Author tells BYU students how to pursue racial justice in the arts

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Author Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses BYU students as part of the College of Fine Arts and Communication’s Listen Up! initiative

American universities are built on the site of two great crimes: the crimes of stealing land from Native Americans and the buying and selling of African slaves, according to New York Times bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

He spoke to BYU students during a live Q&A hosted by the College of Fine Arts and Communications on Dec. 3.

“We are haunted by those two crimes,” Coates said. “We have in different ways and in different proportions revisited unfreedom and coerced labor upon people, and upon a particular people. We are all indicted by that. You can’t escape that. There’s no ‘I didn’t do X, Y, and Z.”

Coates was a former journalist with The Atlantic and is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, “Between the World and Me.” He addressed over 400 students and faculty as part of the Listen Up! initiative hosted by the theater and media arts department and the College of Fine Arts and Communication’s Bravo! series.

Coates offered his criticism of American institutions and universities in response to a question posed by moderator Wade Hollingshaus about what universities should be doing to promote social justice.

Coates said the first step for universities is to recognize the societal debt owed to people of color because of years of slavery and inequity.

“There is recompense. There is justice. There is a way of walking through the world that perhaps would bring one, in fact, more in accordance with the teachings of one’s prophets and one’s gods,” Coates said.

He invited students to ponder what they can do individually to be part of the solution.

“We have not had enough art that is committed not to making most Americans feel better about themselves, and white Americans particularly, but that is dedicated to telling the truth,” Coates said. He told students that it is the arts that provides the framework for political debates, not elections.

He said the idea that America isn’t inherently racist has primarily been transmitted through culture and storytelling.

“Even the very term ‘the American dream’ wasn’t invented by a president somewhere. This was invented by a writer,” Coates said. He explained that his primary motivation is to get people to feel something in their hearts rather than just understand something logically in their minds, and he knows he has been successful when people go to bed thinking about his writing.

“The verb I often use is ‘haunt,'” Coates said. “I’m trying to create work that haunts people.”

He said he experienced being “haunted” by the power of words through the gritty experiences of Black people in the hip-hop music he listened to when he was growing up and in the Shakespeare plays he was assigned to read in high school.

“It’s the 1990s and I’m in Baltimore, and Shakespeare has been dead like 400 years or so, and here I am, haunted,” Coates said of reading the play Macbeth. “If Shakespeare can talk about these two characters in these very particular places and yet it can resound to (my) experience almost half a millennium later, what does that mean about speaking in your language about your own experience?”

Ultimately, every content creator has to decide whether or not to speak the truth, and specifically for Coates, that means the truth that America must make reparations for the sin of slavery. He said more art is needed that addresses uncomfortable topics.

“Are you going to tell people things that make it easier for them to sleep at night, or do you want to tell the kind of stories that trouble the water and make it easier for people to sleep at night in the right kind of way?” he said.

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