Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses new fiction novel “The Water Dancer” at ETHS


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at Evanston Township High School. Coates took part in a conversation with writer Hanif Abdurraqib about his new book, “The Water Dancer,” which was attended by nearly 1500 people.

Molly Burke, Reporter

Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates told an audience Friday at Evanston Township High School that discrimination toward African Americans stems from the idea that they are less than human, which is reinforced due to the lack of coverage of black history and black stories.

Coates spoke last week about his new novel, “The Water Dancer,” at an ETHS event hosted by the Family Action Network. The talk featured a conversation between Coates and Hanif Abdurraqib, a poet and writer from Ohio. Coates rose to fame through his book “Between the World and Me” and articles for The Atlantic on topics including African American history, culture and white supremacy.

“The cool thing about reading is that you put down the words and the person brings something to it and that causes the emotional reaction,” Coates said.

The executive director of FAN, Lonnie Stonitsch, told The Daily that Coates’s team contacted FAN to come back, saying it was the “best stop” of his tour when he came two years ago. Friday’s event, held in the high school’s auditorium, was filled to capacity and required overflow spaces, with nearly 1500 people attending. FAN used their general funds to purchase hardcover copies of Coates’ newest novel, “The Water Dancer” to distribute one to each household that attended the event.

“The Water Dancer” is a fictional piece about an enslaved person named Hiram with superhuman memory powers and takes place in the South prior to the Civil War. The novel focuses on African American history, featuring the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman.

“Black history is so often presented as ‘eat your vegetables,’” Coates said, “but I wanted ‘Lord of the Rings.’”

Coates said he researched and worked on the novel for a decade, traveling and going through old letters in order to find information about the era. He thought that the stories of Tubman and William Still, both conductors on the Underground Railroad, were action-packed and brought page-turning interest to black history.

In addition to talking about his experience with his first fiction book, Coates spoke about the difficulties and joys of being a writer and tackled race-related issues in current events. He addressed the recent conviction of Dallas patrol officer Amber Guyger in the murder of Botham Jean, a black man whom she shot in his own apartment, which she said she mistakenly believed was her own and being broken into.

“The essence of that is not law or policy,” Coates said. “It’s who you believe is human and who you believe is not.”

Following the interview, audience members asked Coates questions, including a discussion of whether black people in the United States will ever be seen as fully equal to others.

Jessica French, an Oakton Community College student who attended the event, said she was “amazed” by Coates and has long admired his work.

French, who considers herself a black activist, saw Coates when he came to ETHS two years ago and answered a question about who should be allowed to say the n-word, an exchange that went viral.

“I heard he was coming back and I didn’t want to miss it,” French said.

SESP first-year Mikenzie Roberts came to the event after participating in the SESP Leadership Institute during the summer, during which they read part of “Between the World and Me.”

Roberts said they thought that Coates’ answers to audience questions related to what was discussed in their culture and cognition class, affirming what they had discussed but also exploring new topics they hadn’t covered.

“It went along great with what we were doing and, plus, I was just really interested in that work,” Roberts said. “I just wanted to hear what he had to say.”

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