An Interview with
The Amistad Staff
Photograph: Camille McOuat
Welcome back to campus! How does it feel to be on the Yard?
It’s great! It's never bad, so I'm happy to be back.
Alright, let’s dig in. It’s clear your experience at Howard has been invaluable to your development as a writer and thinker. Having been so indebted to Howard as “The Mecca,” how do you interpret community?
I don't think it's anything like it in the world. I mean that honestly having traveled some now.
First of all, I think you got to understand the uniqueness of HBCUs in the Black world. I had the great luxury of living in France for a year. They don't have HBCUs. The concept of an HBCU would be bizarre to most French people. There are a lot of French Black people would love to have an HBCU, but they don't really exist. I can't speak for the Caribbean, but obviously on the continent its totally different. We come out of the experience of enslavement. The institutions of HBCUs were literally created to ameliorate the effects of enslavement. That's the legacy of why Howard University is here. Among HBCUs, which is in themselves are unique, Howard University is particularly unique. It's unique because of its size, it's unique because of its comprehensiveness, a medical school, dental school, law school, grad programs, etcetera, and because of all of those things, also because of being in Washington DC, Howard attracts an international following. It’s not even just that it attracts an international following, it attracts Black Americans from all phases of life. When I was here for the period with my education, I had the great, great privilege of being exposed to Black people from places I never knew Black people even existed. I never heard of Belize until I came to Howard University. I got a nephew who’s here right now and one of his friends is from Alaska which is amazing to me. Of course there are Black people there, but you think Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Oakland, you don't think Anchorage. Howard is a Black school, but it’s an incredibly, incredibly diverse Black school. Maybe one of the most diverse schools in the country if you just put race aside and just looked at where people are from. But it's the fact of race that allows for that diversity. We don't have Black student unions here. We got Caribbean Student Associations, African Students Associations because once you've taken certain things off the table it allows for all of these other questions and all these other ways of seeing yourself to come to the fore.
If you hope to be a writer, as I did when I when I came here in 1993 and knowing that writing is itself built off of a foundation of human experience, and that the more diverse pool of human experience you're pulling from and experiencing, then the stronger you're writing ultimately will be. I really couldn't think of a better place to be. Some of the conversations I’ve had here I couldn't imagine having anywhere else, and that continues to be true even now as a professor.
One of the things we learn at Howard is to fight injustice on all fronts. Whether it be the student sit-ins of 1925, 1968, and 1989, or the Blackburn Protests of 2021, we refuse to be silenced—even if that means facing expulsion like former students Jasmine Joof, Elisabeth Cunningham, and Tyler Davis. How would you speak to Howard’s long protest history as well as students’ responsibilities moving forward? Do you feel differently after becoming a Howard professor?
No, I don’t feel differently. Look, the administration has to do what it has to do. I understand that. There are a couple of things I want to talk about, the difference between Howard now and when I was here.
[Howard] was a significantly easier school to get into. When I was here, my GPA going into my senior year was 1.9. My GPA when I graduated was 2.4. I managed to get it up to a 2.4. I think my highest SAT score was a 1090. There's no way. There's no way, now. I just wouldn't have got in. They would have laughed at me. And I know that because I know where my son was when he got in which is obviously significantly higher than me. I just know the cut off, and I've seen people who haven't gotten in and where they were. It was a very, very different school. The student body was very, very different.
Part of what that means is because the demographic of the student body has changed, this is my suspicion, there are more students now who understand that things can be different. There probably wasn’t as many of us in 1993 who got that. We were protesting because we had this idea of what was wrong and what was not fair. For instance, when I covered The Fine Arts protest which my buddy Kamilah Forbes and the late great Chad Bozeman led, what we understood was that The College of Fine Arts was the only freestanding College of Fine Arts among all HBCUs. So, we understood ourselves amongst the community of HBCUs. But a lot of kids coming here now, and maybe even some of y'all, and I know this was true of my son for instance, either their middle school experience or their high school experience were not coming out of public school like I was. If they are coming out of public schools, they're coming out of really top-notch public schools, which I was not, and to come to the storied Howard University and find certain things are not in line probably pisses you guys off even more than it did us.
I had to stand outside in the line for registration for seven hours, or however long it took, getting validated. They used to put a sticker, literally that said validate it on the back of your Howard University card, after you had paid a certain percentage of your money. Whether you got validated or not depended on whether you had the money or not. It also was dependent on which person in financial aid you ended up talking to. All of those little things were outrageous. But, if you’re from the Hood, and you only seen the Hood, it was just a continuation of that. So, it was kind of like it’s not great, but this is life as I've known it. I think for some of y'all, that's not necessarily true. I actually think that's a good thing. There are probably some bad things about the lack of diversity like it was before, but I think one of the good things is that I think y'all are way, way more demanding.
