Coates highlighted his parents and their love of reading and writing:
I had two tremendous parents who were above and beyond. They had a deep, deep commitment to children and just an incredible commitment to me. That's more than the traditional sense of making sure you do your homework. My parents believed in reading and believed in writing very much. And they didn't just believe in it in the classroom: I grew up in a household where there were books everywhere—books in the living room, books in the kitchen, books in the bathroom, books in bedrooms. The books were, for the most part, about African-Americans and about people of African descent—they were tools for me to understand why my world looked the way it did... My parents very much believed in being an entrepreneurial learner, that learning and education did not end in a classroom, that you had a responsibility to research and understand things for yourself. I was very, very well-armed by my household.
Below, we've rounded up 11 books that Coates has singled out for praise, either in his columns and interviews or a lengthy discussion he had recently at the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. (The quotes below are from the Schomburg Center event unless otherwise noted.)
Coates's picks include history, essay, poetry, fiction, and memoir. Arm yourself and enjoy.
"Collected Essays" by James Baldwin
"I had recently re-read 'The Fire Next Time' and had been blown away. It wasn't just a great book. It was: Wow, they don't do that anymore," Coates said.
"It's the brevity of the book. It's so short, and he's just punching every time... I think Baldwin's poetry in the essay form is just unparalleled. This cat's got three modes. He can shift gears and go from the personal to the grand historical—and make these big declarative statements about America, but they're not rhetorical, they're actually true and they clearly come from a well-read mind—and then he can shift out and be a journalist and do Elijah Muhammad over here; he can observe that and give you the whole scene in a descriptive way.
"Yo, that is hard. That is incredibly hard without looking clunky. I haven't seen anybody else who was capable of moving from poetry to the historical to the reportage like that. And then to sing the whole way through, to make it sound beautiful the whole way through... It's a clear, clear difference between this cat and everybody else doing it."
"The Half Has Never Been Told" by Edward E. Baptist
"'The Half Has Never Been Told' is a great, great book," Coates said. "The gulf between how your run-of-the-mill history department talks about American history and the way citizens understand American history is just huge. Forget citizens, even journalists.
"People say to me, 'Ta-Nehisi, how can you say the wealth of this country is built on the destruction of the black population?' I say, that's not even a controversial statement. It's actually demonstrably true. What did you think that 250 years of slavery was? Do you think it was just something that was fun to do? It was just a hobby? How do you think the housing laws in this country were actually passed? What do you think was the actual process that got Social Security in this country? Do you think mass incarceration just sort of happened?
"For me, it's a very fact-based claim. It is not a rhetorical claim, it's not just lobbing fireballs to rile people up. You can demonstrate it, and historians do it all the time. Ed did, in a highly decorated book... It's a great book, and his ability to make you feel it and be right there is dead on."
"Black Folk Here and There" by St. Clair Drake
"No work more influenced my own thinking on [how race has been defined over time] more than St. Clair Drake's two-volume work Black Folk Here and There," Coates wrote in The Atlantic. "Drake is better known for his study of Chicago, Black Metropolis, a book that informed the profile I wrote of Michelle Obama and, to some extent, my work on reparations. But Black Folk was the first book that made the argument that sticks with me to this day—that there is nothing particularly 'natural' about viewing people with darker skin and curlier hair as inferior. Drake surveys all perceptions of people with darker skin, curlier hair, or both across history. He finds very little consistency and concludes that racism, as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say the seizure of power."
"American Slavery, American Freedom" by Edmund S. Morgan
"It's excellent," Coates said. "It probably undergirds a lot of what's in my book." Elsewhere, Coates described "American Slavery, American Freedom" as "essential to understanding your country and how it came to see 'blacks' in one light and 'whites' in another... I rarely reread whole books within five years of each other, but Morgan's work stuck with me in a way that I've never experienced. The second time around was even better. Morgan's work deserves a much, much wider audience."
"The Night of the Gun" by David Carr
"My first editor was a gentleman by the name of David Carr, my dearly departed friend and brother," Coates recounted. "He was a gentleman with a very interesting biography. He was from Minnesota but here in East Coast media; he had had a drug problem, an alcohol problem, a substance abuse problem, and this gave him a kind of clarity about the world that is very unusual in this country for people who check 'White' on the census form.
"Just to give you a quick example, David once told me a story about being in drug rehab... There's a picture [from rehab], and everybody in the picture is black except him. Everybody in it was struggling. And of everybody in the picture, he was the only one who managed to stay clean when he got out. And he said to me, 'What's the difference?' He said, 'I think the difference is that when I came out, I had people to help me get on my feet. I had somebody to give me a crappy little car and say, here, drive this around. I had somebody's basement I could live in while I was pulling it together.' What he was talking about was social wealth, even those weren't the terms he was using. That was the sort of perception that I had from my first editor."
"Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson
"One of the great radicalizing books," Coates said. "Huge book, best-seller in America, won all the awards, Pulitzer Prize. Just a huge, huge book. The first 250 or 300 pages of that is totally dedicated to making you understand: the Civil War was just about slavery. It just was that. Everybody—poor white people in the South, rich and poor white people in the North, all of them had a stake in it."
In the New York Times, Coates described "Battle Cry of Freedom" as "the definitive history of the Civil War. One of the greatest works of history I’ve ever read and arguably the best one-volume history in existence."
"Paula Giddings...changed my life and may be responsible for my marriage and the birth of my son," Coates said. "'When and Where I Enter' is great, but that biography of Ida B. Wells is absolutely incredible and criminally underrated."
"Out of the House of Bondage" by Thavolia Glymph
"'Out of the House of Bondage' is the only footnote in my book," Coates said. "It is absolutely essential. Thavolia's book is all about the violence that white women who owned slaves in the South did to black women. All of y'all should read it. It's an excellent book. There was this myth out there that white women were kinder and more forgiving to black women, that there was a 'sisterhood,' and this book runs completely in the other direction. But the book is not insulting to white women. It's actually very feminist. It says that anybody can do violence—violence is a part of slavery. And being part of the 'fairer sex,' it don't get you out of that. Subtly, it shows the humanity of folks even as they are being inhumane."
Coates listed these two titles among his 10 favorites books in a feature for T Magazine. Coates says he read Guralnick's history of soul music "as a young man really trying to understand what journalism and history meant."
Coates writes of Yusef Komunyakaa, "Probably my favorite living poet. No one else taught me more about how important it was to think about how words make people feel. It’s not enough for people to know something is true. They have to feel it's true."
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