[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. Holly is a Ph.D student at Temple University and contributing editor at Auntiebellum mag. She is writing her dissertation on prisoner rights activism in New Orleans. She is interested in mass incarceration, black power, and protest movements. Back in February, Holly blogged for us about the Angola 3. I’m delighted that we’ll be hearing more from her over the next few weeks. — Ben Alpers]
I was lucky enough to introduce Ta-Nehesi Coates at a discussion with the Temple University History Department on October 26th. Students and faculty in the department got to ask him questions centering on public intellectualism, activism, the use of history in writing, and his work. Coates made it clear throughout his talk that he identified as a journalist, but he is a journalist who has been clearly shaped and intellectually influenced by historians. This is clear in Between the World and Me when he cites Thavolia Glymph and her article on Mass Incarceration and the African American family.
Ta-Nehesi Coates’s talk was an exercise in citation. Coates discussed his history professor at Howard, Linda Heywood, who pushed him in the process of “unlearning,” a process we must all must go through. Coates spoke at length about his recent reading of Dubois’s Black Reconstruction and the connections he made between it and more recent scholarship. Coates argued that slavery is the foundation on which this country was built, an argument heavily reliant on the works of Edward Baptist and Ed Morgan. But he argued that when historians couch the brutality of slavery in convoluted language, they are doing a disservice to the history of plunder. While Coates may not be a historian, his work has been created and shaped by the work of historians. And historians can learn from his use of language in detailing painful and violent histories.
I also attended a large event in Temple’s Liacouras Center where there were thousands of people in the crowd. Coates talked about race in America, plunder, and slavery as the foundation of the United States. But his answer, to many questions, boiled down to “keep reading.” For Coates, the answers are in books. While not intentionally so, Coates’ event was an argument for the importance and relevance of the humanities. An author of a National Book Award winning book and a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly filled a stadium regularly used for graduations and basketball games. It was one of the biggest events the Temple University College of Liberal Arts has ever held. And Coates used this platform not only to put for the arguments he made in Between the World and Me, but to argue for the significance of reading and history in combating injustice. “Don’t be overwhelmed, keep reading” he said.
Ta-Nehesi Coates’s work is a reminder that historians can both shape and be central in forming public conversations on race, among other subjects. Ta-Nehesi Coates has made the humanities central to his career and to the lives of readers: historians can and should learn from it. The work of the historian is not distinct from the interests of the public unless we create the distinction ourselves.