My expectation is that as more students like that come through the university, and as you guys advance and become alumni, and assume positions of power, there are things that happen here that will not be allowed to continue. I have a lot of expectation out of you guys, not just in terms of protests while you're here, but the continuation of your activism after you leave. After you become alumni and you start making donations and you start trying to understand what your donations are actually getting.
The one thing I would say is Howard can be heartbreaking, but Howard University is not its administration. Howard University is not just its board of trustees, it's not just its President, it's not even just its faculty. When you leave, you'll probably leave a little frustrated about some things. Maybe you're frustrated about some things right now. Just like any community, any Black community around the country, around the world, don't mistake the architecture of power for the actual community. The architecture is important, it's part of it, but it's not the entirety of the community. I would urge you to maintain your righteous anger about things, but this is all we got. You know what I mean? It's not better at Harvard. It's not better at Yale. It's not better at Columbia. And the reason why it's not bad is because those universities are themselves morally compromised, even Georgetown, because they sit on the legacy of enslavement. Always remember that. Everything might be nicer, things might go quicker, things might be in order, but always remember why that is. I know it's not perfect over here. I know it's not always great over here, but the responsibility is to fight here, to make here better, and not to abandon here.
Early in your career you rejected myth and magic because your parents “never tried to console [you] with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory." When asked about this topic in a 2019 Vanity Fair interview with Jesmyn Ward, you responded “I think myth or magic has a lot of power.” How have your feelings about myth advanced over the years and how do you reconcile these changes, especially in your work?
Well, I would say not all myths are created equal. There are myths that are designed to build structures of powers of oppression and there are myths that are designed to liberate. And I’m more interested, as a writer, and in terms of the mythologies that I try to pull on, I’m interested in either those myths of liberation or my ability to interpret myth as liberation. I love a great story. I love a great story. I guess, if I think about it as a writer, there is probably the fictional side of me and the non-fictional side of me. The journalistic side probably rejects that. I feel like I have two different roles depending on what I’m doing. The non-fictional me is about the world as it is and as it has been. The fictional me is imagining a better one and the world that could be.
In Between the World and Me, you don’t want your son to feel the “need to constrict [him]self to make other people comfortable.” Do you feel restricted, personally or professionally, or have you broken free?
I feel it all the time, largely because of Between the World and Me. But it’s not a bad thing. I feel responsible. I feel like I have a level of prominence in the world that I did not necessarily ask for, but it happened. That means I have to be careful how I conduct myself. That’s why I’m not on Twitter.
Now that your son is older and the world continues to evolve, are there any topics or lessons you now want to add to Between the World and Me?
Nah. I mean that was a work that came out of where I was at the time. It was a work that was written to reconcile myself with certain things. I wouldn’t change it. It is what it is.
When writing fiction, how do we confront racism without retraumatizing our people? What is the ideal balance between facing our past and building aspirations for our future?
That’s a great question. You have to remember that as a writer, you have the camera. It’s not always what we talk about, it’s how we talk about it. Have you seen the movie that Barry Jenkins did after Moonlight, that James Baldwin joint Beale Street? There’s a scene in that where Tyree Henry is describing the horrors of jail and prison and they never show it, but it’s all written in his face and how he delivers. He’s never specific about what happened, they did X, Y, and Z, but you can see in how he delivers those lines that something absolutely horrible happens there. We sometimes feel that to convey trauma, you have to see it in its most graphic detail. I’m not convinced that’s always true. I think, on the contrary, more than retraumatizing it can actually deaden people to it. This is my larger critique of art in general, I actually think that in our culture right now we are so exposed to really really graphic horrendous violence that we’re kinda dead to it now. We just kinda take it as whatever. I don’t think you have to write that way. I just don’t. Now, sometimes you should. Sometimes things need to be seen and I get it. You have to remember to write intentionally. Why am I doing this?
I wrote a novel with sexual violence which was very very central to the entire book. There was no way, in the period of enslavement, without that. Does that mean I need a five-page rape scene? No. I don’t. I don’t have to do. I can convey the trauma of everything in other ways. Just think about your life. You have, I’m sure encountered people who have endured certain traumas in their lives. The way they tell you about it, do you need them to spell out every detail to get it. I don’t think you do. I think we have a responsibility not to ignore those traumas. I think that’s important. I just think we need to assert our responsibility and have some clarity about what imagery, what experience we’re showing, and most importantly how we’re showing it. I think that’s really really significant.
