Skip to main content

Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Unlikely Road to Manhood'

Atlantic contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates describes growing up with a father who was a member of the Black Panthers in his new memoir, The Beautiful Struggle.

16:52

Other segments from the episode on February 18, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 18, 2009: Interview with Jane Mayer; Interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090218
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-1:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Jane Mayer Details Obama's Hard Cases

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We may soon get an indication of how the Obama administration plans on changing the Bush administration's policies for detaining alleged terrorists. The Supreme Court is expected to soon hear a case challenging the government's right to indefinitely detain Ali al-Marri, an alleged al-Qaeda sleeper agent who has been held incommunicado in a military brig for more than fiver years. Al-Marri is the only alleged enemy combatant now detained on mainland America.

The Obama administration is required to file a reply to the challenge by March 23rd. Journalist Jane Mayer says the case will no doubt establish legal principles that will have ramifications for the 240 or so designated unlawful enemy combatants held in the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mayer writes about this case, and the questions it raises in the current edition of The New Yorker. The article is titled, "The Hard Cases: Will Obama Institute A New Kind Of Preventive Detention For Terror Suspects?" Mayer is the author of the bestseller, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story Of How The War On Terror Turned Into A War On American Ideals."

Jane Mayer, welcome back to Fresh Air. Before we get to what's at stake in this case, let's talk about al-Marri's story. He's from Qatar and arrived in the U.S. on September 10th, 2001, the day before the terrorist attacks. When was he arrested, and what was he charged with?

Ms. JANE MAYER (Staff Writer, The New Yorker; Author, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story Of How The War On Terror Turned Into A War On American Ideals."): Well, he was arrested in December of 2001. When he came to America, it was to - he said to study computer programming at a small university in Peoria, Illinois, and he brought his wife and his five children with him. And he actually studied there before as an undergraduate.

He came back to do graduate level courses, and he was arrested as a material witness to the 9/11 attacks. That was the first thing he was arrested on. He was also arrested on charges of credit card fraud and charges of lying to a federal official, the FBI agent that interviewed him.

GROSS: Now, ordinarily, he would have been tried in criminal court for credit card fraud and for lying to federal agents, but he ended up in a military brig instead of the criminal justice system. On what grounds was he put in military detention?

Ms. MAYER: Well, he became something of a legal guinea pig for some of the Bush administration's theories about what you could do in the war on terror. Basically, he was heading towards trial, just a regular trial in criminal court in Illinois, and instead, on June 23rd, 2003, President Bush unilaterally designated him what he called an unlawful enemy combatant and ordered that he'd be seized by the military. And so rather than going on trial where he was supposed to be on trial maybe a month or so later, he was put on a military jet and sent to the naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina where he has been held ever since.

GROSS: So this was just by Executive Order. Was that a new precedent?

Ms. MAYER: Well, they had done something similar with Yaser Hamdi and with Padilla. But what was different about the al-Marri case is he was picked up in this country. He was somebody who was in his own home in Illinois and designated an enemy combatant on the basis of what looked like sort of suspicious activities. So he was not picked up abroad. He was the one guy who was picked up in this country and then declared an enemy combatant by the president and held in military detention.

GROSS: Let's talk about the conditions that al-Marri has been held in in the military brig. There's been different stages, a stage of a very harsh treatment and a stage of much better treatment. During the period of harsh treatment, was al-Marri tortured?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of torture. He entered the naval brig in Charleston pretty much at the height of the most coercive and abusive interrogation policies during the Bush years.

2003 was a very, very tough year for detainees, and in the beginning, he was subjected to sort of tremendous sensory deprivation and isolation. For 16 months, he was not allowed to talk to anybody, he was given nothing to read and nothing to do. No daylight, they blacked out a window and just basically kept in a cell where he had kind of, you know, just disappeared into his own mind. For 16 months, he was not allowed to see a lawyer either.

Then the Supreme Court ruled that that kind of detention was illegal and that even detainees in the war on terror had - should have some right to a lawyer.

GROSS: And then, when lawyers were finally allowed to he him, they thought that he was starting to lose his mind.

Ms. MAYER: They did. When they finally got in, they were alarmed. He seemed like an altered personality. He'd been very gregarious before. At this point, he seemed scattered and paranoid. He thought there were microphones all around in the walls. He thought he was being poisoned by the smell of a paper mill that was coming through the air vents nearby, and he was quite paranoid and scattered in this thoughts, which was different from how he'd been.

