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NPR Arts & Life

'Fresh Air' Favorites: Ta-Nehisi Coates

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we continue our look back on the decade that just ended and play some of our staff's favorite interviews of the decade. Up next - my 2015 interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, recorded after the publication of his book "Between The World And Me," which became a huge best-seller.

It addressed the fears many African American parents have that their sons will become victims of violence. The book is written in the form of a letter to Coates' teenage son. It draws on history as well as personal experience to discuss the different forms of violence young African Americans are especially vulnerable to from all directions - on the street, in school and from the police. Coates was born in 1975 and grew up in West Baltimore, where he says everyone had lost a child somehow - to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.

Coates is a former national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. He won a National Magazine Award and a George Polk Award for his cover story "The Case For Reparations" about the long history of what he calls white-imposed black disadvantage. Coates also relaunched the Marvel comic book series "Black Panther." And in 2019, he published his first novel "The Water Dancer," which reimagined the Underground Railroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You wrote this new book in response to the recent police shootings of African American people - children and adults. The book is addressed to your teenage son. So when you were growing up in West Baltimore, what did the police mean to you when you were your son's age?

TA-NEHISI COATES: They were another force. So there are two sides to this, you know, 'cause I don't want to be too cynical here. I, you know, am an American, and so I did understand them as representing, you know, some aspect of the state that I was a part of - some aspect of the country that I was a part of. But at the same time, there was definitely another part of me that basically recognized them as another element within the society, within the community with no real moral difference from the crews and the gangs and the, you know, packs of folks who dispensed violence throughout the neighborhood. The police were another force to be negotiated that could dispense violence.

And you know, I want to be, you know, really clear about that because when you're on the outside, it's very easy to, you know, label a group of, you know, a, quote, unquote, "gang" as criminal. But you know, when you live in the neighborhood, these are people who you see, who you talk to. I mean, everything does not always come to violence. You can negotiate things, you know? There are ways of, you know, dealing with folks. And I talk about that a little bit in the book. And the police were, in that respect, very much the same way. Just like there's a - you know, there's certain rules for how you deal with, you know, a certain crew that lives in a certain place, the police have certain rules for how you negotiate them, too, if you want to avoid violence.

GROSS: Did you ever see the police as possibly protecting you from violent forces within your own neighborhood?

COATES: Yes, I did. But I also saw the crews the same way, you know? (Laughter) That's the interesting thing. I saw many, you know, of my friends who would be labeled as criminals in the same way. The question, you know, for me was, when do you call what? You know what I mean? So if somebody breaks into your house, you would call the police. Again, I don't want to, you know, be overly cynical here. You would call the police.

But by the same token if, you know, you happen to be walking somewhere and five people jumped on you and, you know, did some degree of violence, you probably would not call the police. You might call, you know, some of your cousins or you might call some of your friends. So it really depended on what the case actually was.

GROSS: You had a college friend - you went to Howard University - a man named Prince Carmen Jones, who was shot and killed by a policeman. The policeman said it was in self-defense after Jones tried to run him over in his Jeep. And you and everyone who knew Prince Jones didn't believe that story. You write about this in your book. Tell us a little bit about him.

COATES: I went to college with Prince Jones. It's very funny because when you write, it becomes sort of abstract for a while. And then when people ask you about it, suddenly it becomes real again. I went to college with Prince Jones. We weren't, you know, best friends or great friends, but he was someone who I knew - who I, you know, spent time around, who I had, you know, just a great deal of affection for.

Prince was tall, probably about 6'4" or so, slender, a beautiful, beautiful man - very, very handsome, extremely intelligent. He was from Texas. He went to a magnet school in Texas for math and science - statewide magnet school. As his mom explained to me, he was the only African American student there. As I, you know, did the interviews for the book and talked to his mother, Mabel Jones, who lives in the Philadelphia area now - and when I talked to her, what I realized was he was from a very, very well-to-do family - a mother who had grown up in dirt poor poverty in Opelousas, La., whose folks were sharecroppers, who had, you know, basically worked her way out of poverty, had become a radiologist, had gone to LSU, had served in the Navy - you know, had basically done everything America tells you to do and had, you know, accumulated assets and some degree of wealth. And he was killed. He was killed. I mean, he was executed like an outlaw as far as I was concerned.

