FLATBUSH – Every single seat at the massive Kings Theater in Flatbush was packed to hear a conversation between one of the leading public intellectuals of our time Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic as more than 3,000 people turned up last night for the event organized by the Greenlight Bookstore to promote Coates’ new book: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
Mr. Coates, who narrowly escaped becoming a neighborhood fixture, received a standing ovation welcome from an adoring, mostly white crowd to talk about this moment in America, race, politics, and writing. Mr. Coates has worked for The Atlantic for a decade, educating millions and shaping national conversation through the writing of pieces like The Case For Reparations and more recently The First White President.
What it means to be black, violence, giving hope to white people, power, Obama, race, chaos, all made repeat appearances throughout the conversation, that was as entertaining as it was thought-provoking and frequently interrupted by laughter.
The conversation started off talking about race as a social construct, which to Coates is about power first and foremost. “Part of whiteness is the idea of blackness – it defines itself as the “un-blackness”. He argues that Trump needed Obama to define himself – and become the first White president, despite the long line of white men ruling our country.
Are the millions of people who voted for Trump racist, Goldberg asked? Possibly, Coates answered, putting many of them in the category of folks who’d indifferently “step over your body” rather than help you up.
Why do so many white people look to you to give them hope? was greeted with lots of laughter, and no clear answer other than the history of the white rule being so shameful in this country. But “Do I hate white people? No! Of course not, they buy my books. “
The conversation then veered off to wealth and wage gaps, and the dramatic rise in incarceration rates in the black community that is recent (since the 1970s) and way out of line with general population. His worries about the future of clemency – whether /when the larger community will be open to reform and integrating offenders back into society, and it hinging on society’s (un)willingness to accept that some of the offenders being released will become repeat offenders. Worries about returning to a time before Ferguson.
It ended with talking about the importance of teaching kids not to let anyone kill their innate creativity – not even schools.
If you’d like, you can listen to [my cell phone] recording of the event here. It’s not perfect, but you will be able to follow most of it: