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Memory is a superpower in Ta-Nehisi Coates' novel about the Underground Railroad


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: Mix fantasy and history to tell a tale of slavery and memory.

In the latest addition to our "NewsHour" Bookshelf, Jeffrey Brown sits down with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his new book.

It's part of our art and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Ta-Nehisi Coates, appearing before Congress this year to make the case for reparations for the human and economic costs of slavery

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. The matter of reparations is one of making amends.

Jeffrey Brown: An example of the forceful advocacy and powerful data-driven argument for which he's become so well-known, writing influential magazine articles and a series of nonfiction works, including his 2015 National Book Award-winning "Between the World and Me."

But it turns out, for the last 10 years, he's also been writing something else, going beyond facts and figures.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The math and the numbers are really, really important. But when you start getting to individual people, there's a part in "Between the World and Me" when I say, slavery is not an amalgam of people. It's literally this person doing dot, dot, dot, dot.

And this is the attempt to live in the world of such a person.

Jeffrey Brown: And that's an answer to why fiction?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes, that's definitely an answer.

Jeffrey Brown: Coates' latest book is a novel, his first, "The Water Dancer," set on a plantation in 19th century Virginia, along the Underground Railroad system of safe houses that helped slaves escape to freedom and in Philadelphia.

Historical figures are woven in, most notably Harriet Tubman, the former slave whose heroic rescue missions brought hundreds of slaves north. In New York recently, Coates said he wanted to counter what he sees as the many myths of the old South that continue to this day.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What became clear to me is that you can't win this argument by showing documents.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know, like, the facts won't do it. Like, that's not -- people are holding onto something else. This is the reason why people gather, for instance, to protest taking down Confederate statues.

This is not a problem of history. This is a problem of myth.

Jeffrey Brown: When you say myth, you mean like story?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Story, yes, exactly right.

Jeffrey Brown: So you're taking actual things and giving it a different sort of life in fiction?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yes. Yes.

And much of that myth was drawn out of actual history. Robert E. Lee is a historical figure, and there's a mythological Robert E. Lee.

I felt that maybe there was an opportunity to do the exact same thing with black people who lived under the period of enslavement, that there were stories and myths that could be drawn out and written in a compelling and literary way.

Jeffrey Brown: How much research went into it? Did you approach this...

Jeffrey Brown: Yes? You're laughing, as...

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It was a lot.

Jeffrey Brown: A lot?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: A lot.

Jeffrey Brown: But you approached this the way you -- you're a nonfiction -- you're a journalist.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I did.

That was the start. So, what, I mean, I visited a ton of slave plantations.

Jeffrey Brown: Did you read firsthand accounts?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Read a ton of firsthand accounts.

Jeffrey Brown: But how much did it end up informing the...

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I couldn't have written the book without it.

I felt like the great challenge of the book was that there is already, I think, in most people's minds an image of slavery. And that image revolves around whips. It revolves around chains. It revolves around cotton-picking. It revolves around rape.

These are all of these tropes that are already there.

Jeffrey Brown: And they're all true.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: And they're all true. They're definitely all true.

But when I went back through the documentation, the thing that struck me the most, in fact, was how much family separation was a part of the story of enslavement.

Much of the grieving that I saw is a wife separated from a husband, a mother separated from a child, a father separated from a child, child separated from a grandmother.

And that's the place "The Water Dancer" lives.

Jeffrey Brown: But there's more. Coates is also a longtime reader and writer of comics and fantasy stories, including part of the "Black Panther" series.

He's given his young protagonist in the novel his own kind of superpower, one based on memory.

It's an interesting superpower to give an enslaved person, memory, right?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Right. Right. Right.

Yes, because...

Jeffrey Brown: Almost an inability to forget.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: So, a lot of this is about how African-Americans remember their own history.

They are -- and I think this is no longer true, but, certainly, let's say, two or three generations before me, there certainly was a prevailing notion that we didn't talk about enslavement. We just didn't mention it. You just move on. You don't repeat the traumas.

But one of the implicit ideas, I think, in this is that you can't actually move. There's so much that you can't do when you're so intent on forgetting. And there's so much more you can do if you actually grab it by the reins, you know, grab memories by the reins and say, look, this actually -- this happened.

Stephen Colbert: Please welcome Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Jeffrey Brown: Coates' celebrity has taken him far, and he is regularly cited as one of today's leading public intellectuals.

I asked if he felt pressure to make everything he puts out, including this novel, feel important to the moment.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It doesn't have to be important, but I have to feel like it's really good. I have to be excited. I have to be excited.

But I don't need to be operating in front of a big crowd every time. I need to be excited by the challenge. I need to feel good about it. I need to not be able to sleep. That was true before I had an audience. That will be true after my audience leaves me.

Jeffrey Brown: Coates' novel is the latest by an African-American artist to explore painful history and culture in creative new ways, including a forthcoming film on Harriet Tubman.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I think what you have is a number of African-Americans who have a level of prominence in literature, in the arts, in media, working actually with other African-Americans. They aren't alone.

Jeffrey Brown: More comfortable, or more urgent, or more...

Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, I think the desire was always there.

But I think it's very different when you have a community of people who are working at a certain level telling those stories.

Jeffrey Brown: And what do you think this is or might add up to, in terms of a retelling of this -- you know, the story, the myth, the actual history?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I think part of the history of racism and white supremacy in this country is the -- just the stranglehold it's had on the story the country tells itself.

If there is any area of optimism that I'm optimistic about, it's in that area. There's politics that happens at the ballot box, and then there's a broader context around that politics, another kind of politics that happens in our culture.

When you see white kids, little white kids, dressing up as Black panther for Halloween, something's shifting. Something's changed. That wasn't true when I was a kid.

Who you see as a hero, who you see as a human being, all of that informs the actual politics. And it's that greater context where I probably see the most shift and the most change.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "The Water Dancer."

Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you very much.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

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