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Ta-Nehisi Coates (born 1975, Baltimore, Maryland) is a senior editor for The Atlantic and blogs on its website. Coates has worked for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and Time.[…]

Coates tends to be much more narrative-driven when writing long-form pieces, whereas blog posts are more casual—almost like bar talk.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t know. It’s so funny hearing these questions ‘cause I use to go around and I interview other people. And I love interviewing other artists. I ask them these questions about process and they often look and they say, I don’t know. I don’t know, [Zach], how can you not know? It’s clear. I see it. How can you not know? I just do it. I don’t think too much. I don’t think about, you know, making it good but I don’t think too much about process.

If I had to come up with a good answer. When you read my blog, you’re getting a view into how I think. So you were watching me think. You were watching what I’m thinking about on a daily basis. That’s the first way to look at it. The second way to look at it is a good blogger is a curator. He or she tells his audience what they should be looking at, what’s worth their time in a given day, while also offering commentary on various things throughout it.

As a long-form journalist, as a writer, you’re much more narrative focused. And so, there’s a lot more self-editing. There’s a lot more hanging on each word, making sure each word is in the right place.

I never think blog entry as finished products. I think of them as dinner party conversation, bar talk. So I don’t much consider it in the same sort of way. I know everybody didn’t feel the same about that.

When I first started my blog, you were hearing the thoughts of a guy who just rolled out of bed and was telling you what he might be thinking about on that particular day. The idea that people want to consume that shocked the hell out of me. I couldn’t believe it. It caused me to professionalize a little more. It’s not the same as doing a long-form piece. It just isn’t.


Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, that’s about 40% of the job. 60% is the actual writing. Other 40% is cultivating an audience.

And no, I’m not surprised. But I’m not surprised because I intentionally screen out stupid people. Not stupid in terms of intelligence. You come to a blog because you have some issues and you need to yell at somebody. We don’t have much to talk about. Like, other bloggers would comment is they don’t really care. They let people say whatever.

I may have a very nice house and host a very nice party. And you may admire the house and you may admire the party and you may admire me and my family. I wouldn’t have people at that party yelling whatever they wanted to yell. I would ask you to leave. There’re certain rules. And I don’t know why that would be any different over the Internet.

I think, if you insist on that, if you state that upfront, people generally adhere to it. Every once in a while, you get a few crazies who come in and you just show them the door, as you would if it was your home. As somebody would if it were a restaurant that you were at, or a bar that you were at, or any other establishment.

And they can say, you get the complaints or you’re censoring, dah, dah, dah, whatever, you know. It’s just a private space. It really is. And I’m glad to have people there, but I really try to put as much pressure as I can on people to think. And people who read, I think, appreciate that.

I just think about what I would want to read. Like, if I was going to a blog, what I would want to read. Sometimes you go to your fellow lefty bloggers and, you know, you read through the comments. And maybe other people read through but I actually do. And one of the first lessons to me was sometimes I will see some of the most cold racist stuff. And I’ll be like, how was this here?

And it really is nobody minding the store. I just didn’t want that. I feel like if I’m sponsoring the comments, that’s part of me. It’s not a separate thing. If you want to separate things, somebody else can go start their own blog. But as long as it’s under my name, I have a responsibility for what it said there. Everybody don’t have to agree, that’s not what I’m looking for but there had to be some rules or decorum on how people debate. I’ve really try to encourage, beyond not just insulting people, also it’s the kind of intellectual honesty among folks.


Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, I don’t think it’s the anonymity.

One of the things that black folks is doing right. I’m letting out all the secrets today. There’s a lot of anger, I think, amongst African-Americans, and justifiable anger. I’m not, you know, trying to come down on people.

So there’s some amount of pleasure, I think, that some black folks get from watching white folks get caught and have to dance over something. So you may make an honest mistake, right? But I may be pissed off at you for something that happened a long time ago in the conversation. And so, I make you dance even though it was only an honest mistake. You probably didn’t mean to insult me. But I don’t really care about that. I’m getting back for something that was said some time ago, and was never made good on.

That’s a general people. That’s something husbands and wives do, girlfriends, boyfriends, good friends do to each other. It’s a basic people relationship thing. So it’s not particular. It’s a human thing.

If you’re going to encourage open conversation, that has to go. You can’t do that. You can’t do that. You have to give people the right to mistake stuff, to be wrong about stuff. And not like impugn them when they’re wrong. And not be like, well, clearly, you’re just a clan. It’s quite obvious that you’re a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

You can’t do that. You have to be willing to give people their space and allow them to speak honestly and not condemn them for feeling a certain way. Now, once they make an argument; you don’t engage them and make arguments. But you can’t condemn them for how they feel. Just can’t.

If we’re going to be honest

But we all have all kinds of fucked up thoughts. All of us. You know, that’s like my. My guiding rule is I’m not clean, you’re not clean, no one here is clean. I know I’m not clean. Part of me extending the assumption of humanity to you is… that you’re a good person but also that you’re not clean too. So I try to state my dirt upfront so you know how I’m coming at the conversation. I’m not coming at it from up high. I’m coming at it as someone with his own issues. When you do that, people tend to respond in the same way.