He's actually a very unusual person. He - first of all he's fluent in English because he studied in an American college, and he kind of has an American sense of humor. He was - he's kind of a wise acre kind of guy who likes to crack jokes, and he's very social. So when his lawyers saw him after this isolation period, they were really upset because he seemed to be an altered personality.

GROSS: And how is he being treated now?

Ms. MAYER: Well, these days, I mean, I - one of the most unusual things about this story is that he's being treated, in some ways, better than almost any prisoner I can think of in the country. He is now - they joke, they call him the emir of the SHU. The SHU is the acronym for the special housing unit for dangerous prisoners down in the naval brig.

And he has been kept alone in a wing of 80 beds. He's got a staff of 40 people waiting on him. He's got regular access to three different cells, one of which is his library, another of which is his sleeping room. He's got a visiting room that he calls his summer chalet, and he's got a day room that he's the only person who uses. It's 1,000 square foot day room with exercise equipment, it has an elliptical among other things, and he's got a 32-inch screen TV and a computer that he can use, though it doesn't have the Internet.

GROSS: Jane, would you describe why this case is on it's way to the Supreme Court?

Ms. MAYER: Sure. I mean, it is a test of possibly the most extreme point of view from the Bush administration about the powers of the executive which is - in the Bush years, they argued that the president had the power to, on his own, identify and detain an enemy combatant in the war on terror. On his own, the president could basically point to someone, say he's an enemy combatant, lock him up - and lock him up until the end of war on terror which, of course, has never really been defined. But the idea is the end of hostilities.

So there has been a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union to this concept saying that this violates the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and that you can't just single-handedly have the executive to lock people up. And so that case is going towards the Supreme Court, and the question is, it was going towards the Supreme Court before Obama was elected. The question that's now in front of the Obama administration is, are they going to argue the same position that Bush did or are they going to try to change course here?

GROSS: And there's actually several other issues that this case raises including who is the soldier, who's an enemy combatant, and who is the civilian?

Ms. MAYER: Truly. I mean, in the Bush paradigm, the whole world was a battlefield, including the United States, and anybody - they defined an enemy combatant at one point as anybody who is in the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but also anybody who supports those groups or anybody who is associated with an organization that supports those groups which gets you - it's a very, very broad definition.

At one point, a lawyer from the Bush administration said that even a little old lady in Switzerland, for instance, who gave a charitable donation to an organization that wound up with the money going towards the Taliban or al-Qaeda, even if she didn't know that's where the money was going, she too could be an enemy combatant, and thus be accused of crimes and locked up.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article in the current edition is called, "The Hard Cases: Will Obama Institute A New Kind Of Preventive Detention For Terrorist Suspects?" And it's about the case of Ali al-Marri who is the only alleged enemy combatant being held in mainland America. His case is about to come before the Supreme Court.

Now, al-Marri is a very interesting case in part because he may be very dangerous, and a lot of people believe he is very dangerous. But it may be impossible to find him guilty under the criminal justice system because - why?

Ms. MAYER: Well, this is the question for the Obama administration. This is what makes these - all these questions so hard. There are obviously risks here. Al-Marri is a man who has been accused during the Bush years of being a sleeper agent, an al-Qaeda sleeper agent who supposedly came here the day before the 9/11 attacks in order to burrow in and wait for orders and organize the next wave of attacks against Americans.

And the evidence against him that was picked up by the FBI included information in his computer and other information that was sort of lying around his apartment and his minivan. On his computer, he had lectures from Bin Laden. He had cell phone call records that seemed to link him to the finance - the main financier for the 9/11 attacks. He had $13,000 in cash that seemed strange for him to have, and he also had information on his laptop that seemed to be doing research into deadly poisons, things that could be used in deadly gas attacks, cyanide in particular.

So, this was a pretty alarming picture that the FBI began to pick up of this man, piecing it together, and they were beginning to bring a criminal case against him as we discussed. But instead the Bush administration took him out of the criminal system and put him into the military system and held him. They feared that he was too dangerous to risk putting on trial.

GROSS: What does that mean - too dangerous to risk putting on trial?

Ms. MAYER: Well, this is what I was trying take a look at because this is an issue that is not just backwards looking. What's happening is the Obama administration is now inheriting all the cases from the Bush years that are still - you know, down in Guantanamo, and this case in particular, but also looking forward to what are they going to do if they get terror suspects into their custody. What are we going to do with them?

