In a just world, Paul Coates would not be famous primarily for the work of his son. As the father of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose analysis of American history has transformed the public discourse on race, the 72-year-old Coates is immortalized in his son’s writing as an eccentric and quixotic figure.
“My father was haunted,” Ta-Nehisi wrote in his first book, The Beautiful Struggle. “He’d explain to anyone who’d listen” that those in power “infected our minds. They deployed their phrenologists, their backward Darwinists, and forged a false Knowledge to keep us down. But against this demonology, there were those who battled back. Universities scorned them. Compromised professors scoffed at their names. So they published themselves and hawked their Knowledge at street fairs, churches, and bazaars. For their efforts, they were forgotten.”
Paul himself was largely forgotten by the time his son gained prominence, but in my hometown of Baltimore, his legacy and impact on the city have been profound. After leading the local chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he founded a prison literacy program, opened a bookstore devoted to community service and established the publishing company Black Classic Press to disseminate the work of contemporary authors like Walter Mosley and historic writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, John G. Jackson and Carter Woodson.
Although Coates and I have friends in common, we had never met until late last year, when we began a series of conversations about his life and political evolution. The first interview took place on Christmas, a holiday he doesn’t observe. “I resent it because it takes money out of the community,” he said. “It reflects a powerlessness to make decisions about what's in our best interest.” As the discussion, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, stretched into the evening and continued for months to come, we talked about his unlikely path from childhood poverty to the Vietnam War to the Panther Party. At a time when the country, and Baltimore in particular, face existential challenges, few people offer such a clear-eyed perspective on the past and the road ahead.
Yeah, he and his brother lived a few blocks from our headquarters. They were community supporters, selling papers and things like that.
Not that I know of, but they wouldn’t tell me!
Well, that is different. I’m a Booker T. Washington supporter and have been for many years.
Booker T. Washington was not the person that society imagines him to be, this big Uncle Tom. What he advocated is really black nationalism, if you think about it. The largest black nationalist figure in history is Marcus Garvey—he claimed 6 million followers around the world; he unified the people that became the African National Congress; every damn flag that you see in Africa with red, black and green is related to him—and Marcus Garvey came to America to learn from Booker T. Washington.
The thing is, “pull your pants up” runs through the whole black nationalist movement. This is one of the differences my son and I have. His breakout article was on Bill Cosby and the pound cake routine, right?
I would say that most black people are conservative. We’re seen as radical when we demand the same values that America claims to have, but as a whole, we’re one of the largest bodies of conservatism in the country.
Not at all, man. The civil rights movement was on television, but what was around me did not appear to be the same thing. My father had a radio and television repair shop in West Philadelphia, and I was born above it. There were a number of other children. I don’t even know how many. At one point, I could count at least 14 brothers and sisters. Four of us were by my mother, but my father also had children by two of my mother’s sisters. He was older than all of them. My mother was about 15 when he was 37, and my aunts were all young when he was with them. So he had a thing for young women. He took advantage of them. After my parents split, one of my aunts lived with my father. My brother and I went to live with them, because my mother really couldn't take care of us.
She was my first protector, that’s the way I think about her. She would battle my father. He was hard as hell on me. I mean, he would brutalize me. But she was fierce. A short, beautiful black woman who thought nothing about jumping in to save my ass. And she saved my ass a bunch of times. She took ass-whuppings for it.
Yeah, it was just her, him and my brothers and sisters. My father was on a decline. Alcoholism tore him up and his health wasn’t good. When I was 8 or 9, we finally got evicted. Then we lived out of my father’s truck for a while. I didn’t go to school during that period. We would park by a formstone wall at this graveyard and spend the night. My father, my aunt and my sister Judy would sleep in the front. My brothers and I slept in the back with a tarp pulled over so it wouldn’t rain on us. Eventually, my father brought us back to my mother. We couldn’t stay in the truck any longer.
I did, but I didn't really care for it.
That’s an interesting question, because my family always treated me as the gifted one. They felt I was different, and they treated me different. Even as a child, I was aware of that. Like I was special. They always held me up. They always listened to me.
After my father dropped us off that one time, I never saw him again.
That’s right. It was hard, because he had promised to come back. But he was an alcoholic. He had no way of taking care of himself, so I can understand it through that lens. My brother told me that he used to watch us at a distance. He met my sister and one of my older brothers a number of times on the street.
Yeah, but I didn’t know that until many years later. I never saw him. It felt like a broken promise. But I didn't want to be a part of all the conversations where the family ran him down. I didn't feel that way about him. I loved him. I really loved him.
It was between gangs, so if you went this way, you'd be in one gang territory; if you went that way, you’d be in another gang’s; and if you went another way, you’d be in a whole other gang’s territory. We had to learn how to walk a certain way that sent a message: Don’t fuck with this. People would judge you on that bop.
