Guest-curating our latest Notable Narrative is Tom Levenson, professor of science writing at MIT and the author of four books, most recently Newton and the Counterfeiter. He chose Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Fear of a Black President,” from The Atlantic. Read his comments below, along with his long conversation with Coates about writing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ cover story for the September issue of The Atlantic, “Fear of a Black President,” has had the kind of impact for which magazines hunger. A long-novella-scale account of the way in which, Coates argues, America has proved to be much more ready to elect a black president than to be governed by one, the article has powered a conversation about race that, as the piece notes, the president himself cannot engage.
At the same time, this essay offers a lot of opportunities to think about the technical side of what Coates did. What goes into constructing a piece on this scale, especially given Coates’ ambition not just to inform but also to evoke emotion, to persuade his readers?
Coates, a senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic, is teaching at MIT this year as a Martin Luther King Jr. scholar. Last week we sat down on campus for two conversations on the choices he made during the story’s eight- or nine-month gestation period, his approaches to writing, and what he hoped readers would gain from committing to spending 10,000 words in his company. The exchange started out as something of a writer’s-workshop exercise, looking at the technical side of putting together such a major effort, but we soon found ourselves flipping back and forth between those issues and questions about the layers of meaning Coates discovered as he worked.
What follows are excerpts from that conversation, with my questions and/or later gloss in blue. I’ve done minor editing within quotes, removing cross talk and trimming some of the conversational byplay. Also, as our conversation touched on similar topics over two separate sessions, I’ve assembled thoughts that may have come up more than once into single sections of text.
With that, Coates on the making of “Fear of a Black President:”
I had this idea, about September (2011). I knew the election was coming. I knew in some degree I wanted to assess Obama and race and the country. I talked with James Bennett, (The Atlantic’s editor) about doing that, and he was totally into that piece. But what is that piece?
I talked to Scott (Stossel) – he’s number two at the magazine – about some of the ideas I was thinking around that. And it was in this really, really vague and, frankly, very, very scary place. Because he said, “Okay. That sounds good. Do it in 6,000 words.” And it’s like, “Oh, okay.” I guess that means I actually have to write something.
The fun part of writing is bullshitting about the idea and everybody telling you how great the ideas is. That is really fun. When they say, “Okay. Go do it,” then you start, (and) the weight comes on you. And you realize, oh, I actually have to say something.
But, you know, I think what’s most important, even as somebody who has already written about race, is to have enough respect to say, “Okay, I need to go write about this some more.” Not, “Oh, I clearly know this. I can start writing.” I mean, one of the things we thought about, too, was like, should this be like a heavily reported piece? In other words, should it be some sort of investigation? Should you be trying to talk to black people who served in the White House? Should it go like that?
Despite such concerns, the piece as published possesses very few of the trappings of traditional reporting, with just one interview generating the only direct, “live” quotes used in the article.
And in my mind, in fact, even when I went to write, coming from a reporting background I just thought: Maybe there is not enough reporting in here; maybe I should be in a room with Obama Administration officials. Because the problem with hanging it on what you think, even what you feel, and the problem with going with something a little essayistic, even though there is reporting in there, is maybe you are just full of yourself. Like maybe you think you are insightful and you are really not. Maybe what you think is actually – you know, what you see isn’t actually that profound.
So when you go – it is like you put all your chips on yourself, and you just hope it is right. You really, really hope it is right.
And the other part of that is, just being an African-American. So, you know, there are probably at this point three or four magazines that can sort of land with the force of The Atlantic. Definitely The New Yorker; I guess the Times magazine; I think the New York Review of Books — not a magazine (but), they still land with some impact.
But you look at those publications there are very few, on balance, African-American writers. I think there are three at The New Yorker. Hilton (Als), obviously Malcolm Gladwell, Kelefa (Sanneh). But I don’t think that they were going to do something like this. There was no one that was really going to do it.
And so knowing that there are so few African-Americans with access to that sort of space actually kind of puts a burden, because then it really has to be good.
