Author Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers Powerful Message about Race for Virtual Listen Up! Event

Coates addressed the role of the arts in furthering the cause of racial justice

Over the years, the BYU BRAVO! Series has booked an impressive lineup of renowned artists and performers. That stellar reputation extends to its Listen Up! Series, introduced this fall as the College of Fine Arts and Communications seeks to magnify the campus conversation about Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility.

The December 3 lecture, co-produced by the BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts (TMA), featured a live Zoom event with National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. The event was exclusive to students within the college, and was moderated by TMA Department Chair Wade Hollingshaus. Coates has become a powerful voice for examining what it means to be Black in America. His bestselling books include “The Beautiful Struggle,” “We Were Eight Years in Power,” and “Between the World and Me.” He has received a MacArthur Fellowship and is the current author of the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America.

During the event, Coates spoke passionately about the importance of the arts in building a loving, egalitarian world. He asserted that arts and culture can shape not only the social issues of the day, but also the attitudes and policies surrounding those issues. 

“Policy flows forth from what’s happening in the arts,” he said. He gave the example of how “Gone with the Wind,” that iconic staple of film and literature, has for generations influenced our ideas about slavery — and not for the better.

One of the experiences that set Coates on the path to becoming a writer was reading Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in high school. “I was blown away by the poetry,” he said, and by the idea of being so wounded by the world that you didn’t care what you did anymore. 

Struck by the notion that words could still resonate so profoundly 400 years later, he was left with two key ideas: that powerful language can transcend time, and that the hip-hop music he had listened to all his life possessed that same power of the written word.

“[Hip-hop] was the first place I heard words used in a beautiful way,” he said. “They were talking about my life.” He would often transcribe lyrics and read through them to understand why they made him feel a certain way.

As Coates evolved as a writer, he tried to re-create the rhythm he found in his favorite music. He realized that he had to address his written arguments not just to the brain, but to the heart. “I try to make work that haunts people, so they go to bed thinking about it,” he said. “It sits with you. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.

“Writing is an intimate act, a conversation,” he continued. “I want the reader to feel like I’m whispering to them.”

When asked what he does to find transcendence in his life, Coates answered that he looks to his ancestors. “It’s seeing my life as a link in that chain,” he said. “I’m here to build upon that, to make the world a more just place.”

Coates also addressed the concept of cultural appropriation and whether it’s acceptable to write outside of your own lived experience. “It’s been done badly so many times,” he said. “So you have to add an extra level of care when you’re stepping outside of your lane. It takes diligence and respect. Take it seriously. You can feel the work that goes into it when it’s done right.”

For those who create art in any form, Coates emphasized that we should use our talents to make a difference. “We need more art dedicated to telling the truth, not to making people feel better about themselves,” he said. “We have to trouble the water.”

Photo by Gregory Halpern