And the question is can our old-fashioned criminal system - with its courts and also our military criminal system with the courts martial - can those handle terror suspects? Or do we need something new? Is there some reason why terror suspects are different? And there are people who argue that you can't really try terror suspects in our courts because the evidence against them is too shaky, it's too international, it won't hold up in court, it may come from sources that you don't want to expose. There are all kinds of arguments against this that are being made right now. So, what I wanted to do in the story was take a look at what is supposed to be one of these hard cases and see what would people think. Could he have been prosecuted in the courts?

GROSS: We'll never know now because under double jeopardy, even if he's taken out of the military system, he can't be put back in the criminal system and tried for the charges that he was initially brought up on.

Ms. MAYER: That's right. When the Bush administration moved him out of the criminal system, they had to agree to drop the charges against him with prejudice, meaning they can never charge him again with the same crimes.

So, I wanted to go back over this case because I think there's a big argument developing about whether or not these kinds of people can be prosecuted. And what I found, I think, is maybe surprising in some ways, which was that a number of the prosecutors who handled al-Marri's case, at the time were very upset when he was taken from criminal system, including the U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York, a man named David Kelley. And they actually thought they had a great case against him. They thought he could have been prosecuted. They still think that the criminal courts are up to the job, and they think that this experiment just made things more difficult.

So, I think this is a cautionary tale in some ways. Take a close look at this case, and you may come out thinking that, in fact, the United States courts are the very best vehicle for handling terror suspects. They've handled a lot of terror suspects in the past and convicted a lot of them and sent them away for life. Whereas when you look at the kind of newfangled system that was set up on Guantanamo, it's had nothing but trouble.

GROSS: OK, but, you know - so there's the criminal justice system versus the military system. But your article says, you know, is there a third way? Is there a third way of dealing with alleged terrorists who may be very difficult to convict, but at the same time, may be genuinely dangerous? What is the third way that's being proposed?

Ms. MAYER: Well, what Obama has set up is a task force, a cabinet level task force, to study this. So, they are looking at this. And I've interviewed Obama's White House counsel Greg Craig here, and he says that they left the door open on purpose to take a look at the possibility of setting up something called a National Security Court, which would be a new kind of system of judges that would just specialize in terrorism cases, who would have a power that we don't have in the United States right now which is to hold people, to detain them in prison, before they've committed a crime on the basis of thinking that they're dangerous.

And what you would do - it's called some kind of a preventive detention and what you would do would be to hold them for, you know, a period of time, maybe a couple of months, while the law enforcement authorities try to see if they can make a case against the person.

GROSS: What problems is preventive detention intended to solve?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's aimed at holding potentially dangerous people and keeping them from committing crimes. And in particular, the argument is that you can't wait till terrorists have created an attack and all the carnage has already taken place in order to arrest them. You need to try to prevent them from committing these crimes in advance.

The problem, of course, is that it can sort of spill over into the notion of kind of thought crimes, people who seem dangerous but haven't committed a criminal act. That's a category of people that we don't ordinarily arrest and detain in this country.

GROSS: You know, it might be that preventive detention is one of those situations where you would maybe trust that - if there were people in charge whose motives and actions you trusted, but if there were people running the government whose motives and actions you didn't trust, a power like that could really be abused.

Ms. MAYER: Well, yeah, I mean, it could certainly turn into some kind of star chamber where, you know, a corrupt political power could start picking up just political enemies and that's why we try not to have those kinds of powers in the hands of a few people in this country. It's been tried in Britain, and it's very controversial over there, as well. They can hold people for three weeks or so at this point. And there have been many, many fights about it.

The thing that I think that was interesting to me here, though, was in interviewing many prosecutors who were pretty much hard-nosed law and order people, people who dealt with terror cases, they say they don't, as far as they can tell, need these new powers. They actually have a lot of tools for already arresting people for things like conspiracy charges, material witness charges. There are a lot of ways you can detain people under our current criminal system.

And so the question I was trying to look at is was there a need really - is there a need for this? And, you know, in the al-Marri case, I think, surprisingly, I came to the conclusion from interviewing the people around the case was, they would have done better with the criminal system.

GROSS: How serious - can you tell how serious the Obama administration is about instituting some kind of preventive detention?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's a live possibility. You've got a number of, not many, but some very powerful members of the Justice Department who have opened the door to discussing this, and some of whom are proponents. One is Neal Katyal, who is the deputy solicitor general, meaning he's the number two person whose going to argue in front of the Supreme Court for the Obama administration's positions. And his boss, Elena Kagan, during her confirmation hearings also left open the door for this recently.

GROSS: So, we'll see?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: We will see.

GROSS: And will we see as early as the Supreme Court decision? Will the Supreme Court decision necessitate a speedy answer to this question about preventive detention?