The process of getting to “good” did not begin particularly well. Coates told me he started by reading everything he could, with Randall Kennedy’s The Persistence of the Color Line and William Jelani Cobb’s The Substance of Hope framing his thinking. But both the form and the actual material of the piece eluded him, even after a reporting trip to Chicago in February that was, he said, “a bust.” At that point, “I was convinced that I had totally, royally screwed up and no piece would be there.”
I knew, for a reason I couldn’t even name that I really wanted to talk to Shirley Sherrod. And I knew because what occurred to me very, very early was that everything that was wrong was symbolized in what happened to her. I knew that there was some great symbolism in what had happened and her being so totally screwed over. But I didn’t know how to connect. I couldn’t – the connections weren’t there. It was just a theory in my mind.
I don’t know if scientists ever work strictly from intuition – something is there and part of it is trying to get the math and prove that it is there. That’s sort of how it was: You know, I think this is connected, I’m not exactly sure how. And I went there, and then there it was.
After I saw her, everything connected, because the fact of the matter was Shirley Sherrod lived her life as a twice-as-good. I had known black people who had lived by that ethic all my life.
So this tax of having to be better than the law that Obama lived under, (and what) ultimately got (Sherrod) dismissed were one and the same.
This figure, “twice as good” runs through the piece, taking on the role of necessity and burden and constraint. Coates introduces the term this way: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” The phrase recurs, and as its setting changes so does its impact on the reader’s emotional response. There is a musical quality throughout the article, and part of that comes from Coates’ use of the theme-and-variation trick, to add layers of meaning and feeling to what starts out as a simple and seemingly straightforward trope.
Back to the conception of the work:
That was probably the first breakthrough. Well, that was actually the second breakthrough. The first breakthrough was realizing that the country had, indeed, sent an African-American to the White House but it could not have a black president. That was actually the first breakthrough. The Sherrod thing was another breakthrough. The reaction to Trayvon Martin – I wrote at the time that I really didn’t want Barack Obama to address that killing at all. Because I thought the minute that he addressed it, it would become politicized and, you know, just remembering what had happened with (Henry Louis) Gates. Then he addressed it.
I thought his statement was really, really modest, in depth. But what followed was worse than what I thought was going to follow. And it was really, really horrifying. And it was really like at that moment that you realize that here this man makes the most modest statement you could ever make about the death of a child. And now people are hacking this kid’s Twitter feed. Like, my God! What are we to see in that?
With those three strands in hand, the task became one of execution. At that moment, there is a catechism writers utter, the one Anne Lamott expressed most simply: “Shitty First Drafts.” In our conversation, at first, Coates seemed to be wholly orthodox on this point:
Once I had some vague notion of where I was going, I sat down to write. And, you know, it’s funny – I was just talking about this for class. Here at MIT and at any college, I’m trying to get my students to understand that great writing, good writing definitely, often starts off as a D. It is very rare that you sit down and you write an A. You know, you begin a D and you have to accept that what you do at first is probably not going to be very good. And you just have to accept that.
So I really tried to cut off my editing sense. I really tried to cut off my sort of disappointment in whatever I wrote and just get a draft done. Get a draft done. Above all, get a draft done. And that initial draft, it probably had like “TK’s” in it. And not just “TK’s” like this person’s name but like section “TK’s,” like, “you need to write a paragraph about this.”
The hard thing about that is I find the structure and the literary devices often clarify a point, and by clarifying a point or by clarifying a section, maybe it doesn’t belong where you think it did. Maybe something should happen differently.
I guess in my mind, I think in a lot of our minds, we figure, okay, we get all the actual information down. And then we will go and polish it and make it sound beautiful. And then everything will be okay. But I think the act of trying to make it, quote-unquote literary is actually – I don’t know how to say this. It’s part of the substance of it. It’s not icing on top. It’s the sugar in the cake, too.
It’s actually part of – if you are going to think about making people feel something then you’ve got to think about, OK, when do I want to make you feel this? When do I not? How do I do that? And that is largely about how you write it. A lot of that literary stuff is not done for the reader. It’s done for me. It clarifies it for me. I can feel it better when it’s there. I understand better when it’s written like that.
