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Ta-Nehisi Coates at Tow

By Alexandria Neason

Two weeks ago, students, alumni, faculty, and others packed the lecture hall at Columbia Journalism School to see The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps America’s foremost writer on race, speak about the media’s often contentious relationship with it.  Lately, the news has been more saturated with conversations about race than I can ever remember. Coverage of the policing and killing of black boys and men, of the burden of raising black children, of reparations and so-called “post-racial” multiculturalism has brought to the mainstream what people of color have long known.  America (still) has a race problem.

Photo by Rhon Flatts
Photo by Rhon Flatts

When I think about the history of American journalistic writing on race, it is difficult to separate the writing from the activism that it often highlights.  It’s hard to imagine white, Northern journalists traveling to the unapologetically violent 1960’s era South without some fledging belief that what was happening was wrong. It is hard to imagine that a journalist could cover the killings of Sean Bell, of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and Jordan Davis and Mike Brown and all the others – without an understanding that something, somewhere, is deeply wrong.

I’d come to hear Coates speak because I wanted to know how he did it.  I wanted to know how he confronted the on-going legacy of American racism every day on his blog, subject to anonymous “keyboard commanders” as he referred to them.  I wanted to know how he dealt with what I can only assume were vile emails in response to his June cover story on the case for African-American reparations. I wanted to know how he wrote about racist housing policies and the constant loss of young, black life, without becoming disempowered by lack of change.  I’d come to hear how he kept going even when the idealisms of journalism – to affect change – proved elusive.

Coates talked at length about how he got his start in journalism. He spoke about dropping out of Howard University, and about his disinterest in romanticizing that.  He spoke about the importance of learning to report and to write.  He spoke of the difference between the two.  He spoke about waking up with aching questions and going to bed still bothered by them.  He spoke about reading, about writing constantly (even if it’s bad) as a means of practicing.  He talked about the absolute need to practice.  He told us that writing needs to be a top priority, below only family and health, if we hope to make a career out of it. He told us that if we didn’t love it, to leave.  “It’s just too hard,” he said.

And then he contradicted much of what I’d been taught about journalism. He told us not to expect to change anything with our writing.

I was startled. Wasn’t that the point? To educate, to inform, and ultimately, to change?

No. Coates doesn’t write to change the world. He doesn’t write to change the minds of white people (and he warned both white writers and writers of color of the dangers in doing this). “Don’t write to convince white people,” he said. I found in that statement what is perhaps the advice I needed in order to keep writing.

For a black man, writing about race in a country hard-pressed to ignore its long marriage to it, and doing so with precision and integrity and without apology is an act of defiance in and of itself.  Writing to speak, unburdening oneself of the responsibility of educating your opponents (and, in doing so, inadvertently educating a great deal of people), is how you keep touching on the untouchable subjects.

After the lecture, a small group of students gathered with Coates in the Brown Institute for a writing workshop sponsored by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.  We were treated to a detailed walkthrough of Coates explosive June cover story on reparations for African-American descendants of slaves.  We learned about how he began his research, how he stayed organized, how he developed his argument and how it evolved over the year and a half that he worked on the piece.  It was clear that he was quite proud of it, not because he changed the minds of readers or because it had drawn so much attention to an issue often brushed off as impossible, but because he’d buried himself in the research, because he’d found a way to put a living, human face on the after-effects of policies that we often discuss as though they have none.  The piece is heavily reliant on data, but littered with human faces, human stories, human consequences.  It is deeply moving.  To me, it was convincing. Overwhelmingly, undeniably convincing.  And yet, his motivation was not to convince me, or anyone else, of anything.  He wrote to speak.

And speak he did.

Alexandria Neason is an education writer for the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School and a graduate of the M.S. in Journalism in 2014.