He is one of the great voices of contemporary America: revealed by his essays sold in millions of copies, Ta-Nehisi Coates continues his exploration of the condition of blacks in his country through a first fiction on the slavery, which “is part of the American soul”.
“I changed the format, no fight,” said the 45-year-old writer in an interview with AFP on the occasion of the publication in French of his first novel, “La danse de l’eau”, at Fayard.
Released in 2019 in the United States, “The Water Dancer” was a public and critical success. Translated into 14 languages, the book is in the process of being adapted for theaters, a film produced by TV star Oprah Winfrey and actor Brad Pitt.
Like the writer Toni Morrison (1931-2019) in “Beloved”, Ta-Nehisi Coates anchored her story in a particular genre: that of magical realism to tell the life of Hiram, a young slave endowed with a supernatural gift, in pre-Civil War Virginia (1861-1865).
A genre that allows him to “pay homage to African-American folklore where magic and the supernatural are omnipresent,” he underlines.
With this first fiction, Mr. Coates is part of the continuity of his work which consistently denounces “the systemic racism” of a society still marked by its slavery past – for more than two centuries -.
“Slavery is part of the American soul […] Frankly, I wonder why not everyone is writing on it. For me, America just doesn’t talk enough about slavery, ”he insists.
And to point out “the selective memory” of his country, which “recognizes that George Washington (1st American president, editor’s note) was important, but does not recognize the fact that he held slaves as something so important”.
Born in Baltimore (Maryland) in 1975 to a teaching mother and a librarian and teacher father – a former member of the Black Panthers – Ta-Nehisi Coates very early on developed a political conscience.
Attracted by journalism, he joined Howard University (a prestigious university which trained African Americans until the end of segregationist laws) in Washington, but gave up without graduating.
His life changed in 2008 when he published his first essay “The Beautiful Struggle” (Le grand combat, ed. Autrement). Attracted by his incisive pen, the magazine The Atlantic, offers him to keep a blog on its website.
Compared to Baldwin
Pop-culture, political and societal topics… Coates deals with everything without ever losing sight of the condition of blacks in the country.
In 2014, his article (45 pages) “The case for Reparations” had a considerable impact. He defends the idea of compensation for the descendants of slaves to rebalance the differences in wealth between whites and blacks.
A year later released “Between the World and Me” (A black anger, ed. Otherwise), a bestseller which propels him to the rank of intellectual: Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize for literature, compares him to the writer James Baldwin .
Written in the form of a letter to his son, the book, as intimate as it is political, is a charge against the discrimination experienced by African Americans. “It took me a long time to write it because it was something very intimate. It really came from the heart, ”he says.
The book provokes heated debate in American society and is adapted for the theater and on the small screen, via a series aired on HBO.
His positions cause a stir, such as when he asserts that American society is structured to generate “white supremacy”. “American society has changed a lot on these issues in recent years. But there are reactionary forces that want to prevent any change, ”he said.
Among these forces, the former president Donald Trump ? “He has done a lot of harm to the country”, responds the person concerned. “I think it will take time to recover. “