There’s an old line thrown around in military circles: “Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.” For writers, the problem is to get beyond the bare incidents that provide a starting point for a story and come to grips with the interplay between plot or narrative content, and the structure, the organization needed to lead the reader to meanings behind the facts of the matter.
As I wrote, the part about Trayvon Martin was at the top always. But initially my friend Prince was at the top, too. (In the piece, Coates tells the story of Prince Jones, killed by a police officer in Virginia in 2000.) And so I was comparing and contrasting those two together.
But I love when the real, emotional power is at the back. We had debates about this during the editing process, about where to put the most emotionally moving stuff. You know, there is a theory now (and this was not what my editor said) that it should be at the top because you got to pull people in. But I really felt like the story should pull people in. There should be an effect on the reader where it’s like, okay, I read this first section; yeah, I could kind of see how race is a factor. But by the end it is like, “Oh, wow! This is how it feels. This is how it actually feels, you know.”
The piece was very depressing for me. And when I was finished, it was deeply depressing. And my hope was that that depression could be passed on to the reader. That was really what I wanted.
Coates touched on one of the key messages that, as teacher of writing, I try to pass on to students: intentionality. The idea is to know as much as possible about what you want your work to do to somebody, the reader. Knowing what you want to say and to what end makes writing choices explicit, and hence do-able. But thinking that way raises the question of audience. “Are you writing to or for someone?”
It’s always just me. It’s always, what would I like to read?
And, you know, a lot of people think about the whole race thing, but it’s like if you’re black and you are going to be in the literature, you are going to spend some time catching up. White people have different things that they refer to that won’t be what you do. So you spend time catching up.
With this piece, Coates turned that expectation around, asking his readership to enter into a black perspective on America’s reaction to the first African-American president. If that involved asking readers to confront experience and particular knowledge that might be unfamiliar to many … well:
I saw no problem asking other people to catch up for once.
One the most obvious features of “Fear of a Black President” is that it is long – roughly 10,000 words, or about 40 manuscript pages. It is rare to get that much space in a magazine – especially one that still goes out in hard copy – and, Coates told me, this piece wasn’t supposed to occupy as much territory as it did:
The other thing that is important to know, too, this did not get turned in any longer than what it was. It got turned in at 6,000 words.
Scott (Stossel) said, “This is really good but I think you have more. And you should go get more.” And we ended up with almost 10,000 words.
What wasn’t there?
The big thing that was not there is what I think is often absent from journalism, period, and that is, there is a long section on history in there. There is a long section that talks about this notion of denying Barack Obama the benefits of citizenship, you know, the right to be president. It actually connects to a long history of denying citizenship rights to African-American.
Also, if you read that section, it’s not just that it is history. There are long block quotes, which we don’t really get to do in magazines.
Andrew Johnson’s speech, I mean the speech is quoted at length. And I would argue for quoting it because I think you need to see the whole thing in context. There is something about seeing all of that that really just hits you, as opposed to quoting a few words and then paraphrasing. You really need to see the guy actually saying it.
When you allow people to talk like that, they do become characters. They don’t just become a quick quote. They don’t just become a paraphrase. In that section specifically it was very important – I wanted people to know that the past isn’t dead. You know, that history actually exerts influence, that you can actually see long traditions extending way back to the 1790s, all the way up to today.
I want Shirley Sherrod not to be just some old, black lady who got screwed over but somebody who had actually helped in some profound way to make not just (Obama’s) presidency possible, but people like him, their lives legally possible. I wanted that to come across. You know, racism can be very clinical when we talk about it. There are clinical discussions in there but I wanted people to understand that there are actually individuals with hopes and dreams who are impacted by this.
This piece was, Coates told me, supposed to land with impact: to alter not just what its readers knew but what they felt. That begged a question: What did writing the piece do to its author?
