Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who appeared on Moyers & Company last year to discuss his Atlantic magazine cover story “The Case for Reparations,” won the National Book Award for nonfiction this week for his book Between the World and Me. His acceptance speech is well worth a watch:
Coates says he wrote his book for Prince Jones, a close friend from college who was mistaken for a criminal and killed by police when he was 25 years old. Jones died, Coates says, because “at the heart of our country is the notion that we are okay with the presumption that black people… somehow have a predisposition toward criminality.”
When Jones was killed in 2000, there were no cameras. No one saw it. It was “as though nothing happened,” Coates says. “As though Prince Jones’s life did not matter at all.” Now that more people are documenting injustices with their cellphones and we are seeing the evidence on TV and on the Internet, he says America is beginning to understand the extent of the racism that black people face every day.
“I’m a black man in America,” Coates says. “I can’t secure the safety of my son. I can’t go home at night and tell him, ‘It’s ok, you definitely will not end up like Prince Jones.’ I just don’t have that right. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is to say, ‘You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it.’ And that was what we did with Between the World and Me.”
Last year, Bill spoke with Coates about America’s history of oppression and institutionalized racism:
In years past, other authors have used the opportunity of their National Book Awards acceptance speech to comment on our times: Just last year, a powerful speech by science fiction author Ursula Le Guin went viral. “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope,” she said. “We will need writers who can remember freedom.”
And while on the topic of past NBA winners, it’s worth noting that Phil Klay, last year’s fiction winner — a former Marine and the author of Redeployment — is also drawing attention this week for a series of tweets responding to a House vote that would effectively shut Syrian refugees out of America. “If we want to be the kind of nation that others will follow, the kind of national capable of forging strong links in the Muslim world against extremism, then we have to behave like that kind of nation,” Klay writes (split over a few tweets). “I get that people are scared. But its only during frightening times when you get to find out if your country really deserves to call itself the ‘home of the brave.'”