When Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at the Liacouras Center on Wednesday, the national correspondent at The Atlantic magazine asked a question about Temple’s relationship with the North Philadelphia community.
“What is the relationship of the university to the community?” he said. “I am about to go home, and you’ll still be here. … I do want to discourage the idea of people coming here and putting on a crown and presenting themselves as authorities and using that to divide.”
Coates explored the history of racism and his experience growing up as a Black man in the United States in his book, “Between the World and Me.” The book was written as a letter to his son after it was announced that the killers of Michael Brown would not be charged. “Between the World and Me” won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
African history professor Ben Talton introduced Coates, his friend from Howard University, at 6 p.m. to give his public lecture, “A Deeper Black: Race in America.” Coates discussed what he called the “plunder” of the Black body in history and the steps he took to address racial injustice in America through his work.
Before Coates spoke to the large crowd, he told The Temple News that although there are fewer symbolic signs of racism in the United States today than there were in the early 1900s, the ratio of inequality remains the same.
“It’s not in your face in the same way, but you feel it,” Coates said. “You look out on the neighborhood, you go to North Philadelphia or West Baltimore or the west side of Chicago or Southeast D.C., you’ll see it. Those are the statistics that make up that very real reality that you see in those neighborhoods. It’s a shame.”
Although he said he was interested in exploring Black history before attending Howard University, he did not plan on pursuing journalism until he joined the student newspaper, The Hilltop.
“I knew I wanted to write when I was there,” Coates told The Temple News.
Coates was attracted to the marketability and hands-on aspect of journalism. He added that journalism has a very active learning style since it allows one to pursue topics they are interested in and allows for work to reflect their curiosities.
Coates said he always felt least at home in the classroom because “when you go to class, it’s the opposite. It’s what the professor wants you to know.”
Harvey Neptune, a history professor, attended the informal history talk at the CHAT Lounge on the 10th floor of Gladfelter at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. Coates answered questions regarding the importance of historiography and American denial of racism.
Neptune said he appreciates the way that Coates reads history.
“He takes his work out to a larger audience, so he’s a great translator,” Neptune said. “When we write books you might read 15 or 20 before you go, ‘Oh this is what matters.’ One paragraph [of Coates’s work] and you know why this matters.”
Zachary Brooks, a first year masters student in the Africology and African American studies program, said Coates’s lecture only addressed half of the problem with racism in America.
“I think he addresses the plunder of our communities, but doesn’t address the agency of black people and what they do for themselves,” Brooks said. “He’s very eloquent, and he’s good at explaining what’s wrong, but the thing is, he’s explaining it to people that need to be convinced. Black people know what’s happening to them, so guess who he’s talking to.”
In his longform piece for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” Coates argues that social and economical issues that Black people face have compounded over the years. In the article, he wrote that because of the magnitude of the ailments that the African-American community faces, “Blacks and whites do not inhabit the same city.”
Coates told The Temple News that this applies to North Philadelphia and in order for blacks and whites to inhabit the same city, reparations need to be made.
Senior women’s studies major Kayla Roberson said Coates’s lecture topics reminded her of her Critical Race Theory class.
“It’s real to Black experience, and I can connect to that as Black woman,” Roberson said.
Coates also urged individuals to change their language and concept of race when discussing racism in America.
“Talking racism as racism, and not as the result of race, but the other way around, by which I mean, as I say in the book, ‘Race is the child to racism, not the father.’”
“Race is the tool. Race isn’t the source,” Coates told The Temple News. “As long as we use this word race as the stepping stone to talk about racism, we miss the fact that we have done things that have made it this way.”
Jenny Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paige Gross contributed reporting.