Ta-Nehisi Coates’ tone was candid and jocular as he reflected on the two terms President Barack Obama was in office before a sold-out crowd at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington. The journalist and author was there on Tuesday as part of a national tour promoting his new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” released last week.
“It was like a shock, like ‘What’re you calling me for?’” Coates said remembering the first time former President Obama called him over the phone. “’You’re out saving the world. What do you want to talk to me for?’ That was the feeling.”
Coates is best known for his seminal work, “Between the World and Me,” a 2015 best-selling book about race relations in the United States. The book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.
About 600 people packed into the National Museum’s Heritage Hall on the main floor for Coates’ seminar, arranged by the Smithsonian Institute and The Atlantic, the magazine Coates writes for. Before Coates took to the stage, Atlantic president Bobby Cohn called him a “genius” in reference to his status as a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.
Coates ran through a gamut of topics with the moderator, journalist Michele Norris, in addition to speaking about his new book, a collection of eight essays reflecting on each year of Obama-era race relations in the country, commingled with his own personal reflections on the former President.
On an “authority of honesty,” as Norris said, Coates revealed his feelings for the current president, his views on the NFL protests started by Colin Kaepernick and the removal of Confederate statues, and his contempt for intellectuals who see him as a prophet with a final answer for racism in the United States. “Don’t outsource your critical thinking to me,” he said.
“I hope people read, I hope they derive inspiration, I hope they derive insight, but I really fear the notion of a conversation ending with me,” he said. “It should be an invitation to go have other conversations.”
Despite Coates bemoaning the perception of himself as a black man who speaks omnisciently for every black American, Coates believed the perception was more appropriate with Obama, calling the former president a “kind of ambassador” from black America to the rest of the country.
Coates spoke of Obama with respect as he remembered the rapport established with him toward the end of his presidency. When the two spoke in the White House near the end of his term, Coates didn’t expect him to be receptive to the conversation of reparations for historical wrongs.
“It’s just not your expectation,” Coates said, “that politicians are going to be particularly curious about things beyond the immediately doable.”
As Coates spoke as an authority of honesty, he admitted views others wouldn’t find pleasant. He had no expectation of the success of “Between the World and Me” and wanted to just “get it done with.” He doesn’t always vote in elections despite telling the audience there is never a good reason to not vote. He added that race relations would probably not improve any time soon, among other things.
Though Coates did not possess the emblematic hope that defined Obama’s character, Coates told the audience why being a writer is still important to him.
“I see my role as not to write as though I’m a Senate aide trying to get policy passed,” Coates said. “I’m supposed to say things that hopefully adjust the entire process, that adjust the entire context, to see what is actually possible to pass.”
Ian D. Mahon is a reporter for the Howard University News Service.