The officers were attempting to track down someone who they had believed had stolen a gun from another officer. Somehow they got it in their head that the Jeep that Prince was driving either belonged to the guy who stole the gun or one of his friends. They ran the plates on the Jeep. The Jeep came up with Prince's mother's address and Prince's mother's name in Philadelphia. They assumed that this, you know, could possibly mean that the Jeep was stolen when in fact all it meant was that his mother had bought it for him. They followed Prince Jones out from the suburbs of Maryland, where they, you know, first began tracking him, into Washington, D.C., and then out into Virginia, where they shot him within, you know, mere feet of his fiancee's home. The basic, you know, report from the officer was that Prince had attempted to back up his Jeep several times and rammed the car that the officer was driving, so he had to kill him. He had to shoot him because his life was in danger.

But I tried to imagine myself in Prince's shoes. The officer who was tracking him was not in a normal police cruiser. The officer was not in uniform. The officer, in fact, testified that he pulled out his gun, said police but did not - never showed Prince his badge. The officer was dressed in an undercover disguise like he was supposed to be a drug dealer. And you know, this is how insidious it gets. I have to imagine myself followed from the suburbs of Maryland, through D.C., out into Virginia - realizing at some point that I'm being followed, not having any idea that this is a cop and then having somebody pull a gun out on me and knowing that I'm near my fiancee's house. So it always seemed to me perfectly logical, you know, that Prince perceived that he was under threat.

GROSS: Was this ever investigated?

COATES: Yes, it was. Nothing came of it. It was investigated by the prosecutor's office out in Fairfax, Va., I believe. There was an internal investigation by the Prince George's County Police Department. The officer was not punished. There was a civil suit eventually, where the officer and the police department was found liable.

The Prince George's County Police Department was, at that time, under federal consent decree. They were being investigated. The Washington Post did a series of investigative articles on the Prince George's County Police Department around that time - around 2001, 2002 - and found that they were more likely than any other police department in the country to fire their guns.

The point that his mother made - and I think this is absolutely, absolutely crucial - according to the official record, Prince attempted to kill a police officer, and that's how he died. So according to the official record, it's actually his fault. He's the criminal. He's the one that actually instigated this. That's the last word on his name, which I just - I mean, that is terrible. It's just awful.

GROSS: We've been talking about fear of the police and anger at the police. But part of your book is how you lived in fear when you were your son's age - when you were a teenager - when you left the house 'cause there was a lot of violence in the neighborhood. And you say basically everyone in your neighborhood seemed to be reacting out of fear. You were afraid of other kids. You were afraid of your father's beatings. You write - (reading) when I was about your age, each day fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not.

So I guess I'm interested in, what were some of the behaviors you had to learn to protect yourself, just, like, walking to school, walking home from school, going to visit a friend?

COATES: Oh, God - don't walk to school by yourself, make sure you have at least five or six people with you. It's very interesting - when - (unintelligible) Philadelphia 76 - Allen Iverson, when he came into the league, there was all this critique because he went everywhere with a posse. And there was all this talk about posses. Why's Allen Iverson - and I immediately understood, you know? (Laughter) As a matter of physical safety, for many years, you're trained not to go, you know, into places that you don't know by yourself.

Getting back to those rules - don't go to certain neighborhoods unless you know somebody over there - unless, you know, your grandmother's there, unless you got a cousin there, unless you got a really, really close friend there. If you have a girlfriend in another neighborhood, you need to go with four, five or six other people. Guys need to be prepared. And you know, you need to, you know, be watching out. When you walk through the street, as my dad - I can hear my dad telling me this right now - walk like you have someplace to be. Keep aware. You know, keep your head on a swivel; make sure you're looking, you know, at everything.

Little things, like understanding that - I think about this all the time - that, like, the first really warm day of the spring or the summer when you're in school is actually a really, really dangerous day for you because there's going to be a lot of kids out and people are going to, you know, be feeling a certain way. And it's quite likely that, you know, some amount of violence might occur. And so you need to keep your eyes out on those particular days.

Thinking a lot about which way you want to walk - you know, this is just particular to my middle school - I think about this all the time. You know, did you want to walk down the hill, or should you walk up the hill? Should you take a long, circuitous route, as I would sometimes, you know, through other neighborhoods with other friends from those neighborhoods so that you avoid certain people at certain times because they're, you know, already home by then? (Laughter).

It's a laundry list. You know, I can remember having - you know, like lunchtime - you know, you might have a problem with somebody, or somebody might have a problem with you. So you say, well, I'm not going to lunch today. I'm going to, you know, spend my lunch period in the library, which is what I would do sometimes - because you don't want to get caught with certain folks.

And then it's the more insidious aspect of it, which is this - my disposition is not, you know, to the street at all. You know, it was not - anybody who knew me, you know, growing up would tell you there was nothing street about me at all. But you know, one of the first things I learned within my first year in middle school - because middle school's when you really start getting indoctrinated into this stuff - is that any sort of physically, you know, violent threat made to you has to be responded to with force. You just - I mean, you just - you can't tolerate, you know, anybody, you know, attempting to threaten or intimidate your body. You must respond with force.