There was something about the people who came back from the service. They had a focus. They were about something. My friend and I wanted that, so we took the Army test right before I turned 18.
They gave me three choices. I could be regular military police, a military police guard or a military police dog handler. I wasn’t going to be regular military police, and I thought about being a guard—but that was in White Sands, New Mexico, and something about “white sands” did not sound right. So I became a dog handler.
No, I was terrified of them. I had been jumped when I was little by a Great Dane. He just licked me, but I still remember being terrified by that.
I didn't think about it until I got there. Color had never occurred to me. When I saw John Wayne on the television, I didn’t notice there weren't any black people with him.
Yeah, I did. This is our country—kill some Japs. Anybody that gets in the way of the flag, they’ve gotta be wiped out. But once I got into the military, I was immediately confronted by racism. I remember this one draftee going down to Fort Knox with us on the train. We talked for hours, and I'd never really had a long, intimate conversation with a white person before. But then another black guy said something about his sister looking good, and the whole conversation went from here to there. He said something like he would do black girls, but…
Like that would be insane. It actually stopped the conversation. People all drifted away. That was my first real experience with whiteness. It was like, “Oh, I get it now.”
At one point, I had a run-in with a Native American guy. He was like a toy to the white boys. They would mess with him and call him Chief. He resented that, but then he started with me, saying, “Nigga-nigga-nigga.” We got to tussling and then another guy finally separated us. I remember he said to him, “Chief, what the fuck is wrong with you? He’s a nigger, and you’re an injun.” Right after that, I walked into another room and saw the book Black Boy, by Richard Wright, sitting out. I thought they had set me up. I had read some Baldwin and other black books, but I had never heard of Black Boy. I picked it up and saw that it was a real book, so I started reading it. That really did something to me. It became clear that I didn’t know a goddamn thing about black folks.
He didn’t. I had probably read at least three of his books, but it really didn’t jell that this was a genre until I read Wright. Then it all made sense, and it occurred to me that there must be other books like this out there. I committed myself to read every black book that I could possibly find.
I was at Fort Wolters, a small base outside of Mineral Wells, Texas. That was my last base before I went to Vietnam.
There weren’t white cats in hoods, burning crosses and beating up on black people, but if you walked through town, the moment you got to the black side, the sidewalks would disappear, the streets would disappear, and now you’re walking in dirt. So the racism was subtle—but as your consciousness expands, the subtlety melts away and the racism becomes more rancid to the eyes and nose.
When you’re in the military, the only thing coming at you is military information. It’s just like being in America: You are totally brainwashed. Everything around me supported the war in Vietnam, so I bought into it.
My consciousness was so underdeveloped, though. I was just beginning to see things. I didn’t even have the right questions yet, let alone the answers.
I did a 13-month stay, then I got a 30-day leave and went back for two months. Our job was maintaining the perimeter at night. We were supposed to patrol an area of about two miles with the dogs, but very few of us did that. It would have been suicide. We would gather at a place where the patrols intersected, instead. I usually went to sleep.
I went there at first, but then I moved down to Baltimore a few months later.
The first place was the YMCA, because I ran into a lot of racism trying to get an apartment. God damn.
Of course it is. It still is. I had a couple of addresses, and the people wouldn’t open the doors. I remember going to one house that had a room for rent, and I knocked on the door and this old white woman came out and when I asked about the room, she said, “No, not your kind.”
What do you say to a woman who says that to you? I think about it often. That woman is probably dust now, but she still lives with me.
Folks down here loved to hear about the black books I was reading. In Philadelphia, that stuff separated me from my family, but here they embraced me. I found the New Era bookstore on Mulberry Street, and then up from that was a communist bookstore, and there was a newsstand on Greenmount Avenue with black books—and then there was Walter Lively’s store, Liberation Bookstore. When I found that, I was in heaven. I could go in there, and all these people were having political conversations. I didn’t understand half of what they were talking about, but it was like I had arrived in the promised land. It was different from anything I had known.
I tried to. I didn’t know there were people in Baltimore affiliated with the big groups, but I heard that SNCC
I did. I mean, I was prepared to join any of them, but one thing I liked about the Panthers was that their approach didn’t make white people into devils. I thought that whatever we did in this country, we had to find the white people who were willing to join ranks with us. That was my thinking, just numerically. I wasn’t about black nationalism. So when I stepped inside the Panther circle, I agreed with what they said.
If somebody was getting busted, you were supposed to observe that. But we didn’t spend time trailing cops around. We had other things, like the breakfast program.
Yeah, it was less standing around in a black jacket and beret, more selling newspapers to fund programs. The hardest job we had was trying to keep oil in the furnace and food on the table for the Panthers and their kids. Also getting people out of jail, you know, and taking care of people who came to us for protection. I remember this one woman who was being harassed by white bullies, and our job was to go down there and protect her. There was always something like that, whether it was organizing the boycott of a racist store or helping people get their electricity back on.