Ms. MAYER: I think what the Obama administration does in the al-Marri case will begin to give you an indication of what direction they're trying to go in on this. My guess from having interviewed a number of people in the administration is if they can possibly charge this man with crimes and try to put him through the regular criminal system, they will be delighted because they would much rather return to the old system of criminal justice in this country which has, you know, managed to handle a number of terror cases before 9/11.

So I think right now, what they're doing is looking carefully at this case and seeing what can we charge this man with, or can we cut a deal where he is sent back to his home country, which is Qatar, and where he'll be monitored. I think that they look at this preventive detention issue as a place they really wish they didn't have to go, but they've got an open mind, and they're thinking if we have to, we'll go there.

GROSS: Now, another thing that this case calls into question is the value of information that was gotten under torture because the witness against al-Marri is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who gave the information against him under torture.

Ms. MAYER: That's right. I mean, one of the reasons this is such a hard case for the Obama administration is it was made such a hash of by the Bush administration. When they went outside the rule of law, it makes it very, very hard to bring any of these cases back in, again. I was warned about this by a well-known lawyer in Washington named Jamie Gorelick, who was the deputy - the attorney general in the Clinton years.

And when I started reporting on this thing, she said, you know, once you take them outside the law, it's really hard to bring them back, and it is because once you've violated somebody's rights, in this case, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, it's impossible to tell whether the information he gave was reliable or not in this - when he accused this man because he was being tortured at the time. So that's already a problem.

Al-Marri can probably argue that he was tortured by being put - subjected to sensory deprivation for 16 months in the way that he was. And once his rights are violated, it's again, very hard to put him on trial because in this country, that usually is the kind of argument that the defense lawyer can make to get you off the hook. So it's been made a mess of by the Bush administration and now it's inherited by Obama whose somehow got to clean this up.

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Jane Mayer. She's been covering politics on the war on terrorism for The New Yorker. She's also the author of the bestseller "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into A War On American Ideals."

In the current edition of The New Yorker, she writes about the case of Ali al-Marri, the only alleged enemy combatant currently being held in mainland America. His case is about to come before the Supreme Court, and it will likely establish legal principles that will have ramifications for current and future alleged enemy combatants.

Al-Marri is an alleged al-Qaeda sleeper agent. He was originally dealt with in the U.S. criminal justice system. But in 2005, President Bush ordered him to be put in the military brig where he has been held incommunicado.

Now, one of the rulings being challenged in the Supreme Court decision is a decision that says quote, "our colleagues hold that the president can order the military to seize from his home and indefinitely detain anyone in this country, including an American citizen, even though he has never affiliated with an enemy nation, fought alongside a nation's armed forces or born arms against the U.S. anywhere in the world."

So the ruling under which al-Marri was put into military detention could apply to any American who was suspected of having some kind of connection to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. So that's being challenged in the Supreme Court decision.

Ms. MAYER: It is, yeah. Who is an the enemy combatant is the issue here. And it's interesting because in this case, because it's never really - he's never been tried as a terrorist. We've not been able to really evaluate the evidence against him, which is one of the frightening things about it is that there is a secret evidence here. So there could be secret evidence that's held back against other people in these kinds of cases where you could be picked up, charged with being an enemy combatant and not have a chance to see the evidence against yourself or challenge it in a court.

GROSS: During his first week in office, President Obama issued several Executive Orders pertaining to how to deal with alleged terrorists. Can you kind of sum those up for us, and tell us what you think that indicates about the direction the Obama administration is heading in?

Ms. MAYER: You get a lot of cynical comments from the outgoing Bush administration people. In fact, I was going to mention that I interviewed John Ashcroft, who was the former attorney general, and he said that, in the end, he thought that Obama was going to do exactly what Bush did, and he said that the only differences between them on terrorism was going to be that one who spelled his name Obama and other spelled his name Bush.

So, they went out kind of sneering at the hopes of the Obama administration to handle these problems differently. But in the very first week in office, in his second full day, actually, in the Oval Office, President Obama issued three Executive Orders and several memoranda which completely overhauled the Bush administration's war on terror.

They basically undid all of the most egregious excesses. They wiped out the previous seven years worth of legal opinions from the Justice Department that had justified things like torture. And they set a date for closing Guantanamo, a year from then. They set up task forces to study how to do it, and they also put every detainee held by the United States under the Geneva Conventions so that no longer could anybody be held in a way that was cruel or inhumane, which wiped out the whole issue of torture.

