, and just disappearing for a while. That was all I wanted.

That's not a quality found very often in writing these days.
Everybody thinks that an important book has to be a big, long book. But it was very important that this book be short. I actually wanted it to be even shorter – it's about 170 pages, and I wanted it to weigh in at about 120. This ain't something that should take you three months to get through. I mean, if you don't like it, that's another thing. But it should lend itself to re-reading.

Toni Morrison's blurb for this book is pretty remarkable: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." How does that sit with you?
I'm tremendously honored by her praise. I don't take it lightly. I can be kind of an asshole with my editors here about blurbs – I hate the idea of having five advertisements on your book. So I got into this conversation: Who can represent the tradition out of which I come? Who can speak to that? My whole thing was, if Toni Morrison can't blurb it, then I don't want anyone to blurb it.

Much of your writing in this book has such a lyrical, poetic quality, even when you're writing about profoundly painful subjects. How did you develop that voice?
It's something that makes me happy. I enjoy the challenge of trying to say things beautifully. The message is secondary in that sense. Obviously, I have something that I want to say that's very, very important to me – but the process of actually crafting it is essential. It went through several versions. At one point I sent a draft to Chris, and it was not working, so I took it apart paragraph by paragraph. This was about this time last summer. I printed a manuscript and numbered every paragraph in the order in which I thought they were supposed to go. Then I went back to the computer and typed up every single one of those paragraphs again, instead of cutting and pasting, because it allows you to run it through your mind again. Once I did that, I had the meat of the book. 

At the same time, some of the best parts of the book are when you're most blunt. There's a passage very early on where you say that the way we talk about race in America – even the phrase "white supremacy" – can serve as a cover for actual, physical violence. Is there a tension between those two aims?
Well, the lyricism doesn't serve if it's not conveying. Chris helped me a lot with that. He'd say, "OK, what does this mean? Clarify, clarify." A lot of the time, I write by ear. So in rough draft form it's probably a lot more lyrical. He'd say, "Ground this. What are you saying specifically?" A lot of times, I actually didn't know. You just have to write, and strip down, and rewrite, over and over and over again, until it's not only beautiful, but it actually says something. It's almost like a melody coming to you before the words.

One phrase that recurs in this book is "the Dream": the idea that America needs to wake up from the dream of race, the dream of whiteness. How did you come to that theme?
"The Dream" is lyrical in and of itself. It's a device, but again, I hope it clarifies. It's subverting the notion of the American Dream, subverting Martin Luther King's rendition of "I have a dream." I wanted to do something a little darker. It's no different than these movies where they say it's a darker version of some comic book story. This is very much the same thing. I just wanted to darken the filter a little bit and take it from another perspective.

You write about how religion has never been part of your life – how you don't have that comfort to fall back on – but your use of language has an almost religious feel to it at times.
Maybe, I don't know. I'm so ignorant with religion. This is all I have. I don't know what it feels like to be a believer, or to have been a believer. I don't have that in my arsenal.

How much has hip-hop informed your voice as a writer?
It's the biggest influence on my aesthetic as a writer. It actually influences the atheism in the book. One of the constant questions I get is "Why are you so depressing? Why are you so dark? What about hope?" But hope is not very important in hip-hop. I mean, there are certainly hopeful songs, but if you listen to Illmatic, hope is not a very important sentiment. Hope has very little to do with Mobb Deep. I remember when Nas said on a Mobb Deep song, "Shoot at the clouds, feels like the holy beast is watching us." I don't know if Nas would describe himself as an atheist, but the music has a very atheistic, dark feel to it. That shaped me a lot.

Do you find something positive in exploring that darkness, even if it's not hopeful? Is it therapeutic to turn pain and loss and fear into a book like this?
There's hope in there. There's beauty in there. But it's not a bowl of sugar. It's dark chocolate. It's a little bitter. And that's how it's supposed to be. You listen to a song like Biggie's "Everyday Struggle," which is in many ways sad, but in the middle of it there's this beautiful scene where Biggie thinks he's sold all of his coke, and he's going to see his friend, and he says, "At last, I'm literally lounging black." He feels happy in the midst of this. And then it all goes wrong: "Then I got a phone call that couldn't hit me harder." I think hope that's not cut with some sense of struggle is false. The thing that I can't understand about this question is, what great art would we describe as primarily hopeful? I don't read The Great Gatsby and think "hope." I think it's about the need, oddly enough, to politicize writing, to effectively turn writers into Senate aides. I'm not a fucking politician! I don't have to make people feel good at the end of the book. I don't have to do what Barack Obama does. That's not my burden. My burden is to try to describe things as precisely as I see them. 

Do you listen to much new music these days?
I follow my son. He's 14, and he's pretty much my tastemaker now. When I was his age, I had so much time to dig – I spent as much time in Tower Records as I did in bookstores. And I just don't have the time anymore. I'm very sad about that. But my son will say, "Dad, you need to listen to this." I just listen to what he tells me to listen to. Flume, Kilo Kish, Travis Scott. "Drugs You Should Try It," that's a great fucking song.

Have you heard Kendrick Lamar's album?
You know, I still haven't. I swear to god, I'm not putting it off, it's just that he deserves the straightest listen. I'm slow sometimes. It's no disrespect to him. If I ever get some time off, that's what I'm going to do: I'm just going to play a ton of music.

Do you still listen to your old favorites?
Yeah, I listen to a ton of old music. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Smoothe da Hustler, Black Moon, Public Enemy, Rakim, EPMD. A lot of hip-hop. And the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio. They're old now, but they were young when I first came to New York. I like all of that shit.

"Forgiveness" is a word that's been in the news a lot lately – people talk about forgiving mass murderers. What do you think about that?
I think it would be good if the country was as forgiving of the folks who were upset down in Ferguson. If the country was as forgiving of the people who were upset down in Baltimore. If the country was as forgiving of the millions of people who find themselves incarcerated in this country because of some mistake they made when they were young. Forgiveness is not just for white supremacists. Forgiveness is not just for Dylann Roof.

A lot of people – maybe especially white people – see the fact that the Confederate flag came down as a sign of progress. Do you agree, or is that just a cosmetic change?
No, I think it's real progress. I think the very arguments that people used to take the flag down were rooted in the long work of historians, and in the long work of activists. That information had to be there in the first place for that to happen. I don't live in South Carolina, but god forbid I've got to walk to my job everyday and see the capitol – which I subsidize with my money – and see a flag of enslavement as I walk past, and for people to pretend as though that's not what it's about. I don't want any part of that. That adds unnecessary stress to my day. It makes my heart beat a little more fast. I don't deserve to have that in my life.

Do you think America is getting any closer to acknowledging the fundamental fact that our society was built on racist violence?
I think we are probably closer now than we were 50 years ago. The question is, will we actually get there? That I don't know.