This had - I mean, this had real repercussions. I mean, you know, like, I go to school ninth-grade year in my high school, you know, and I, you know, I got suspended for threatening a teacher.

GROSS: I was going to ask you about that 'cause you refer to that in your new book. And I don't feel like I understand why that happened. Like, what did you say or do that was so...

COATES: I felt like he disrespected me. It was the same - you know...

GROSS: By doing what?

COATES: He yelled at me in front of the class, like, really, really loudly. And again, I mean, this was the sort of thing that, you know, you couldn't tolerate.

GROSS: But that is what teachers do sometimes (laughter).

COATES: I know. I know. But see, it sounds like you're laughing because, like, it's funny if you've never been in the environment...

GROSS: No, I get it. I get it.

COATES: ...And all you have is your dignity. That's all you have. I mean, you know, teachers yell loudly at kids from time to time. You're exactly right. But if you live in an environment - you know, if you're, you know, from a place where all you have is, like, the basic, you know, sort of physical respect - you will talk to me in a respectful way - you don't have anything else to lean on. That's very serious. That's really, really, really serious. You know?

If somebody yelled at me now, it probably would - you know, I'd, you know, sort of walk away and laugh. Well, I've accumulated certain things. I have certain things. I have a family. You know, I feel, you know, great personal value in myself and in my work and in what I do. I feel, you know, deeply loved by everyone around me. I don't feel like I live in a particularly violent environment. I wouldn't perceive being yelled at, you know, as necessarily communicating to other people around me that they, too, could disrespect me at any moment.

GROSS: So you threaten the teacher, and then you're arrested. Like, what - how did that - what did you say? And...

COATES: I said something to the fact that, you know, if you say something like that to me again I'm going to knock you out. It was something - but it was a physical threat.

GROSS: Wow. OK.

COATES: And I - and in that moment, I was not like - it was not idle either. I was very angry. I was really angry.

GROSS: So who called the police - the teacher or the principal?

COATES: He did. We had school police. We had school police.

GROSS: Oh, school police. OK, yeah.

COATES: Yeah, he called the police. The teacher called the police. Police came. And I probably - as I recall it, I got into some sort of verbal thing with the police, too. The police handcuffed me and took me downstairs. They called my parents. They wrote up an arrest report and everything. Eventually, they unhandcuffed and released me and sent me home by myself to my parents.

And I - Jesus, I hate saying this. Well, maybe I - this is just what happened, OK? And I wrote the book. So - and I've written a book about this before. It's out there. It's the public record. They released me. I went home. My dad kicked my butt. And that was the moment, you know, where, like - and I've said this several times - where he says to my mom - and I see this clearly - you know, my mom was really, you know, upset - had never really been upset about, you know, my dad dealing out physical discipline. My mom would deal out physical discipline. My mom beat kids. I mean - you know? So - but it really upset my mom, the sight of it. You know, I was 14. I was, you know, becoming a big kid by then. And she tried to stop him, and he said to her, you know, either I can do it or the police.

And so I go through this thing in the book about fear. And what I understand now - and this don't make it OK, and this doesn't mean that it's what I would do. But what I understand now is how deeply afraid my parents were when they heard I got arrested. I remember my mom later, you know, after all this, you know, blew over - maybe, like, a couple hours later that same day - talking to me about it and just, like, crying - like, just breaking down and crying. And they are - there are African American families, you know, around this country - a large, large number of African - that just operate out of complete fear that their kids are going to be taken from them and will do anything, you know, to prevent that.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2015 interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, recorded after the publication of his best-selling book "Between The World And Me." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our series of interviews from the decade that just ended and hear more of the interview I recorded in 2015 with Ta-Nehisi Coates after the publication of his book "Between The World And Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Your son is named Samori.

COATES: Samori, yes.

GROSS: And tell us who you named him after and how your name guided you - or didn't guide you - in deciding how to name your son.

COATES: Well, the first thing is my name is difficult to pronounce. So while I wanted to give him a name with some meaning and I had - you know, some sense of, you know, the black diaspora, I wanted (laughter) people to be able to pronounce his name. That was really, really important to me. I wanted, you know, people to be able to read it and basically be able to say it.

Samori is named for Samori Ture, who was, you know - during the period of colonialism, was one of the last and rather more effective folks to try to resist French colonialism in West Africa. And I gave him that name, you know, thinking about struggle and thinking about resistance - because Samori Ture ultimately failed. His country, his nation was ultimately colonized. But I gave him that name thinking about the idea that resistance means something even when you're not successful, that struggle means something even when you're not successful - that struggle and resistance in and of themselves are values. And I've tried to communicate that to him all his life.