GROSS: Meanwhile, the Justice Department's Ethics office is in the final stages of a report that criticizes Bush administration lawyers who wrote legal opinions that justified waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques. And as the lawyers who gave the legal justification for these techniques, a lot of people say it gave cover - legal cover - to torture. Do you get any sense from the Obama administration about whether President Obama would want to prosecute, either, you know, the lawyers or anyone else involved with what many believe was torture?

Ms. MAYER: My sense is that Obama himself is very reluctant to leave the charge to prosecute Bush officials for torture. I think that it violates his notions of bipartisanship, and I think he recognizes that it might be politically toxic. That said, I think if somebody else takes up this issue, maybe Congress, I'm not sure that they would be completely opposed to seeing some kind of inquest here. I think that this development that you mentioned is just the first development, and it's a very important one.

GROSS: Do you want to explain what this forthcoming report is about on Bush administration lawyers?

Ms. MAYER: Yeah. Well, what's going on in the Justice Department is actually really interesting because the main hurdle for anybody who wants to hold the Bush administration accountable for possibly for war crimes, for torturing people, is that almost everything that was done during the Bush years to detainees was blessed by the lawyers in the Justice Department. They wrote memos that allowed the president to basically break the laws. They said that laws couldn't stop the president from acting in the countries defense and - which meant that the president could literally order torture. Those legal memos have been called golden shields, providing cover for everybody in the Bush administration.

But what's happening now inside the Justice Department, we're beginning to learn, was that a small office there has been investigating whether the lawyers really fell down on the job by issuing these opinions, giving out these golden shields, and whether they should be held accountable themselves for having acted unprofessionally. And apparently, there is a stinging report that is beginning to surface that's goings hold some of those lawyers accountable.

GROSS: And what does holding them accountable mean?

Ms. MAYER: Well, a report documenting it would be I think the beginning of a process where it's possible that the lawyers in the Justice Department who sanctioned torture could be disbarred. They could be potentially fired from their jobs where they are, in some cases, teaching as law professors. It's possible that they could even be charge with crimes, I think it's improbable.

But once you have stripped back the notion that the legal opinions they rendered were good, then the cover for all the people who followed their legal opinions is a lot less secure. You're basically beginning to talk about criminal actions that were taken throughout the government that were sanctified by sort of phony legal policies.

GROSS: Before we end this conversation, there's one detail I have ask you about in your New Yorker piece on Ali al-Marri, who is the only alleged enemy combatant being held in mainland America. And in the article you mention that in his military prison, he has a TV. It took him years to get one, but he has a TV. He's not allowed to watch the news, but he does watched Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, and he loves both of their shows. That's such an interesting detail so the first thing I want to know is how do you find that out?

Ms. MAYER: (Laughing) He's got lawyers who really know him well by now. There is one in particular down in Charleston, South Carolina named Andy Savage who goes - and he talks to him every few days on the phone and goes to see him every few weeks, and they describe what his life was like to me.

It is the strangest thing. I mean, you would really never imagine it, but basically, this alleged enemy combatant has spent seven years without a trial sitting down in a tiny cell in Charleston which is now turned into a whole wing of the prison to himself where he's not allowed to read the news, but as you say, he loves Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. He calls Jon Stewart, that Jewish guy, and he's sitting there following the election this way. I think that probably the Bush administration had no idea what it was creating when it set this process up.

GROSS: But I also want to know, what's the explanation for barring him from watching news? I mean, in a way, you would think you'd want an alleged terrorist suspect, particularly somebody from another country, to watch the news, to learn what America really is like as opposed to a lot of cock-eyed conspiracy theories about what America is like.

Ms. MAYER: I think the theory was that it might incite him somehow and particularly, you know, things about the war in Iraq or stories about what's happening in Israel and Gaza. Those kinds of things they're afraid are going to sort of get him upset and then make him less compliant as a prisoner possibly. The other thing that he really likes is Oprah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: Most of his time he spends really reading Islamic religious text, but he's got a funny sense of humor. He's an unexpected, improbable guy for a possible sleeper cell member. And you know, I think that what you see in this if you step back, to me anyway, is that this process that was set up as an alternative to the criminal justice system in America, just, it's kind of ludicrous how it's wound up. Seven years this man has been sitting there without a trial watching Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. It really is not necessarily better than putting somebody on trial and sending them to spend life in prison if they're guilty.

GROSS: Well, now I will have to see not only what the Obama administration does regarding policies on alleged terrorists, I'm also going to have to see if Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert mentions your article on their show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: I'm waiting.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MAYER: Great to be with you. Thank you.

