It is a full house in Houston for an evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is a journalist, a man who might be most well known (until now, perhaps) for his 2014 Atlantic Monthly article, "The Case for Reparations," and he has recently written his first novel, The Water Dancer. The novel has been picked up by Oprah for her new book club, calling it "one of the best books I've read in my whole life," and it's number one on the NY Times Best Seller list.
What's the fuss about?
I attend the reading on a rainy night in Houston. Just down the road, it's the sixth game of the World Series, with our Houston Astros on home ground.
Coates begins the evening with a laugh. "Y'all got more important things to do than be here. If I wasn't coming here tonight, I wouldn't be here."
Things quickly get serious, though. It's evident, right from the start, that Coates is a persuasive speaker, and that he has a mission tonight. "The story of The Water Dancer is the story of the most misunderstood tragedy in this country."
His book takes on slavery, white privilege, power, rape, but it's the "crimes within crimes" that seems to most anger Coates. "Two in five slave families were broken up in this time." In his book, Coates has a black protagonist, Hiram Walker, an enslaved man, whose family has been destroyed from within; Hiram's white father has sold off his black mother.
Coates reads briefly from the book and then sits for a question-and-answer session with Houston journalist Melanie Lawson.
Lawson tells the audience about the extensive research Coates undertook during the process of writing the book. "What most surprised you?" Lawson asks. Coates quickly replies, "The extent to which the lost cause still has a hold on us." He is most appalled at how slavery, which he refers to as "essentially forced labor camps," is ignored today while the Civil War Southern culture continues to be celebrated. "To hold your foot on someone's neck," he tells us, "you have to forget that this is a human."
Civil War history, Coates goes on to say, is as if you were in the Lord of the Rings and the Orks won and then the Orks wrote the history books.
Lawson asks Coates what he feels most hopeful about. He smiles broadly and says, "This book is not alone in attempting to capture the imagination of the country. People are seizing the power, telling the stories."
It's a powerful evening.