I went to hear an interview last night at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The interview, part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, was with Krista Tippet and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Along with the ticket price I received a copy of Coates’ most recent book, We Were Eight Years In Power. The immense chapel was sold out of seats. I don’t know the exact number that means but there were a lot of people there along with what seemed to be a lot of security for such an event; bags and purses searched, and a metal detector brushed up and down the front and back of our bodies as we entered. “This is what we have come to,” I thought, worrying more about whether the place I’d parked my car was legit, than whether the crowd was going to be the target of a person with gun(s).
When I was finally inside and settled into a seat, I opened the book again (after reading the introduction and part of the first essay while standing in line waiting to enter) and left the sea of chaos with swirling people, loud talking, and grand organ being played loudly. Coates’ writing provides this: a space of freedom, a space apart, where reality is brought up close and examined without shock or shame, yet with great thought and feeling and with beautifully chosen words, a space I’d rather not leave once there.
Krista Tippett creates a similar kind of space in her interviews, a space of comeraderie, even intimacy, without shock or shame, a friendship with open questions, and a listening with disarming laughter. I loved their interview. These two were sparring at times, incredulous at others, letting us into a world of reality shared with a white privileged woman and a black thoughtful man. Coates declined the questions from the audience that asked him how to teach children with hope in a time when the leader of their country is lying and abusive. “I’m not a teacher,” Coates answered.
“I’m a writer and I cannot claim to be an expert on teaching but I can attempt to tell you what I may be wondering if I were a nine-year-old in your class. I would wonder why a man can lie and cheat and bully and still get to be a leader of such a great country? I would question why a police officer can shoot a black man and not be punished in any way? And I wouldn’t want the answers so much as give me the tools to find the answers. That’s what I would want from my teacher.”
In answer to the inevitable question, “Do you have hope for the future of race relations in Amerca?” Or the question, “What can I as a white person do?” Coates spoke about there being no easy actions or quick fixes. The history of white supremacy in America and of one group’s supremacy over another group runs deep, very deep and wide. The fight will be long but let’s work for a time when our grandchildren or great-great grandchildren no longer will need to refer to themselves as white or black, but only as human persons.
Thank-you Krista Tippet and Ta-Nehisi Coates for opening up a space that helped me see and experience beauty in people as I left the grand chapel that night. A beauty that brought tears to my eyes when Ta-Nehisi Coates described going to Howard University and how it affected him. “I experienced such large, brightly colored dressed black people. Black people who wanted to be writers, thinkers, doctors, lawyers. I never knew such beauty existed. And I felt free. For the first time I felt free.”