GROSS: Jane Mayer's article about the case of alleged enemy combatant Ali al-Marri is in the current edition of the New Yorker. Coming up, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about growing up the son of a former Black Panther. This is Fresh Air.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
100809161
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090218
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-1:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Unlikely Road to Manhood'

TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the things that made Ta-Nehisi Coates different from the other kids he grew up with in west Baltimore was that his father as a former Black Panther who ran a small Afrocentric publishing company called Black Classic Press, which was headquartered in their basement. Coates writes about his childhood in his memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood."

Coates is now a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic magazine. His article about Michelle Obama was published in the Atlantic in January which is when we heard part one of our interview.

You came from a very unusual home. Your father raised seven children with four mothers, and they were all, including the four women, considered your family. Would you describe the arrangement?

Mr. TE-NEHISI COATES (Contributing Editor, Blogger, Atlantic Magazine): Yeah, the first thing that I understand is it wasn't planned. That's the biggest thing it's not like - and it certainly was a situation in which it was a polygamist household.

My dad was a young man. Being a young man, not necessarily always being particularly careful, I'm quite thankful for that now, he had relationships with four different women at various points. And in each of those cases, there were kids yielded. In two of the cases, there were multiple kids. With my mother, there were two kids. The first woman he was married to, the first wife, there were three kids.

My dad hated the term stepbrother. He hated the term stepmother, stepfather, all that. We really didn't do that. He hated the term half-brother, there were no halves. We were raised to be really, really close. And basically, most of the kids lived with their mothers for the most part.

If a kid was having trouble in school, particularly the boys, we're going through a hard time. My dad has five boys. They would come and live with my dad. And my dad was, as many dads are across the country, the disciplinarian who would get the kid back on track.

They would, you know, come over on weekends so there might be different combinations of kids. It might be my sister Kelly(ph) and my sister Chris(ph) and me or it might be my brother, Big Bill(ph), as he was called at that time, my brother Malik, my brother John and Me. It could be any combination of kids.

It was a very interesting thing. I have to tell you though, I didn't consider it particularly unusual because, quite frankly, there were a lot of kids in the neighborhood who had a similar situation, except in most cases, the father was not there. And so I actually, didn't necessarily feel I was blessed, but I knew I was blessed.

GROSS: Did your father live in your home?

Mr. COATES: Yes, he did, yes. I lived with my father all my life until I was 18, at least.

GROSS: Your father had been a Black Panther. Was monogamy one of the institutions he was opposed to?

Mr. COATES: Yes, it was, very much so, and the Panthers had a sort of doctrine of free love at that point which I write about in the book. I don't know how much my dad was in his mind opposed to monogamy when he hooked up with my mother.

You know, child rearing was very important in my parent's relationship. And I think it overshadowed romantic love. It was about getting those kids together and getting them out the house and make it sure everybody became productive members of society and romantic love was really, really secondary, despite the fact that both of them had the yearnings that all human beings have.

I don't know how much it was that my dad theoretically didn't believe in monogamy at that point in time. Or that it just wasn't where he was from a romantic perspective, that he really wasn't in love for most of the marriage.

GROSS: Your father published - had a small publishing company in the basement, published books by African-American authors, Afrocentric books. Did you read those books growing up? Did they have an influence on you?

Mr. COATES: I devoured them. I devoured all of them. (laughing) And you know, it felt a way that I felt at the time, and later come back and question some of the stuff, at the same time, seeing the importance of having it out there.

At the time that I was coming up in Baltimore, crack had hit the city, and guns had just flooded everywhere. I mean I'm talking about 10, 11, 12-year-kids with guns out on the corner selling crack. It changed the temperature. It changed the volume. It changed how the city felt. It was a much more violent city during the time that I was coming up.

And the thing you have to know about me is there was no religion in our household. So there was no broader sense of what should explain where we are. And I think just as a kid searching for answers, I was looking for anything to explain what was going on, why young boys were being shot over Starter jackets with the Philadelphia 76ers written across the front. Why, you know, a kid would come to school in a pair of shoes and end up walking home in his socks because he got beat up and somebody took off his Air Jordans.

I didn't understand how it was that my world was like that and yet, you would cut(ph) on the TV and there was a completely different world, obviously, out there where people have nice lawns and, you know, kids just went to school. They didn't necessarily have to worry about any level of violence.

I took to quote, unquote "Afrocentic" books as a way to explain that to myself. It was a kind of mythology, a religion for me that explained where I was, who I was and how I ended up in that particular space.

