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Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates Quotes

Quotes by and about Ta-Nehisi Coates

(Continued from his main entry on the site.)

Coates: "I was a really, really curious kid."

Coates: "I think it's really important to be conscious of yourself and the world around you."

Coates: "I don't write ... to offer a definitive answer."

Coates: "You see, the thing is that there are no right answers. There are satisfactory answers, but there are no right answers, and even the satisfactory answers, at the end of the day, ultimately just lead you to more questions."

Coates: "I don't know that I ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being 'politically conscious' - as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty."

Growing Up in Baltimore

Coates: "[When I was in school] I had no idea [what I wanted to do with my life]. I had no idea. I knew what I liked, but I did not know that what I liked might actually be a career, because ... I was instructed [that] what you did with your life, or how successful you were at life, was basically determined by how well you did in school. I was not a particularly high-performing student at all."

Coates: "I was kind of caught between two things. ... I wasn't the best at street life ... but at the same time I can't say that I had the security of being a nerd and being great at school. I didn't have that either. And so I had no idea what was going to become of me. And that, too, added to the kind of fear that I remember because for young black boys growing up in West Baltimore in that period - and I suspect growing up in our cities today - school is not just, you know, 'Will I get into Harvard or not?' You know, it's not [about] how far up the ladder [you will go]. It's, 'Will I go to jail or not? Will I be shot or not?' It's a matter of life and death."

Coates: "When I was [a young teenager], each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not - all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body. I do not long for those days. I have no desire to make [my son] 'tough' or 'street,' perhaps because any 'toughness' I garnered came reluctantly. I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things."

Coates: "The streets were not my only problem. If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more. There was nothing sanctified about the laws of the streets - the laws were amoral and practical. You rolled with a posse to the party as sure as you wore boots in the snow, or raised an umbrella in the rain. Those were rules aimed at something obvious - the great danger that haunted every visit to Shake & Bake, every bus ride downtown. But the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to, as our elders told us, 'grow up and be somebody'? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline? ... I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance."

Coates: "Unfit for the schools, and in good measure wanting to be unfit for them, and lacking the savvy I needed to master the streets, I felt there could be no escape for me, or, honestly, anyone else. ... We could not get out. I was a capable boy, intelligent, well-liked, but powerfully afraid. And I felt, vaguely, wordlessly, that for a child to be marked off for such a life, to be forced to live in fear was a great injustice."

Coates: "When I first read Shakespeare, I fell in love with Macbeth. There was a particular scene where Macbeth is talking to the murderers, trying to get them to kill Banquo and they agree. 'I am one, my liege, whom the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incensed that I am reckless what I do to spite the world.' That sounded to me just like a rapper would describe his life. I'm just so beat down I don't give a fuck. Bring it on. That is the core message of hip-hop right there. That realization said to me there is something human in this, that desperation that is expressed there can't be bounded by time, or place, or society, or race. It is a deeply human feeling."

Coates: "I dislike many of the sweeping generalizations which Chomsky makes."

Coates: "I think Rachel Maddow frequently commits laudable acts of journalism."

Criticism of Obama

Coates: "For much of his presidency, a standard portion of Obama's speeches about race riffed on black people's need to turn off the television, stop eating junk food, and stop blaming white people for their problems. Obama would deliver this lecture to any black audience, regardless of context. It was bizarre, for instance, to see the president warning young men who'd just graduated from Morehouse College, one of the most storied black colleges in the country, about making 'excuses' and blaming whites."

Coates: "This part of the Obama formula is the most troubling, and least thought-out. This judgment emerges from my own biography. I am the product of black parents who encouraged me to read, of black teachers who felt my work ethic did not match my potential, of black college professors who taught me intellectual rigor. And they did this in a world that every day insulted their humanity. It was not so much that the black layabouts and deadbeats Obama invoked in his speeches were unrecognizable. I had seen those people too. But I'd also seen the same among white people. If black men were overrepresented among drug dealers and absentee dads of the world, it was directly related to their being underrepresented among the Bernie Madoffs and Kenneth Lays of the world. Power was what mattered, and what characterized the differences between black and white America was not a difference in work ethic, but a system engineered to place one on top of the other."

Coates: "I'd written articles criticizing [Obama] for his overriding trust in color-blind policy and his embrace of 'personal responsibility' rhetoric when speaking to African Americans. I saw him as playing both sides. He would invoke his identity as a president of all people to decline to advocate for black policy - and then invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to 'make bad choices.' In response, Obama ... invited me ... to the White House for off-the-record conversations."

Coates: "[In my first conversation with Obama] I told him that I had heard the kind of 'straighten up' talk he had been giving to black youth ... all my life. I told him that I thought it was not sensitive to the inner turmoil that can be obscured by the hardness kids often evince. I told him I thought this because I had once been one of those kids. He seemed to concede this point, but I couldn't tell whether it mattered to him."

Roxane Gay: "He writes about race with a fierce passion."

New York Times: "Coates clearly knows the importance of avoiding vagueness or generalization about critical aspects of black experience. ... He [describes people's lives] in stunningly sensitive detail."

Constance Grady: "His writing is consistently both nuanced and aesthetically beautiful, on a level that is frankly shocking in the realm of political writing."

Ta-Nehisi Coates in a book store