Exploring African American History and Literature
Ta-Nehisi Coates: My dad published a kind of literature, a kind of history. That was about African-Americans but was mostly associated by lay African-American historians. It was a kind of counter narrative. The social sciences for many years, especially post-slavery, were basically deployed as a weapon against African-Americans.
And so, a lot of African-Americans who went to the social sciences were motivated, particularly, by this urge to create a counter narrative, something to fight back with. My dad published a lot of that stuff but mostly by people who were into lay history. His point was to create a tradition. To show that we had a tradition of recording our own history and what that tradition look like. African-Americans, unlike other Americans, don’t have this sort of lineage thing. We can’t trace our people back to a certain portion of Italy. We can’t, you know, trace our folks back to a certain county in Ireland. We don’t have that. We begin here. We are, in many ways, maybe sort of Native Americans. The only real, true Native Americans because we really do begin here.
Those of us who live in cities migrated up from the south so our motherland is very much Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama.
I would read those books and they would fill in, for me, who I was. I need a better way of saying it but I don’t have one. It was like religion for me. It created a lineage. And it also created an explanation for why things were the way they were, why we were here. It gave me not an objective understanding, okay? But it gave me purpose, almost.
Religion is the best way to explain it. It said, you know, you’re here because you’re an African-American and as particular, you’re a black person. And more importantly, you’re an African. That’s probably the way I would’ve put it at that point in time. And the great cause, the great war of this era, is one over race. It’s people who don’t look like you, trying to enslave you, trying to exploit you. And that’s why you’re in this situation right now.
Now, we could quibble with that explanation, and I later complicated it. But for a 13 year old kid trying to walk up and down the street in West Baltimore, it was a good thing. It was a good thing. It made it okay, for me, at that particular point in time.
And just going back to the imagination thing, it filled my head. It made me work with my own imagination, to create some sort of narrative of who I was.
Question: What is the state of African American literature today?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t have a good answer for that because. There probably is but I’m not a part of it.
A good friend of mine, a very, very, very good friend of mine who I have not seen in a while had lunch; just before my memoir was coming out and he said; he was quoting another writer. So the writer told him, “There are three things for writers in this life. You have a great career. You can have a great love life. And you can have great friends. You don’t get all three, you get to pick two.” Okay? I picked the love life. I picked my career. And writing is this sort of thing that you can’t really get better. As a buddy of mine was saying, you can’t get better in a crowd.
It’s a solitary thing. It’s you and the paper. It’s you and the screen and the keyboard. And that’s it. It’s not a team game regrettably. It also absorbs a crazy amount of time. I mean, it really absorbs… So if you have any sort of family like I do, it’s very hard to maintain a bigger community not as a community of folks out in the blogging world, a very multi-racial community. But that’s because the Internet makes it easier to stay in touch. But, I think, not like in the past, at least not for me, there maybe a community out there… I’m cut off with… from it because I only want to be in so many conversations with other writers about writing. What I want to be is out on a street with other people having conversations about living. I don’t want to talk to many other people who write for a living. I’m trying to create something original and something different, hopefully. That’s my goal. I don’t know if I’ll get there but that is my goal. I’m not interested in having too many conversations about writing. I want to know what’s going on out in the world and try to reflect that.
Recorded on: March 19, 2009
The counter-narratives written by black historians and social scientists helped Coates to understand his identity.