NEW YORK (AP) — On publication day for his new book, Ta-Nehisi Coates had personal and political thoughts to share.
The award-winning author and journalist spoke before hundreds of people gathered Tuesday night at the New School in Manhattan, discussing his rise from obscurity to fame over the past few years and the country’s transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump.
Coates, who turned 42 last week, was interviewed by his editor, Chris Jackson, as he discussed “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.” The book includes essays Coates published during Obama’s presidency and a new and widely discussed piece, “The First White President,” in which he writes about Trump’s race being an essential factor in his surprising victory.
“We Were Eight Years in Power” already is in the top five on Amazon.com’s best-seller list and arrives two years after his anguished exploration of race and police violence, “Between the World and Me,” sold hundreds of thousands of copies, won the National Book Award and brought comparisons both flattering and intimidating to the late James Baldwin. It was a startling contrast to the reception of his first book, the 2008 release “The Beautiful Struggle,” which he joked was so obscure that even Jackson didn’t turn up for the first reading.
Fame was “like getting hit with a Mack Truck, a Mack Truck filled with money,” Coates said to much laughter. “But it was still a truck.”
Coates emphasized that “We Were Eight Years in Power” is not a declaration of “how great I am.” It’s a work of criticism and self-criticism, the study of a mind in motion and a country in crisis. It begins with a 2008 essay about Bill Cosby that Coates now feels embarrassed by because he did not look into allegations that the comedian had sexually assaulted numerous women.
Coates also includes essays on Obama, Malcolm X, the Civil War and one of his best known works of journalism, “The Case for Reparations,” a cover story for The Atlantic magazine in which he contended that the country needed to debate how it might repay the black population for the crippling legacy of racism.
“Everyone thought I was wrong,” Coates said Tuesday. “I felt like, why are people overlooking this?”
Coates said he didn’t want to “shuffle and play patty-cake” with his critics. Success had granted him a “very large megaphone,” made possible by black writers before him, and he had a responsibility to use it.
“This kind of chummy, respectful sort of thing that folks do who have certain faculty positions, certain relationships with people,” he said. “Listen, that ain’t my world, man. I came from a black world. … Being that there aren’t too many people with this kind of audience I just feel like I got to represent that to the fullest and be really direct and clear about that. And push these people, man, because they need to be pushed. They need to be made uncomfortable, like we’re uncomfortable. We got to make it hot, because it’s hot for us.”
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