Written originally for Letters: The Life of the Mind
Ta Nahisi Coates began his talk with a disarming humility. He says “if you have some success in a particular area like writing a book people overestimate [the knowledge you have.]” And “I don’t just come here as someone just dispensing knowledge but as a consumer too.” He also admitted that he does not know Hawai’i’s history. Most people here don’t either (the bain of my existence), so how could he? Merely bringing up this knowledge gap, for me, is a step forward. He says, without false modesty, that he was a really bad student, but always a deeply curious person. This was apparently genetic: his father cut school to go to libraries and museums, then joined the Black Panther Party. He dropped out of school but eventually went back and got his college degree. The academy has become more open. Usually people who do what I do have PhDs or are similarly situated. “I’m not.” This is the virtual definition of the working class intellectual. What stays with me most about Coates breakthrough book Between the World and Me is his imagined dialog with Saul Bellow who famously quipped “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” Coates responded that “Tolstoy in the Tolstoy of the Zulus” evoking a global intellectual heritage of the kind that this site is all about.