Between Jesmyn and Ta-Nehisi

Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies for slave descendents reparations before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on June 19, 2019. Cheriss May / AP Images

With Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates established himself as a virtuosic writer capable of amplifying the voices and trampled truths of people born black in America. In an interview for Vanity Fair, acclaimed author Jesmyn Ward sits down with Coates — “our most vital public intellectual” — to discuss his background, his process, and his love of superheroes. Coates keeps slavery top of mind when examining the United States’ past and present, calling it “the quintessential thing about America.” Maintaining this critical view of our culture, he has now parlayed his talents into his forthcoming fiction debut The Water Dancer (One World, available in September). Coates reveals the double-edged sword of having his words resonate — becoming a writer may be admirable, but becoming a really famous writer is another beast entirely. 

Slavery was the antithesis of love. While love sharpens awareness of humanity, makes us focus on the beloved’s way of singing to themselves when they think no one can hear, their way of holding their head just so when they are listening intently, their way of crying when they are angry or laughing when they are sad, slavery does the exact opposite work. It dulls awareness of humanity, reduces the enslaved to object, to tool, and to cash. This difference is what drove Coates to write.

The very fact that we feel like there might not be room for all of us to live here—now, white people never feel that way.

In order to be really good at being famous, in order to embrace it wholeheartedly, you have to dislike yourself.

“I could write slavery fiction all day…it’s the quintessential thing about America. It really is.” Along with the massacre, forced removal, and colonization of indigenous peoples and lands, Coates feels that this is the violent, secret heart of this country.

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