What I try to encourage some level of self-reflection, I try to do that by trying to be self-reflective myself. I don’t always succeed, but I’m making an attempt of that. And what I find is that commoners, then, also make an attempt of that.

If we could get away from trying to settle a score with people in our conversation. And this is a black, white thing also. It’s something white people do within a conversation. If we could get away from score-settling, from needing to be particularly right, and get more into a conversation of why do we think certain things. And that’s the level I try to get people to engage on. Why do you feel that way?

We got to tread up-to-date about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I love “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I’m horrified by Mickey Rooney in Yellow Face, absolutely. I can’t believe it. And it greatly disturbs me because I love the boy and had deep emotional attachment to the movie. And yet, here’s Mickey Rooney, acting a fool. It’s a good thing to throw that out, you know, and ask for the Asian-Americans among us: how do you deal with this? How do you deal with this? What do you think at people that watches? Honestly, what do you think? I struggle with this.

And people, I think, kind of instinctively; once you let your guard down, they have an instinctive reaction to let their guard down also. Okay, so you put your weapons down. So, in general, they’ll put their weapons down too.

The people who won’t, it’s like, I would say, 1 out of every 30. But it’s a not a very common thing. The common human thing is that that establish a level of empathy. So the conversation has to be about empathy. I think that’s the big thing. The anonymity thing, I actually don’t think fact is too much into it.


Question: Are you bothered by the transparency of your blog?


Ta-Nehisi Coates: No. No, not at all. Not at all. It makes me a better writer because I have to be accountable. No.

And when I am, it’s a vain, silly, silly emotion.

You’re the writer. You’re the one that works for The Atlantic. You have those privileges. You don’t get to enjoy those privileges without responsibilities. And adhering to those responsibilities, makes you a more thorough, a more intellectually honest, more engaging writer. You’re in a privileged position. There are people who are dying to figure out how can they be writers and command an audience. There are people that will kill to trade places. I try to stay conscious of that. I try to stay conscious to the privilege.

So any sort of responsibility, any need to say upfront, what’s going on, as you said, be transparent, that comes with the territory. And it should. It’ll make you better. And that really is what this is ultimately about.

If I didn’t think blogging wouldn’t make me a better writer, I wouldn’t do it. That’s the ultimate goal.

And so, any sort of tax or wage that is put upon you because of that, it’s ultimately a good one. And this one you should pay. It really is.


Topic: Responsibility as a blogger.


Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. And so, one of the things I do is if I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m very clear.

I get e-mails all the time. Please talk about the Israel and Palestinians situations. Please say something, this is going on, I guess, it a natural thing to you. And I tell you, I said, I don’t know it. I don’t know it. I’m just… I’m not in a position to really speak on this. I just can’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I think, what you speak, you have to be ready to defend and you have to be ready to engage. You can’t just talk, you know what I mean? That’s your responsibility, to talk from a place of information.

One of the things I try to do in those situations, by recognizing a scenario of interest, to my readers, I try to bring in a guest blogger, who maybe more informed about the subject but whose sensibility is very similar to mine. And that is one towards being transparent. It was being intellectually honest to engaging with people. I try to do that. That is my answer to that particular conundrum.

But I think you had to be very clear about what you don’t know. Too many people walk around, talking like they know everything. The world doesn’t need any more of that.


Question: What blogs do you like?


Ta-Nehisi Coates: Well, the king is Andrew Sullivan. He’s number one as far as I’m concern. And, I think, Andrew is number one for two reasons. One, he’s extremely passionate. You feel like he’s like in your face. It’s amazing. It just comes across. You feel like he’s actually, like, in your face. It’s the weirdest thing, his comment. You read Andrew and you get the sense that he cannot blog. Not like he’s struggling to blog, he cannot do it. It’s almost like a biological function for him.

The second thing is Andrew is a great writer. He’s a beautiful, beautiful long-form writer. And I think that that… Like, mastering the basics of writing helps when it’s time to go blog. I think, two things are not the same but they’re related.

There’s a young guy who blogs for the prospect on a group blog tapped Adam Sir, who, I think, is another just a really, really good, good, good blogger. And he’s one of these guys who’s writing a lot about race. I enjoy people who are hard to pin down. And Adam is hard to pin down, not ideologically. I mean, ideologically, he’s very similar to me. But he takes the conversation, I think, on to that second authoritative level.

My job at The Atlantic is very much owed to Matt Blasius. He was at The Atlantic before me. And they needed another liberal, house liberals is what they call me. My biggest worry was in Matt has such a vast knowledge of so many things. I couldn’t fill in. It was no way. It was no way. I mean, Matt can talk about, you know, all sorts of walky, intricate things in terms of politics. I knew I could never do that. But he’s so, so knowledgeable. His, really, is a delight to read. It has a sharp wit and a great command of irony. He’s a pleasure to read.


Question: Is there a common theme in your blogs?


Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t know what the cohesive thread is. I’ve been trying to answer that question. People say, what do you blog? There’s a lot of race there but there’s also a lot of football there and a lot of World of Warcraft there. I never know how to answer that question.

The only thread is me. And I try to see as much of the world as I possibly can. And I try to bring whatever perspective I have on it to my readers. And if they find it interesting, then that’s a great thing.

I don’t know what the thread is, I really don’t. I really don’t.


Recorded on: March 19, 2009