Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses packed Graham Chapel on racism

The Washington University Political Review brought Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic and well-known author, to speak on Wednesday in Graham Chapel on the subject of racism in the United States.

As precursors to the Wednesday speech, WUPR put on a number of events to help accustom students to the content of Coates’ writing, and Coates himself led a short question-and-answer session about his career in journalism with a group of about 40 students.

Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations,” featured on the cover of the magazine’s June 2014 issue, presented a case about the cumulative effect of a long history of discrimination against blacks in the United States.

The lengthy article is introduced by a short blurb that expresses Coates’ message: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

In a Graham Chapel packed with students and community members, Coates began his speech by acknowledging the impact of recent events, including the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; the death of Eric Garner near Staten Island, N.Y.; and the beating of Marlene Pinnock in Santa Monica, Calif., on his writing, and he stressed the current state of American racism and its impact on his work.

“I can predict that some time next year, or this year, later this year when my book comes out, I will have somebody else to talk about, I guarantee it, and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that and the year after that. As long as the root mathematics are the same, anything I write about the force and the tragedy of white supremacy and racism in this country will always be timely,” he said.

Coates proceeded to read selections from his upcoming book, due to be released later this year. In his selected readings, he spoke about his struggles to explain to his son the state of the country with regards to racism. Coates also discussed the personal, emotional impact of the death of his close friend, Prince Jones, who attended Howard University with him and was killed by Prince George’s County police officers near Washington, D.C.

After his main presentation, Coates turned to a lengthy Q-and-A session, where he was asked questions on topics ranging from integration to a desire to learn more about racism. Toward the end of the night, Coates offered advice to the students present.

“My advice is, first of all, to get a foreign language because what that does is it expands the world…my second piece of advice is to find something you love, and to aggressively pursue it,” he said.

As Coates thanked the audience and left the stage, he received a standing ovation from the audience.

Freshman David Flasterstein said Coates’ presentation was enlightening for someone who hadn’t been personally exposed to issues of racism.

“He revealed the impact of racism on his personal life through touching stories and made me look at racism and white supremacy in a whole new light,” Flasterstein said.

Earlier in the week, WUPR enlisted the help of WU-SLam and Black Anthology to organize an open mic night in anticipation of Coates’ visit. According to the organizers, the event provided a way for students to better understand the types of individuals’ stories related to Coates’ writing. On Monday, eight students recited original poems while two students performed a duet from the Black Anthology show held two weekends ago. About 60 people were in attendance.

WUPR Executive Director and senior Nahuel Fefer said the idea behind the open mic night was to provide a platform for people to share individual stories that make up the larger issues that Coates observes and writes about, such as race and identity.

Fefer also stressed the importance of empathy in helping repair political discourse.

“We wanted to try something new for a couple of reasons,” he said. “First off, you can’t fully appreciate Coates’ argument regarding systemic oppression without engaging with individual experiences. Furthermore, I personally am convinced that one of the biggest things missing currently in our political process isn’t necessarily expertise, but a kind of polarization of our discourse and specifically a lack of empathy in our discourse.”

WU-SLam President and senior Maxine Wright added that it is important to acknowledge the issues surrounding race that affect people on an emotional level.

“I think that WU-SLam definitely comes from a very different perspective, perhaps the more emotional one in that I think that there’s a lot of value in…acknowledging that there are issues and acknowledging that these issues affect people in a real, emotional level,” she said.

Other related events that preceded Coates’ speech included a WUPR salon last Thursday, at which around 30 attendees discussed “The Case for Reparations,” and a writing workshop held by Coates Wednesday afternoon on the art of long-form journalism.

Fefer added that WUPR debated whether to hold these events before or after Coates’ speech but decided to put them on beforehand for practical reasons and to increase the hype for the main event.

Fefer and Wright both agreed that part of the purpose of the series of events was to provide an actual platform for a dialogue about issues of race.

“I just get really excited about starting dialogues. That’s why this is important to me,” Wright said.

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Alex SiegmanComment