MacArthur Fellow (genius award) writer Ta-Nehisi Coates launched the Chicago Humanities Festival’s impressive 30th anniversary “Power” season with an engaging and lively discussion on October 2 at UIC’s Dorin Forum. The festival will feature 70 events by authors and influencers around the city between now and November 10.
Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, perhaps best known for 2014’s crucial, award-winning “The Case for Reparations,” as well as for bestselling books such as Between the World and Me, a National Book Award finalist, and Black Panther comics, which he terms “Star Wars for Black people.”
WBEZ reporter, fellow Howard University alum and The South Side author Natalie Moore spoke with Coates about his new book, The Water Dancer, his first foray into magical realism and historical fiction, currently #1 on The New York Times’ Best Seller List. The novel focuses on young, gifted Hiram Walker, whose escape narrative illuminates the struggle between the slavers, here called the “Quality,” and the enslaved, the “tasked.” “If they did not cross the water, the water would soon cross over them.”
The evening opened with a short video of the author and his editor Chris Jackson sharing the origin story of the new book, a 10-year project, for which Coates did massive amounts of research about enslaved people’s lives. He read cookbooks, WPA slave narratives, abolitionist leader William Still’s The Underground Railroad Records, and stories about Henry “Box” Brown, who shipped himself from Richmond to Philadelphia. Coates visited battlefields, Monticello and Virginia’s oldest plantation, Shirley. But he avoided reading similar stories like 12 Years a Slave, and said that he was encouraged, for fiction, to finally let the research go and be inspired by reality.
He notes that, growing up in Baltimore in the ’80s and watching shows like “The Dukes of Hazzard,” he was taught that African-American history was an “eat your vegetables”-type activity where one must only memorize when Frederick Douglass was born.
“The ’you should know this because it will make you a better person’ saps the energy out of Black history,” Coates said. “Instead, it is the most profound, essential and exciting conversation in America. I want it to be like Lord of the Rings.”
He bristles when folks say that the Civil War was about taxes. “What taxes are they talking about?” He’s downright pissed when national figures like former administration official John Kelly said that the war was “a failure to compromise.” Coates tweeted back “stupid ass…run to the light of information.” (He famously deleted his account because “if your tweets are louder than what you do, you’ve got a problem.” Plus, “writing is the opposite of a tweet.”)
“How long will people be stupid?” Coates asked the packed audience. “As long as there’s money to be made,” he answered himself.
Coates talked about the architecture of the slavery system, how families were “caught together” therefore unable to run. He recalled that James Madison held the threat of selling children over the people he owned at Montpelier.
Family separation, as chronicled in countless letters and documents, was more horrific than chains or beatings. Whippings will end, but relationships torn apart last forever. The trauma of slavery and separation, the racial PTSD, continues to wreak havoc on Black families via systems like mass incarceration, which profits from this suffering.
The “running as resistance” ethos fueled Coates’ story, and he consciously avoided what was done to the person rather than the person themselves so that “the victim wasn’t erased again.” He wanted to posit what might have happened “if the Orcs had won.”
Moore asked Coates about critics who consider him “hopelessly hopeless.”
“I don’t care,” he replied.
He lamented that Toni Morrison didn’t get to read The Water Dancer before she died. As a hip-hop fan, he celebrated Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize, adding: “Kendrick didn’t need the Pulitzer; the Pulitzer needed Kendrick.” The engrossing, accessible, funny program ended with Coates’ reflections on storytelling.
“The past doesn’t exist,” he said. “All we have is stories. Going into the oldest art form is how we make sense of the world.”
“Storytelling is how we construct the past, change the past, and alter how we act in the future.”
“Because even Jefferson didn’t set up Jeffersonian democracy,” he concluded.
You can continue the conversation about the enduring legacy of slavery, from the abolitionist movement to current anti-racism activism, with these four upcoming programs:
David Blight on Frederick Douglass
Saturday, October 26, 4-5 p.m.
Field Museum | James Simpson Theatre
1400 S Lake Shore Drive
Eric Foner: Reconstruction and the Constitution
Saturday, November 2, 11 a.m.-12 noon
Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts | Performance Hall
915 E 60th St
Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist
Saturday, November 2, 1-2 p.m.
International House | Assembly Hall
1414 E 59th St
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Sunday, November 3, 11 a.m.-12 noon
Harris Theater for Music and Dance
205 E Randolph St