Ta-Nehisi Coates talks race in UDM speech
When asked Tuesday night about ways to overcome racial inequality, acclaimed author, journalist and educator Ta-Nehisi Coates was direct.
“Sometimes I wonder whether it’s possible,” he said, speaking to more than 3,000 at the University of Detroit Mercy on Tuesday. “I just don’t know. … There’s a psychological benefit to white supremacy that’s beyond raw economics.”
Race relations throughout American history informed much of Coates’ lecture at UDM Calihan Hall.
The National Book Award winner’s nearly 90-minute presentation, “Between the World and Me,” touched on work the New York Observer has said makes him “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.”
The former Village Voice writer is a journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York and a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. He also has taught at MIT and received honors including a MacArthur Fellowship and Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.
Coates’ career gives him unique insight on “some of the most pressing and vexing issues of today,” said Antoine Garibaldi, the UDM president, who worked at Howard University when the author was a student. “I am very proud of his success as a writer and thinker.”
A diverse crowd of students, religious and political figures as well as others packed the hall for the free event.
Coates spoke on everything from early United States history to his book “Between the World and Me,” a New York Times best-seller written in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Samori. The work, which addresses the African-American experience, earned the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Coates, who also wrote a memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” about growing up in Baltimore, traced disparities among minorities in 21st century cities to the inception of the United States.
He said numerous factors have contributed to black households on average earning less income than whites, and pointed out that some African-Americans were denied housing loans or the G.I. Bill in the 20th century — preventing them from improving their status like other groups.
“That gap didn’t appear out of nowhere,” Coates said.
He also referenced his famous article exploring reparations for slavery, describing its pursuit as “actually the only path” in helping erase gaps between black communities and others.
“When you expect those gaps to disappear by magic ... you’re not being serious,” he said.
“He’s one of the most culturally relevant and eye opening” writers, said Anika Brown of Ferndale, who was in the audience. “He can open a lot of eyes to what’s going on and how important it is.”
Carol Lewis of Southfield, who attended with her husband, William, called Coates’ work “profound.”
“Hearing him gives us so much hope,” she said.
Wendy Lehman of Ferndale said she has familiarized herself with Coates’ writing.
“I need to be aware of race and racism,” she said after the presentation. “I learned a lot.”