GROSS: Your piece on reparations, which was a cover story for The Atlantic a year ago and won a bunch of awards - among other things, it documented government housing regulations and private housing covenants that prevented African American people from moving into certain buildings or into certain neighborhoods. It forced many African Americans to buy overpriced homes in ghettoized neighborhoods - is, what you describe, the history of white-imposed disadvantage.

Do you see that in your neighborhood - in the neighborhood you grew up in in Baltimore - and do you think the fact that were raised in that neighborhood had anything to do with the kind of government-imposed...

COATES: Yes.

GROSS: ...Restrictions...

COATES: Yes.

GROSS: ...And private covenants (ph) that you...

COATES: Yes.

GROSS: ...Later wrote about?

COATES: Yes. It's not even theory. I mean, it's just - there is a great book - I believe it's called "Not In My Neighborhood" - about redlining in Baltimore. Yes. Yes, yes. I mean, I - you know, you can - any person listening to this program right now can go and Google redlining map for any major city. Baltimore was one of those cities. Like, we got to be very clear about what housing segregation meant and what - and just forgive me. I'm going to try to unspool this for a second.

We had a period in the 19 - late 1930s into the 1940s, into the early 1950s, where there was a huge, huge investment made into housing and homeownership in this country. And the basic idea was that we needed to, you know, create, you know, a broader middle class. And so folks were given money - you know, government-backed loans effectively - to move into, you know, certain neighborhoods to better their lives. Folks were given money through the GI Bill, you know, to get better education. You know, a social safety net was erected in this country.

In almost every case - when you go through every one of these laws - when you go through FHA loans, when you go through Social Security, when you go through unemployment, when you go even through welfare, when you go through the GI Bill - at every level, you can find discrimination against black people.

In the '40s and '50s, we're erecting a modern class, and housing is the biggest one because housing is how most folks accumulate wealth in this country. You can see broad - I mean, just systemic discrimination against African Americans. If you were a black family in Baltimore, Md., in the 19 - say - '50s, when my grandmother was raising children in the projects - in the Gilmor Homes projects in Baltimore, Md., and you wanted to buy into a certain neighborhood, well, you didn't have freedom. You didn't have - I mean, you were lucky if, first of all, you accumulated the money in the first place to buy in a certain neighborhood. And when you did, you certainly did not have the right to live wherever you wanted. You didn't have the same choice that other Americans had. If you wanted - you know, you said, well, I don't like this neighborhood; there's too much crime; the schools aren't good enough. Let me move over - well, you didn't have that right.

GROSS: My impression of you is that you've tried to channel the kind of anger that you do feel - having studied systemic racism in the U.S., you've tried to channel that into explanation - you know, into investigation and explanation. How did this happen? What are the lasting, continuing consequences? And how do we talk about that?

COATES: Right. That gets me as close to peace - yes, yes, yes. And it's mostly - you know, quite frankly, Terry, it's selfish. I mean, it's mostly explanation for myself. If I can make it comprehensible, if I can understand it, maybe - I can't make peace with it. It doesn't make it OK. But I get it. I get it. It's not mysterious. It's not mysterious. And I think, like, that's one of the, you know, the worst aspects of racism. It's - you know, you feel a certain way about living in America and about your country and about how you're treated. And yet so much of everything around you portrays it as though it's mysterious. But it's not. It's not after, you know, you do, you know, some amount of reading, you know, about the country, you know, and about its society - it's not mysterious. It gives me a weird sense of relief, by the way.

GROSS: Relief?

COATES: Yeah, yeah, 'cause I'm not crazy. (Laughter).

GROSS: Right, OK. (Laughter).

COATES: I'm not crazy. When I was in Baltimore, you know, and I reacted that certain way - you know, even the ways that I'm deeply ashamed of, I was not crazy. I was not crazy. You know, I was in a situation, and I was trying to the best I can. I did not always make the wisest choices, but I was not crazy. I was not any lazier than anybody else. I was not any less hard-working. I was not any more lacking in morals. I had a father (laughter). You know, I had a mother. I was loved. I had people around me. I was just in a situation. You know? And had any, you know, other human been in a similar situation, it's quite likely that they might have reacted the same way.

GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much for talking with us.

COATES: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, recorded in 2015 after the publication of his book "Between The World And Me." After a break, we'll continue our series of interviews from the decade that just ended and hear my 2015 interview with Toni Morrison, who influenced many writers, including Ta-Nehisi Coates. She died last year.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS' "IT'S UNTIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.