My editor, Scott, he said, “Well, this is an angry piece.” And I said, “Well, I was angry.” I was angry. I was. It was depressing. Yes. I was very depressed. I didn’t expect to be so depressed. The sadness of the piece at the end was not something that I went into. And I think the sadness emanates from the fact – like everybody says, “So what’s your solution?” I think the sadness emanates from the fact that this is the actual solution. That what’s going on is the solution.
And that path, the twice as good….
Right. I was on the radio. Somebody was saying yesterday on the radio, “Well, you know, Jackie Robinson did this.” And I told him, “You got to remember Jackie Robinson died young. Don’t ever forget that, every time you say that. Remember that.” You know, it wasn’t just a matter of being better. This actually costs. It costs. Any black person who has ever worked in any sort of corporate job can tell you about coming home and needing to have an extra drink, about the anger they feel.
I was having a conversation with some friends a few years ago and we were talking about the subject of interracial marriage. And one of the points that one of them made was, “You know, I don’t think I could do this because when this sort of thing happens at my job and I come home and I need to be able to talk about it, who am I going to talk to? You know, who really knows how that really, really feels deep down inside?” So it throws up barriers and even (in) really sort of weird, unpredictable places. I really wanted people who may not come from that world to get some insight into how that might feel.
As we talked, though, his argument shifted. “Fear of a Black President” clearly documents how race impinges on Obama’s every word and deed. At the same time, it locates his story within history: This is not a new kind of racism directed at the president but rather a late, perhaps even last, flare up of the old. We digressed briefly into the fact that one year after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there’s little public interest in the question; and as Coates pointed out, when the GOP platform called for action it only demanded a return to DADT, not back to the pre-1992 throw-’em-all-out policy.
I didn’t really get to stress this enough in the piece but progress is never a straight line. The example I always use is: Look, at the end of the Civil War the labor situation for African-Americans in the South, many people could argue, was not terribly different than slavery, the labor situation. Nevertheless, it was now illegal to take someone’s 5-year-old kid and put them on an auction block. That’s an actual difference. That’s an actual thing. I mean that’s a real, real thing.
That was one of the worst things about slavery. And it was gone. At the same time it was not total and unilateral progress. I don’t know that progress ever is that way. That’s the same thing with this. You know, is electing a black president a step forward? Yes! Huge, huge, gigantic step forward. But it is not total and complete progress, you know?
I like that tension and I like, you know, sort of living there. You don’t have to believe that we would be better off if Barack Obama had never been elected to outline the sacrifices in the situation; historians do that all the time. And I think you can do it without the kind of, “on the other hand-ism” that journalists often sort of resort to. I don’t think anybody would have thought if Hillary Clinton won, that that would be the end of sexism. I don’t think there would be any sort of discussion like that. But the election of Barack Obama was just so unexpected; it became weighted with all these other things.
And the other thing is – this is a great picture, I guess (a few) days ago. Barack Obama goes into this pizzeria and the guy bear-hugs him and picks him up. And the guy – I guess he is a Republican. He voted for Obama and he is going to vote for him again this year. And, like, you have to balance that. You know, this white guy is doing that and clearly does not care. You know what I mean? Like five different things that seem to be contradictory can be true at the same time.
Is there another country in the Western world with an African descendent president? America is obviously not a European country but, you know, a country of European lineage. I don’t think there is. And I don’t think there is going to be one for a long time. There might be another one in America before there’s –
A French president.
Before there is a French black president. You know, there may well be. At the same time, other really, really unfortunate things are true, too.
Obama – this is not a small thing. This is a huge thing. And (it) does say something about our promise as a country. The fact that this is the burning embers (of racism) and not, you know, some new flare – I think it says quite a bit. The bigotry that Jackie Robinson faced when he was integrating baseball, it was real but that was embers, too. I mean that turned out to be the embers. And that turned out to be the end of the story of racism in baseball.
Tom Levenson teaches in the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. He is the author of four books and has executive produced, produced, directed and/or written more than a dozen feature science documentaries, broadcast on PBS, Discovery and internationally. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of a memoir, Beautiful Struggle, teaches at MIT as a visiting Martin Luther King Jr. scholar.