In the Library with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo via fordschool

Black Cardigan is a great newsletter by writer-editor Carrie Frye, who shares dispatches from her reading life. We’re thrilled to share some of them on Longreads. Go here to sign up for her latest updates.

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When I was in college I was pretty good at gadding around (sorry to boast!), and spring was my very best time for this. I wasn’t the only one. I was talking about it with a friend I went to school with and he described it as the “spring-in-the-asparagus valley-insouciance.” We all had it. Or most of us—there may have been some people studying somewhere on campus. Then finals time would come and we’d run around in a panicked sleepless haze for a couple weeks. In my memories of these semesters it’s almost always 8:00 p.m., the sky’s purple, the air is frictionless, and there’s still plenty of time before it’s actually night, real study-time night. One spring a friend of mine had a paper due for her History of Israel class, and I have a vivid memory of standing with her in the kitchen of her dorm passing a carton of ice cream back and forth, in a place of such deep procrastinators’ panic that to this day “History of Israel” pops into my head whenever I’m agitated about a deadline. (And it wasn’t even my paper!)

This feeling—sleepless, buoyant—came back to mind last weekend when I went to the local university library to get some books for research. It was the weekend before finals, I realized as I was going through the stacks. All the tables were full of students with their laptops and earbuds and their joggling over-caffeinated sandaled feet. The school is UNC-Asheville—it’s small and liberal arts angled. My stepson graduated from there, and I once ran into him at the library during a similar spring week—before finals of his junior year—and he looked at the books I was holding and said, in a tone of infinite gloom and suspicion, “None of those books are on Dante, are they?” After this library visit, I stopped by a coffee shop near the campus, and there were more tablefuls of students there. At one, a group was talking in a desultory, elliptical way, and, as one of them departed, he turned to his friends and said, “I love you all” with a trailing wave of the hand, like he was heading off to save Mars.

The trip reminded me of a couple sections from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me where he describes his years at Howard University. The first section is about all the time he spent in the research library there. This passage is about many things, obviously, but one reason I love it is as a description of autodidactic delight/ intoxication in following one book to another and another and another. (The “you” addressed in the book is Coates’ son, so “your grandfather” is Coates’ father.)

I needed more books. At Howard University, one of the greatest collections of books could be found in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where your grandfather once worked. Moorland held archives, papers, collections, and virtually any book ever written by or about black people. For the most significant portion of my time at The Mecca, I followed a simple ritual. I would walk into the Moorland reading room and fill out three call slips for three different works. I would take a seat at one of these long tables. I would draw out my pen and one of my black-and-white composition books. I would open the books and read, while filling my composition books with notes on my reading, new vocabulary words, and sentences of my own invention. I would arrive in the morning and request, three call slips at a time, the works of every writer I had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown. I remember that the key to all life lay in articulating the precise difference between “the Black Aesthetic” and “Negritude.” How, specifically, did Europe underdevelop Africa? I must know. And if the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs were alive today, would they live in Harlem? I had to inhale all the pages.

The second section describes what happened when spring came:

The reality was out there on the Yard, on the first warm day of spring when it seemed that every sector, borough, affiliation, county, and corner of the broad diaspora had sent a delegate to the great world party. I remember those days like an OutKast song, painted in lust and joy. A baldhead in shades and a tank top stands across from Blackburn, the student center, with a long boa draping his muscular shoulders. A conscious woman, in stonewash with her dreads pulled back, is giving him the side-eye and laughing. I am standing outside the library debating the Republican takeover of Congress or the place of the Wu-Tang Club in the canon. A dude in a Tribe Vibe T-shirt walks up, gives a pound, and we talk about the black bacchanals of the season—Freaknik, Daytona, Virginia Beach—and we wonder if this is the year we make the trip. It isn’t. Because we have all we need out on the Yard.

Both sound really idyllic, don’t they? Also, it’s nice to know that as I type this, all the students I saw last weekend are, for better or worse, on the other side of their finals. “I love you all.”

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