Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers keynote speech at 10th Biennial Conference for ASWAD

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Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at the 10th biannual conference of the Association for the Study of Worldwide African Diaspora. LULU DAWES/ THE FLAT HAT

Friday, Nov. 8, under bright stage lights and the echo of distant beating drums, author Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down in a plush armchair surrounded by African woodcraft and a packed crowd of cheering attendees. 

This year, the College of William and Mary hosted the 10th Biennial Conference for the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora, which took place from Nov. 5 to Nov. 9. With over 1,000 members and delegates from over 30 countries in attendance, the conference brought together leading African diaspora scholars, artists and activists to celebrate black people’s storied past and achievements.  

Sponsored by the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies, Coates starred as the headlining event for the conference and drew in approximately 800 audience goers to his talk 

“I always thought I’d be at conferences like this and do more like this but I have not,” Coates said. “I don’t know if many of y’all know this, but it really was scholarlists like y’all that got me to the case of reparations to be honest, and I mean that in the most political sense.” 

Coates garnered national attention in 2014 when he wrote an article arguing for reformations” on his popular blog with The Atlantic, where he described the ways in which African Americans still are targeted and unfairly disadvantaged today. Since then, Coates has left his job in journalism to write two nonfiction books, pursue work as the writer for the comic book series “Black Panther” and publish his debut novel, “The Water Dancer.” 

“The Water Dancer” takes place during the antebellum South and centers around Hiram Walker, a slave with supernatural powers who plans to escape his bondage. Though Walker has a photographic memory, he cannot remember his mother who was sold by his white slave-owning family. 

“The way enslavement is presented in the pop culture, I think for whatever reasons storytellers have tended to linger on those visual, visceral details: whipping, rape, torture,” Coates said. “I’m not arguing about hiding that. … I would say that when I was going through all those readings, the thing that really got me was the destruction of family: taking of kids, taking of wife, that was the thing that really gripped me. So, I was very interested in thinking of the emotional aspect of that.” 

“The way enslavement is presented in the pop culture, I think for whatever reasons storytellers have tended to linger on those visual, visceral details: whipping, rape, torture,” Coates said. “I’m not arguing about hiding that. … I would say that when I was going through all those readings, the thing that really got me was the destruction of family: taking of kids, taking of wife, that was the thing that really gripped me. So, I was very interested in thinking of the emotional aspect of that.” 

While detailing the process of writing his debut novel, Coates emphasized his research and the plethora of primary documents he analyzed in order to understand and capture the horrors of slavery. Coates accredited the history department of his alma mater, Howard University, for fostering his love of writing and teaching him the importance of using primary sources. 

Temple University professor of African History Benjamin Talton serves on ASWAD’s Executive Board and sat on stage with Coates to guide the conversation and incorporate questions concerning Coates’ novel. Talton also frequently gave his own opinions regarding reformations and the treatment of African Americans within contemporary American society. 

“People always say if you attend an HBCU, you’re not in the real world; they’re not preparing you to deal in the real world,Talton said. “But what they’re really saying is it must be inferior because they don’t say the same thing about allwomen, white women colleges. They don’t say that about allmen, white men colleges.” 

“People always say if you attend an HBCU, you’re not in the real world; they’re not preparing you to deal in the real world,Talton said. “But what they’re really saying is it must be inferior because they don’t say the same thing about allwomen, white women colleges. They don’t say that about allmen, white men colleges.” 

At the end of the hour-long conversation between Coates and Talton, audience members asked brief questions regarding Coates’ debut novel and his past journalism work.  

Class of 2021 President Aria Austin ’21 attended the event because her government major and English minor have led her to frequently read Coates’ work in several AfricanAmerican literature classes. Austin was curious whether Coates felt a responsibility to live up to the expectation of other AfricanAmerican writers, since her classes often compare Coates to James Baldwin.  

“I thought he had a great answer, because I think for him writing is a very personal thing, but it is also something that he wants to share with other people,” Austin said. “It’s not necessarily that he has to be an activist, but it happens that it is a consequence — a good consequence. He is an inspiration and consequently people feel the need to be activists in real life. For me, I’m someone who is inspired by his writing and I want to make the world a better place. I think that’s the power of writing. I’m so honored I got to share the same space as him and ask that question.” 

“I thought he had a great answer, because I think for him writing is a very personal thing, but it is also something that he wants to share with other people,” Austin said. “It’s not necessarily that he has to be an activist, but it happens that it is a consequence — a good consequence. He is an inspiration and consequently people feel the need to be activists in real life. For me, I’m someone who is inspired by his writing and I want to make the world a better place. I think that’s the power of writing. I’m so honored I got to share the same space as him and ask that question.”