Category Archives: lectures

“What do I owe?” | An Evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Fun fact: I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing. I got Between the World and Me in 2015 and never looked back. Just a year later, he started writing Black Panther, and I recall reading digital issues on my iPad in my dorm room, huddled under the covers like a child. In 2018, I was awarded my Master’s degree for a thesis in part based on those comics.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been an important part of my intellectual coming of age story; so naturally, when I heard he would be keynoting at ASWAD (which was being held in my city), I knew I had to be in that room.

I sat in the packed room last night, taking in the conversation. It wasn’t a traditional lecture, but a dialogue between Coates and a long time friend, Dr. Benjamin Talton of Temple University. The two covered a lot of ground, moving from the intellectual places and forums Coates inhabits to the digital spaces he has shied away from; they discussed his seminal piece, “The Case for Reparations,” and his newest piece of fiction, The Water Dancer; and in between were insightful remarks about practicing history. He read a few passages from the novel and then answered a series of questions from the audience about everything from narrative voice to writing as activism.

There are so many strands of thought that I could potentially pull out as I use this post to digest what I heard Friday night, but I think I want to focus on two moments in particular. The first moment was a series of questions Coates asks himself when he writes:

“What’s my duty? What’s my commitment? What do I owe?”

I wrote the questions down and almost missed a significant portion of the talk because as he discussed his own duty and commitment to writing, I began to think of my own.

I tackle these questions often, think about them almost daily, mull them over with Micah. I think about duty when I write fiction, considering the Black girls for whom I write. I think about my commitment to accessibility in my academic writing. I insist upon maintaining my personality in my writing because I want to show how you make a space for yourself when everything tells you that you are not welcome. And I often think about what I owe to myself. Of course, much of what I do is for other Black girls, but truly, the bulk of my work is selfish. It’s for the little girl I was who needed the stories I find different ways to tell.

I want to show my younger self that I gave myself permission to be large.

There’s magic in that act, which, in a way, leads me to the second moment I’ve been chewing on from Coates. Someone asked Coates about the magic in Harriet and the magic of representations, and he said what I have been preaching about for the last year or so. The supernatural is present, and has always been present, in our narratives. He’s being faithful to the way enslaved folks saw the world, and despite the circumstances, it was always tinged with a touch of magic. He used the talisman Frederick Douglass received that was supposedly to keep him from being beaten ever again as an example. I would also point to Charles Chesnut’s Conjure Woman Tales, and Zora Neale Hurston’s investigation of Hoodoo, and Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7, and Solomon the Flying African, and and and.

Our people are magic, in particular our women. And Coates acknowledges that openly and that moment encouraged me to move forward with my dissertation investigation. To have someone who has been such a force in my intellectual life unknowingly validate my belief was a powerful moment.

And even more exciting was learning that Coates and I share intellectual lineage. When asked about professors and spaces that shaped his thinking, he of course mentioned Howard University and several of the professors he interacted with there. In his fairly extensive list was Dr. Blakey. In stunned disbelief, I wondered if he was talking about the Dr. Blakey that I knew and had as a professor back in 2017. A quick peak at Wikipedia confirmed what I knew as Coates described the work Blakey had done: Coates and I had interacted with and been taught by the same professor.

I came into that room wanting an autograph but I left with an invaluable gift: things to think about. Coates has been provoking me to push further with my thinking for several years now, and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to see him in person.


If you want to know more about the conference, check out the ASWAD website: http://aswadiaspora.org/