GROSS: At the same time, you also read a lot of comic books. You say my default position - my default position was sprawled across the bed staring at the ceiling or cataloging an extensive collection of X-Factor comic books. So, how did your father react to you reading comics, in addition to your reading serious books, you know, what he would consider serious books?

Mr. COATES: My dad had a position that kids reading was a good thing, and you had to take kids where they were. You really, really did. I also write in the book about how I played Dungeons and Dragons. Now you have to - you know, knowing my dad and where he was in terms of black consciousness, having a kid, you know, play a game that is based in, you know, Tolkien and Norse mythology sounds like a weird mix. But in fact, my dad appreciated the imagination that was inherent in the game. He appreciated the sort of abstract level of reasoning. There were a number of things that young black kids were doing at that particular point in time that was not particularly healthy, and yet, here I was with my brother doing this, exploring our creativity. My dad was very, very encouraging of that.

Now, we would have a whole - a lot of conversations about race and how race played out, in those particular worlds, but he never was, you know, a sort of person that was like, I don't want you playing a white man's game or something like that, I don't want you reading a white man's book. That didn't really exist in my household. He was always very encouraging. And the other thing that you have to understand about my dad is when he was a kid, he collected comic books.

GROSS: Uh-huh(ph). OK.

Mr. COATES: So that was key, that was key, and so there was, in fact, a moment when I was young that he talks about with my mom, you know, trying to get me off of comic books and get me on to a more serious reading. He said, you know, don't do that. Don't do that. You know, the boy's reading, encourage that.

GROSS: You said that your father would tell you when you were on your bed reading that you had to go outside...

Mr. COATES: Yes.

GROSS: That you had to - he said this is your community, these are your people.

Mr. COATES: Right.

GROSS: What did that mean to you as, what I imagine, was a kind of alienated teenager or pre-teen reading X-Men comics at home?

Mr. COATES: I was very angry at him. I was very, very angry that he was sending me out. Again - and this is, you know, just to put this chronologically, this is at a period before I started reading, you know, books about African-Americans for myself as opposed to being assigned.

I didn't understand why my world was different, and moreover, I felt like I had two parents, two really smart parents. I had a mother who worked as a teacher. I had a dad who worked at Howard University. Why are we living in west Baltimore? I didn't understand that at all. I felt like if we could, you know - we were as good as anybody else. We could live in the suburbs, have nice lawns, et cetera. This is my thinking around 12 or so. Moreover, why do I have to go out and be around kids who are of a different background than me? Now here's the lesson that my dad...

GROSS: Kids who wanted to beat you up, too, I might add.

Mr. COATES: Yes, yes, yes, some of them. Some of them - I developed some great friendships, but yes, that was certainly part of it. Now, my dad's thinking was that he was raising men, as it came to me, for all seasons. He wanted people who were comfortable in the neighborhood, people who were exposed to things outside the neighborhood, people who could be comfortable in many different worlds.

You know, he had a great, great feeling that despite what was going on in the community, you could not - and I can remember my mother, in fact, saying this all the time - you could not be scared of your own people, you could not. Now, you had to be smart. You had to be safe. You had to take certain steps, but you could not develop broad, big, sort of paint brush ideas about black people.

GROSS: Did your parents live in west Baltimore, which was largely a pretty poor community, would you say - and you said the crack epidemic had really spread there. Did they live there for political reasons as opposed to economic reasons?

Mr. COATES: Yeah. I think, as a child, I interpreted it as political reason. I think it was partially political reasons, but it was, in fact, at the end of the day also economic reason. I mean, we owned our own house. It was a, you know, a good house. My dad still owns it to this day. And it wasn't particularly expensive at the time.

And I should, just to be very clear about where I was, you know, west Baltimore, like any sort of broad area that gets painted as a ghetto, was actually quite economically diverse. So, the area where we were was a pretty much a working class area. I would not call it necessarily a poor area. We had Section Eight housing and that sort of thing. But it wasn't like I was raised in the projects or something like that. It wasn't that sort of situation.

Now, you can't insulate yourself from what's going on in the broader community of west Baltimore and the city as a whole, but where I was raised, there were not a lot of fathers around, but the mothers who were there worked, and they worked hard.

GROSS: My guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates. His memoir "The Beautiful Struggle" was published in paperback last month. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates, a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic. We're talking about his memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle." It's about growing up the son of a former Black Panther who ran an Afrocentric press out of their basement.

You went to Howard University, which is an African-American college. How do you think that experience was different than had you gone to a college that wasn't a historically black college?

