‘Without the black experience you don’t have America,’ author tells MCC audience

Voting is like taking out the trash, a necessary task even though not particularly inspiring, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told interviewer Millie Nottingham and an audience at MCC-Penn Valley.

There’s no doubt author Ta-Nehisi Coates is a success story despite lack of a college degree, but dropping out is “not by any means a process I recommend to anyone,” he told an audience at Metropolitan Community College.

Everyone has heard about tech superstars who quit college and made a billion dollars. In Coates’ case, “I left sorrowful.” He knows there are college courses he could have benefited from. “I could use a good humanities class right now,” he said. “I could use a good economics class right now.”

Coates is author of the National Book Award winner “Between the World and Me,” the writer behind the Black Panther and Captain America graphic novels (he calls them comic books) and a former correspondent for the Atlantic magazine.

He’s also MCC-Penn Valley’s Common Read author this year — some classes read “Between the World and Me,” some read a selection of his Atlantic articles and some read Black Panther titles.

At the April 26 program at Penn Valley, reading instructor Millie Nottingham interviewed Coates, asking mostly questions suggested by students.

Among the topics covered:

+ On career plans: As a kid, “I always liked words. I always liked sentences.” But “I was not a good student at all. Any one of you are a better student than I was.” He wanted to become a rapper, but he would end up becoming a reporter.

+ On race: He’s not optimistic about the future of race relations “because we use phrases like ‘race relations.’ ”

The best way to become a mediocre writer is to be fearful about the reaction your work will provoke, Coates says.

Noting the economic and cultural contributions of African-Americans, he added: “Without the black experience, you don’t have America.”

And, musing about what “black” and “white” mean, Coates said there is no pure definition of race. He is happy and proud to be a black man today, but if he were living in the New Orleans of 200 or 300 years ago, or other locations in time, “I might be called something else.”

+ On politics: Nottingham said she’s heard from some students who won’t vote unless a person of color is running. Some are unhappy that Michelle Obama hasn’t run for president.

Coates’ reaction: “First of all, everyone should vote.” Casting a ballot, taking part in a protest and exchanging intellectual ideas are all facets of politics, he said, but it’s true that voting as an exercise isn’t particularly inspiring.

He chooses to think of voting as “political hygiene.” Like taking out the trash, it’s something you just need to do.

He also says it’s OK to vote for the lesser of two evils. You “do the work hoping next time there’s a better option.”

+ On writing: The way to be a mediocre writer is to be afraid of how people might react to your work. That’s like fighting with one arm tied behind your back, Coates said.

+ On reparations: He thinks African-Americans should be paid reparations, but not for the usually cited reason, slavery. He’s more interested in more recent phenomena, such as the U.S. building a middle class that is largely white.

+ On his college-age son’s experience vs. his own: Coates says he and his son grew up in different social classes. While Coates was raised in a violent neighborhood in Baltimore, his son came up in New York. The better question might be whether a kid in today’s Baltimore has it any better than Coates did, “and I’m less convinced of that.”

+ On what brings him joy: Writing, his wife and son, great friends, food and cooking, travel (especially to California) and more.

“I have a deeply fulfilling life, and I like life,” Coates said.

“I know it’s not always clear from the things I write,” he added, to laughter from the audience.

Coates spoke before a packed house at MCC-Penn Valley.