I agree, but at the same time, the FBI did not destroy the Panthers. I’m not one who ascribes the destruction of the Black Panther Party just to COINTELPRO.
Well, the chapter here was founded by an agent of the National Security Agency, Warren Hart, so he was the first. Then the Panthers sent John Clark, but it wasn’t long before he was in jail, too. They were arresting everybody, man.
Crazy-ass John Clark called me up one morning. He goes, “Coates, Coates, we need you! The pigs got us all surrounded, man! We’ve gotta move some TE.”
As for the L.A. shootout: Four days after Hampton’s death, police in L.A. broke down the front door of the local Panthers headquarters to execute a search warrant. The Panthers opened fire, killing three officers, and a battle began. Over the next four hours, police showered the building with gunfire and tried to blow the roof open with dynamite, while Panthers in gas masks returned fire with submachine guns through a haze of tear gas.
So I jump out of bed, throw on my shirt from the night before and go down to our headquarters. The block was empty. No traffic, no cops, no nothing—but he wants to go to the house with the guns and bring them back to our headquarters, because it was fortified. So we get there, but we don’t have a key. And this is John Clark—crazy as shit. He had somebody kick in the basement window, go in and open up the door. We end up taking all the guns out of the house. I’m the last person coming out. I have one gun, a rifle, in my hand. It’s not loaded, but I’m coming out of the house and I see John and all the other Panthers lined up with handcuffs.
The police are hollering for me to drop the gun, drop the gun. And John is hollering at me, “Drop the gun, Coates! What the fuck’s wrong with you?” But I'm not dropping the gun, because I’m scared as shit they’re going to kill me. I’m saying, I’m not going to drop the gun until they lower their guns, you know? I think they would have killed me then, but they were in a semicircle around me and they couldn’t get a clear shot. So we negotiated, and I dropped the gun, and they arrested me, too. There were pictures of me being put in the car.
Oh yeah, they had it all set up. There were television cameramen. I didn’t realize until I saw the footage a couple of years ago. But I wasn’t even a Panther yet, because you weren’t a Panther just by hanging around with Panthers. You had to get made a Panther—and so many informants came out of the woodwork in the congressional hearings
After John Clark got out of jail, he went back to California—but the woman he was living with started trying to give the Party orders in his absence. She was from North Africa and she looked like she was white. As far as we were concerned, she was white. So I said, This is crazy. I went up to New York to deliver a report on the arrests, and I took her with me.
It really wasn’t much hashing. I delivered my report and when she went to speak, they said, “Who the fuck are you? You ain’t no Panther.” Then Robert Bay
It wasn’t something I wanted. We didn't even have a chapter, really. At least three of our members were under murder charges. I had 15 attempted murder counts that came from the arrest before I went to New York.
But what would you do if you thought you could turn this shit around? If you could turn around 500 years of oppression? It may be daunting, but you would go for it! And the Panthers were the best shot.
I was successful at not getting killed, so that’s a difference. I kept the chapter running for a year and a half, which was record time in the Panther Party. But my leadership style was just survival, because the Panthers stopped sending us support. Huey had this crazy-ass plan about taking over Oakland, and they were consolidating people out there. He had already brought Robert Bay from New York. I got called out there, too, but I didn’t know why. After I got there, Robert Bay said, “Coates, now we got your ass out here, we gonna break you.” Because he felt that I had a thing about Baltimore over the Black Panther Party—which I did, in the sense that I had a lot of brothers in jail, and they weren’t doing nothing about those people. I wanted to talk about bringing more support to Baltimore, but nobody would talk to me about that. It reached a point where I said, Fuck this.
I just walked out the door. I had enough money to get on a bus, and I ended up trying to go to this sister's house, who I knew. But she had moved, so I was really up the creek then. Then I got on another bus, and I figured I would just ride the bus for a while until I got my head clear. And a few minutes later, I saw the Oakland Public Library and I got off. I knew what I would do. I went in the library, and I used the library to clear my head. Because books have always been good to me. It was like a sanctuary. When I got clear, I called people in Baltimore, asked them to send money for me to stay at the YMCA, and then I got a plane ticket and got out of there. I’m fortunate that I walked away before the Panthers transitioned into the organization that destroyed itself, because my difference with the Panther Party would have been met with mud-holing and getting beaten by bullwhips.