I often hear people say, I mean Black people, “Can we stop talking about slavery? Why do we have to have another slavery book?” The fact of the matter is that we’re only writing now to begin to understand for ourselves. I’m speaking culturally not so much historically and artistically, what the period of enslavement was. We’ve been so dominated by imagery and by narratives in the cultural space generated by other people. It’s time where we actually have the power and the ability. In the long history of enslavement, it’s a relatively new thing.
James Baldwin famously wrote, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” How do you differentiate memory and the past? Are both critical to being self-actualized?
This goes back to the division of my fictional and non-fictional self. Probably, my fictional self is more concerned with memory. The past which I think about more as history, that’s more my non-fictional self. How we remember things? What we choose to commemorate? What stories we tell? That has a place, as does the scholarly understanding as much as possible of how it happened and when it happened.
Critics can sometimes concentrate too much on what artists don’t do well. How do you interpret criticism and is there a point at where an author’s failures are legitimate?
I probably, in my most healthy, I don’t interpret it all. Public criticism, I think, can’t help you. I’m not saying criticism can’t help you. By the time something is being publicly criticized, from my perspective this is what I’ve learned through discipline and practice, the thing is done. The thing is alive and it’s out in the world. If I’ve done it right, there have been many many rounds of private criticism. Many rounds with people who I respect and whose words and criticism I need and value. I really put it through the ringer. I’m not saying criticism shouldn’t exist, I not saying people shouldn’t review and criticize, they very much should. Like my girl said, “I said what I said.” It’s pretty much done at that point. Criticism isn’t for the writer. I think it’s for other people. I think it’s best for other people and their interactions with the work. At its best, that’s what you’re doing.
For the past several years it’s been popular to talk about Black joy as the antithesis of Black trauma. Is there something we miss by pitting these two concepts against one another?
I don’t know. I think people are tired of seeing a lot of graphic dramatic traumatizing events drawn out of our past. Did any of you guys see the movie Till? I haven’t seen Till probably because I feel like I know the story. I’ve seen the picture. I’ve watched the documentary. I know what happens. I don’t need to go back. That is me as consumer. That’s what I’m thinking. I heard it’s actually a great film though. I think that film is suffering ‘cause, I hear there’s not a lot of, if any, graphic violence in there, that’s what I’ve been told, but because of the picture, because of the story you assume this is what it’s going to be and because what the world has been and how we’ve depicted our experience and how those experiences have been depicted, you assume that’s what it is. So, I think a lot of folks just immediately tuned out which is sad. But I think that’s what’s going on.
I still haven’t watched 12 Years a Slave. I’m gonna watch it. Anyone who wants to be a writer or artist of some sort kinda has to. We don’t have the luxury of looking away. That’s unfortunate. We can watch in our time, but I think we kinda have to. Did you all see The Woman King? I finally watched it. It took me a while to do because I have complicated feelings about that. But I thought was excellent. I thought, “Wow! You all really got snubbed.” It was so much different than what I expected it to be. Unfortunately, I think we’re bringing our baggage from other things and other depictions. We’re like, “I’m not going here again.” I think that’s what that desire comes out of. I think we feel like, “I’ve seen enough. I get it.”
Before we go, we gotta ask, can you spill any details about your upcoming Black Superman movie?
I don’t know if there are any of you that follow the business of Hollywood. I’ll just state what publicly happened. When I came in there was an entirely different group of people who owned Warner Brothers, who themselves own DC Films. Warner Brothers were acquired by Discovery. It’s now Discovery Warner Brothers. There’s a new CEO. The one guy at the head of DC brought in a new guy to head up DC Films. They themselves, then brought in a new team. The guy that’s head of it now is James Gunn who did the Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s now writing, and I believe directing, his own White Superman film which will come out in 2025.
I’m responsible for the script. That’s what I’m going to do, and we’ll see. I love the story. I love the story. I love writing the story. I’m very excited about the story, and I think it has a lot to say.
One of the great lessons from writing comic books is that you don’t own the characters, so I don’t own the story. I was very well compensated for the work I did. When I’m done, that will be that.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an award-winning author and journalist. His books include Between The World and Me and The Water Dancer. He is the Sterling Brown Chair in the Department of English.