Mr. COATES: Oh, man. Howard University is like a New York City for black people. And so, what I mean by that is I can't think of a single place on the planet where you meet people of African descent from all walks of life. I met black people from Toronto, from Australia. I mean, black people who've been raised in Japan, black people who had been raised Buddhist. Black people who were bi-racial black people, who's, you know, who had Indian parents, you know. It was all sorts of African-Americans.

I met black people who were fifth, sixth generation, society, sort of African-Americans, upper class folks who, you know, could stretch their lineage back to fraternities and sororities. I met black people who were there, you know, looking to go off and become historians. I met black people who came there to become entrepreneurs. I met black people who came there reveling in a sort of ghetto-centric thuggism. It was all there.

And I don't know of any point in my life where I would be exposed to that diversity of African-Americans. It was a great, great object lesson for me and something that I carry with me to this day.

GROSS: So, how did that diversity of black people that you were exposed to at Howard affect your personal identity?

Mr. COATES: Right, that was your question. (laughing). I think it made me a lot more comfortable. See, you have to understand, as I came on - Ta-Nehisi was a weird name to a lot of people. OK. So, I used to get teased. People would bend my name, they would twist it, ha ha ha, make fun, you know, jone(ph) on me, joke about my name.

Howard University is the first place I came and they said, oh, what's your name? I said my name is Ta-Nehisi. They looked at me and say, oh, that's deep brother. Your name is Ta-Nehisi. They felt that, you know, I reflected some sort of consciousness. And I wasn't a guy who came to the university and changed my name. No, I had an African name when I came to the university.

Because it was so broad and so diverse, you could be black and into anything and find a group of people to surround yourself around. So, I was very much into books, studying about, you know, African history at that point in time. I had a whole collective of friends who were like that, and at the same time, we're into hip hop. We'll go to the club, do whatever that they were doing, but we're into that. It was such a broad cross section of people that you could really be into anything and find somebody black who was into it.

GROSS: Now, before you became a journalist, when you were young, your mother made you write essays whenever you got into trouble, explaining exactly what you'd done and why you'd done it.

Mr. COATES: Yes.

GROSS: Did you take those essays seriously?

Mr. COATES: I had to. And what it was was a great lesson in introspection because my mom was a teacher. And she would reread those essays, and she would tell me, you know, if I had half-stepped, if I had not done what I was supposed to, if I clearly had not thought about it, she would make me do it, again.

I didn't get it as a child, of course, but much later, I did, and much, much later, I got the tools that she was trying to impart on me, mainly being introspection. And I think from her perspective, I was raised in a household where, despite the politics, you could not go to school, fail, come home and say, it's because of the white man's system or it's because racism. No, there was none of that. You - every explanation began with I did X, Y and Z. And so there was a sense of responsibility that they were trying to impart on me at that particular time. I had to take it seriously. There was no way around it.

GROSS: We talked a little bit about the neighborhood you grew up in and the impact that had on you. You're raising a son now. What kind of neighborhood are you raising him in? And did you consciously choose that neighborhood to raise a son, or did you just end up living there and having a son?

Mr. COATES: Yeah. Right. I live in Harlem. I'm in Harlem, which, again - I mean, it's tough to - people think of Harlem as a ghetto. It's very tough to describe Harlem as a ghetto because it's just so diverse. I mean, there are folks like me who are college graduates there. There are people who have been there all their lives.

You know, just the other day, I was doing some reporting. I was riding around with a gentleman who lives in actually the projects at East Harlem who was working on getting his son into an elite boarding school up in New England. We drove up there and did that. So, there are all kinds of people there. I'm a big fan of the diversity within the black community and sort of bringing that out in myself, you know, exploring that as a writer.

I do want, Sumari(ph), my son to have some sort of consciousness about what it means to be an African-American. That'll change by the time he's, you know, of an adult, and he'll have to figure some of that out for himself, but I don't want him in a situation, as I think sometimes happens with certain people, in which he perceives African-Americans as alien to him. I don't want him learning about African-Americans from watching TV. I don't even necessarily want him learning about African-American strictly from listening to music. I want it to be a lived experience.

I think Barack Obama said something really great in the campaign. I think about this always in regards to my son. He said, I'm rooted in a black community, I'm not limited by it. If I can do anything for the kid, I mean, that would really be what it was.

GROSS: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. COATES: Oh, thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Ta-Nehisi Coates' memoir is called, "The Beautiful Struggle." He is a contributing editor and blogger for the Atlantic Magazine. You can download pod casts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
100814580
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue