Author talk: Five things to know about Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Ta-Nehisi Coates' biography on the dust jacket of his latest publication, "We Were Eight Years in Power," is exactly four sentences long.

It reads: "Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His book, "Between the World and Me," won the National Book Award in 2015. Coates is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. He lives in New York City with his wife and son."

Its brevity should come as no surprise to his fans, who know the writer is not a fan of personal biographies.

He expressed this more succinctly in August, during the Melbourne Writers Festival in Australia. "My name is Ta-Nehisi Coates and I'm a writer," he told the crowd. "I hate bios."

Coates is the featured speaker at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' eighth annual Michael S. and Kitty Dukakis Public Policy Lecture at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 8. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held in the college's Amsler Campus Center Gym.

Although Coates, 43, chooses to define himself by little more than his name and occupation, his story and the resume attached to it require much more than four brief sentences.

A winner of the National Book Award and the NAACP Image Award, he is the author of "Between the World and Me," a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015, which was required or recommended reading at more than 400 colleges and universities across the country. At MCLA, it served as this year's Community Reading book. The communal reading, which included incoming members of the class of 2022, professors and staff, culminates in a "Day of Dialogue" on Nov. 8.

A former national correspondent for The Atlantic, a position he left earlier this year, Coates addresses audiences across the country on urgent cultural topics, including discriminatory housing policies, mass incarceration, deleterious interpretations of history, and his personal experiences growing up as an African American male in the United States.

Since 2016, he has collaborated with illustrator Brian Stelfreeze to write Marvel's "Black Panther" comic book series, and is currently working with illustrator Leinil Francis Yu on the next chapter of Marvel's "Captain America."

Coates declined all press requests ahead of his talk in North Adams, but here are five things to know about him before attending Thursday's lecture.

1. He considers Donald Trump to be "The First White President."

In the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic, Coates, in an article of the same name, wrote: "the foundation of Donald Trump's presidency is the negation of Barack Obama's legacy."

He continued, "His political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built. But long before birtherism, Trump had made his worldview clear ... To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch."

2. Coates has said "progressive change in this country needs to come from the bottom."

During a speaking engagement at Hofstra University on Sept. 20, Coates spoke about the importance of voting ahead of the midterm elections, with special emphasis on the local and state levels.

"Voting is the least you can do to be an informed citizen," Coates is quoted as saying in a Newsday article about the event. "It's very, very important that you think of voting as the beginning of a larger process of engagement. You have to take the first step, you have to vote, but I don't think you should just stop with voting.

"When you don't vote, you vote. There's no not voting. Your lack of voting is a statement."

3. Toni Morrison anointed him as novelist and social critic James Baldwin's successor.

Prior to publishing "Between the World and Me," Coates said he only wanted one author to endorse his book. According to a July 2015 article in New York Magazine, neither Coates nor his editor knew Toni Morrison. But a copy of the work made it into her hands and as the story told in the article goes: "Weeks later, Morrison's assistant sent Jackson an email with her reaction: 'I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,' Morrison had written. 'Clearly, it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.'"

4. His early cultural and literary inspirations came from the realm of pop culture.

"Well, first of all, it was hip-hop. I always tell people: Hip-hop was the first place where I saw people using words in a way that I would identify as beautiful, you know? And probably the second-biggest one was comic books. I got a ton of comic books as a kid," Coates told Harrison Barnes, of the Dallas Mavericks in a September 2018 article published by The Players' Tribune. He has also cited the role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, as an early influence.

5. He's penned several "Black Panther" comic books and in July 2018, authored his first "Captain America" title.

"Writing, for me, is about questions — not answers. And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in The Dream? What is exciting here is not some didactic act of putting my words in Captain America's head, but attempting to put Captain America's words in my head. What is exciting is the possibility of exploration, of avoiding the repetition of a voice I've tired of," Coates wrote in a February 2018 article published in The Atlantic.


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