Before Ta-Nehisi Coates began his talk, before he could say a single word, the entire 1,400-capacity crowd in LeFrak Gymnasium was on its feet to welcome him to Amherst College.
As the applause died down, an audience member shouted, “We’re excited to hear you speak!”
“I’m excited to hear me speak, too!” Coates said with a laugh.
In her introduction, President Biddy Martin described the National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow as a “genuine intellect” on an “uncompromising and humble quest for understanding.”
“He writes directly and unapologetically about racism,” she added, “and he does so in very personal terms.”
In his talk, Coates began by reading a passage from his award-winning memoir, Between the World and Me, about his experience growing up in West Baltimore and, in particular, a moment in which another young boy pulled a gun on him.
Coates contrasted that moment, and the overwhelming daily fear that his and other families felt in their neighborhood, to the idealized version of the white experience that he saw on TV, as represented in shows such as Mr. Belvedere.
“Why didn’t I know any families like that?” Coates asked of those fictional families. “That’s been the great mission of my life: the constant exploration of that why.”
The American Dream, he said, is really a dream of privilege and abundance with roots in the United States stretching back through the origins of slavery. Since the 1600s, he explained, there has been a slow legal separation between the white and black experiences, a “cleaving away,” that helped create a “definitive working class that could always be depended on.”
“There was abundant land in this country,” Coates said. “What was not abundant was the source of work.”
In reframing the American dream, and in describing slavery as an economic institution—and the reasons why so many people would continue to fight for slavery in the Civil War and beyond—Coates drew an analogy:
“The dream of slave ownership is not so different than the dream of home ownership,” he said. “Many people in this country do not own homes. And yet, if they felt that the government was going to take everyone’s home and liquidate the wealth, and they could be restricted from ever owning a home again, they might fight for that.”
A legacy of aspirations built on oppression continued through the Jim Crow era and created a form of "racism implicit even in the best efforts,” he said. The GI Bill is one example: Widely considered a great piece of legislation, it required that veterans seek approval from local officials, a nearly impossible prospect for African-Americans in some Southern areas. As Coates noted, the bill was one of the insidious ways such government policies were written to “cut as many black people out as possible.”
While no society is completely without sin, Coates said, the United States tends to believe in its own exceptionalism—a point he drove home during the post-talk Q&A.
“It’s not so much what we’ve done than the insistence we haven’t done it that haunts so many of us,” he said, arguing that this attitude pervades modern society, with even journalists shying away from confronting difficult issues.
“The whole country is a safe space for being white,” he said, as the crowd snapped in agreement. He added that people of color “end up having to demand explicitly what is implicit for everyone else.”
In response to a student question about modern-day slavery, Coates said the problem is that the United States was not merely a society where slavery existed, but instead a slave society.
“There’s no America without slavery,” he said. “This was not a mistake we made while walking somewhere else. This was the somewhere else we were walking to.”