Author Ta-Nehisi Coates Speaks at Sold-Out UVM Event | Live Culture

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates Speaks at Sold-Out UVM Event


  • Courtesy of Gabriella Demczuk
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
Best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates was 33 when he voted for the first time. That was in 2008 and he voted for Barack Obama, Coates told the 3,200-strong audience at the University of Vermont’s indoor tennis courts on Tuesday evening.

The West Baltimore, Md., native said he had a “very radical but limited view of politics." Coates had felt that voting was "bad" and thought he would end up endorsing “for the lesser evil, at best.” But a professor friend recently told him, “Yes, that’s true, but I’m in favor of less evil.”

The importance of voting, racism, the music of Marvin Gaye, his experience at his alma mater, Howard University, and the writings of James Baldwin were some of the topics that Coates discussed on election night during an hourlong talk moderated by Major Jackson, an English professor at UVM.

Coates is a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is also the writer of a Black Panther series for Marvel Comics. Coates' 2015 book Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

The full-capacity event at UVM was attended by students, faculty, alumni and community members. According to Lisa Schnell, interim dean of the Honors College, it was a coincidence that Coates — who has written extensively on racism in the U.S. — was in Vermont on election day.

At the start of the event, the author thanked his friend Rachel for being in attendance. Her presence, he said, was a testament to the life of Prince Jones Jr., their mutual friend who was killed by a police officer in 2000. Coates has written about his anger over his friend's death. An interview with Jones' mother, Mabel, forms the third section of Between the World and Me.

Jones isn’t a hashtag or a smartphone video, Coates went on. “He was a real, breathing person who was taken from us.”

Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to Coates' teenage son about racial injustice and what it means to be a black man in the U.S., was selected to be part of UVM’s First-Year Summer Read program. It was mandatory for all freshmen to read the book before the start of their fall semester.

"I can say, truly, with no exaggeration whatsoever, that this is one, perhaps the, most deeply affecting book that we've ever assigned for summer reading at UVM," said Schnell.

During the event, Jackson and Coates also discussed such issues as the "assault" on the mainstream media, race as a political tool, white supremacy and Coates' agonistic upbringing. A student fielded a question on the role of celebrities in a democracy. Another asked Coates how his book might be different if he had a daughter instead. A third asked Coates about his experience as a voter.

Voting can be seen as the prevention of evil, said the author. He also likened it to taking out the trash. "Just like taking out the trash is not the end of your process of hygiene and cleaning up," said Coates, "voting is not the end of your political engagement."

"After you vote, you have to do all those other things that allow us, one day, to live in a world where we aren't just confronted with going to the ballot and forestalling evil," Coates said.

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