Ta-Nehisi Coates has no plans to lead a political fight for reparations

As a student at Howard University, Ta-Nehisi Coates found reading The New Republic frustrating: "You pick up this magazine that does what you want to do," he said in a conversation Thursday night at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., "and watch it talk about black people."


Coates said he was surrounded by "so many intelligent African-Americans," but said there were no black people on staff at TNR at the time. In 1996 the magazine ran a cover urging President Clinton to sign a welfare-reform bill, a call it illustrated with a picture of a black woman smoking a cigarette while a baby nurses from a bottle on her lap.

"You see this, and it fills you with so much anger, that people could talk in elite rooms about us," Coates said, "as if we had nothing to say."

It was hard to get a seat in the synagogue for the discussion of Coates' May Atlantic cover story, "The Case for Reparations," and perhaps more remarkable than the sight of a packed room to discuss a magazine article was the sight of people applauding Atlantic Editor-in-Chief James Bennet's mention, during his introduction, of the story's terrific Web traffic. (It set a single-day record for a magazine article, the Atlantic says.)

Atlantic national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Coates, a session followed by questions from the audience. "After speeches in synagogues you don't have Q&A," Goldberg said. "You just go right to corrections."

Goldberg asked Coates how he would respond to a critique that his article was the work of a "disinterested egghead." He said he resented the connotation: After the article ran, his mother called him and told him that his grandmother purchased her house in Baltimore on the same "contract" basis Clyde Ross, the article's central character, did in Chicago.

During questions, one attendee said he was working on a play called "Reparations: The Musical." In response to another question, Coates said he didn't "think it would be a good idea" for Obama or maybe any other president to come out in favor of reparations. "You have to build a movement," he said.

Asked whether he'd lead such a movement, Coates said, "I love my job. I'm a writer. I think there has to be some respect for a journalist's or a writer's role in a democracy." Asked what his next step is, Coates said, "I'm thinking about my next story." Others in a democracy, he said, "have to play their roles, too."

"You would be really good in 'Reparations: The Musical,' though," Goldberg suggested.

Related: Via Rebecca J. Rosen, video of the entire event

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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