I remember being fearful. I was still 24. I remember thinking I wasn’t going to live to be 25. See, there was one cop that was killed in Baltimore, and there was another one that got shot. What the police did to convict Eddie Conway
When I got back to Baltimore, I was in a haze. I didn’t know what the hell to do. You know, in the Black Panther Party, you had an ideology. Everything I thought came from the Party. You knew who the enemy was, and what you were supposed to think and say. When I left the Party, I didn’t have that anymore. I had three children with my wife, a fourth by a woman in the Panther Party, and another on the way with someone else in the Party. My life was a wreck, man. It was a wreck. How was I going to take care of these children?
Yeah, so I didn’t have anywhere to go. The only place I had to live was with my wife, but she ended up throwing me out.
I was meeting with a group of radicals who wanted to support the brothers in jail that the Panther Party had abandoned, so I said, “Let’s create a bookstore and send them literature. When they come out, they can work in the bookstore—and we’ll publish books that will be sold in the bookstore.”
Yeah, and right after we set it up, the Panthers left the city—so the bookstore became an information center. Our storefront was right around the corner from where the Panthers had their office. We got people to come with books that we could bring into the prisons, and we held chicken dinners and crab feasts to raise money. We used whatever funds we had in the same way the Panthers did, and continued many of their programs. We helped people with rent, and I used to go around and pick up food donations from the people who had given to the Panthers. They thought the Panthers were still here—I never told them!
They were monitoring the bookstore,
Yeah, and I had hooked up with my second wife, who is Ta-Nehisi’s mother, about that time, so I had a stable base, a stable partner. I already had five children, but she said, “You have five children, but I have none.” So that’s when Ta-Nehisi was born. We moved the bookstore into the basement of our house, and then I went away to Atlanta University for graduate school in library science.
My wife and I published our first book while I was there. It was called Survey Graphic. It’s a look at the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s still underappreciated. But I wanted to publish it while I was still in graduate school, because I felt if I could do that, I’d be able to do other books under stress. Eventually, we dropped the bookstore, but we kept the printing and publishing part of the vision, which is Black Classic Press. And we have been publishing books ever since. Our mission is to keep books in print by and about people of African descent.
We have challenges literally every day, but we’re entering year 41. The biggest issue now has to do with transition, because I’m getting older.
No, because this doesn’t belong to me. I didn’t do this for my family, and I’m not committed to success as a capitalist. I’m committed to my legacy as an institution-builder, empowering the community. If some of my children wanted to step up and continue the legacy, they could do that, but at this point, none of them do. I have seven biological children and two children through my third marriage, in 2010. All of them are readers, but they don’t necessarily appreciate books in the same way. They don’t appreciate the political context in the way I do. Ta-Nehisi does. He and I are very close in our political outlook. I’m close to all of my children. I love all of them, and all of them love me. But when it comes to political outlook, he’s the only one. Because Ta-Nehisi was subjected to me 24/7. My other kids could go to their mothers. He had no place to run! His younger brother Menelik is also different, because he’s a state prosecutor. So he’s on the other side—they put people in jail! But he deals mostly with white-collar crimes, so he says he went into criminal justice to give some parity.
More than anything, they extended the notion of propaganda. The whole thing about “Seize the Time” and “Off the Pig”—those chants were powerful tools. I think there’s a parallel in the Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s completely different from the Panther Party.
I think the decentralization is a good thing, because none of those people are going to jail!
It helps them avoid killing each other, too. In a centralized thing, if you don’t like the leader, you have to overpower him—but you can’t have a coup if there’s no leader. I’d have a difficult time even naming very many leaders in Black Lives Matter, but they have raised consciousness.
I don’t know. I really don’t know. The situation we find ourselves in didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to be solved overnight.
I’m not sure, but the race is still so early that it really doesn’t matter a lot who’s in it. The candidates at the edges are going to shape a standard that all of them have to meet, you know? I don’t think Barack Obama was that radical. I never thought it made any difference whether he got elected or Hillary Clinton. Symbolically, it did. But she probably would have made better decisions for black people. She would have had to be responsive to a black electorate, whereas Obama didn’t have to worry about that.
She was! She absolutely was. She was dancing to a tune largely called by the inner cities.
I don't think so. I think our generation did exactly what we should have, because what we did is all we could have done. To project backward with the current level of consciousness that people have is not correct.
You have to look at Northam then and now. I mean, I did things in the ’80s that I’m not proud of, too. I’d like to know who didn’t do things 30 years ago that they’re not proud of. Are we all saints?
That’s right, he’s the one that got caught! What we have to focus on is: What is he doing now? What has he done in the immediate past? Because there are also people down there like Corey Stewart
It’s a sobering question, and it brings to mind Ta-Nehisi. People criticize him for not having hope. But it’s not that you don’t have hope. It’s just: What would you base the hope on?
Yeah, I know—this may not work. We might not actually be able to change anything. But we have to keep working for change, supporting things that are progressive and fighting against things that are regressive. We’ve got to keep struggling. I don’t think we have a choice. I know we don’t have a better choice.
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