Listen to this article
Paris has its own problem of racial segregation, so when I arrive at the restaurant 15 minutes early and spot across the room a tall black man already hanging his coat over a chair, I know at once: this must be the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Black people are scarce in upmarket Parisian restaurants.
At the start of this year, Coates, who turns 40 on Wednesday, was a fairly well-known journalist. He had published a little-read memoir about growing up in Baltimore, The Beautiful Struggle (2008), but his reputation stemmed chiefly from a 2014 article for the Atlantic magazine arguing that the US should pay black Americans reparations for slavery. Then, this July, his slim book Between the World and Me was published in the US amid national furore over the #blacklivesmatter movement, protests in Baltimore and the massacre of black churchgoers by a white man in Charleston, South Carolina. The book argues that the “destruction of black bodies” is not simply a constant of American history but the very foundation stone of white American “progress”.
Coates — thinker, memoirist, historian and old-fashioned reporter rolled into one — became a sensation. Between the World and Me topped the American bestseller charts. President Obama, a longtime Coates reader, put it on his summer reading list. Toni Morrison, grande dame of African-American literature, proclaimed Coates the intellectual heir to James Baldwin. The heated American debate over racism had acquired an original new voice.
But then, just as he had much of America listening to him, Coates decided to move to Paris for a year. He had discovered the city relatively recently, not having travelled abroad until well into adulthood. “The first time I came here,” he admits, “I guess I felt sort of stupid for falling in love right away. It was like I have become the writer stereotype. Sometimes I feel like a total cliché for the affection I feel.”
Glou, the restaurant he has chosen, is known for the freshness of its ingredients. “We’ve been here a month; I’ve been here 10 times,” he says. Upstairs, the window is open on to the Picasso museum’s stately back garden, where teenagers are playing football.
A gentle and courteous presence, Coates shows none of the cold anger of the pages of Between the World and Me. Though well over 6ft tall, he crouches in his seat, shrinking himself almost to my level. I recall the passage in his book that describes how “middle-class black survivors” present themselves so as to appear unthreatening: “our conversation restrained in public quarters, our best manners on display, our hands never out of pockets”. This manner is probably particularly essential for tall black men such as Coates and Obama.
When he discovers that I’m a 13-year Paris veteran, Coates’s journalistic instincts kick in and he starts interviewing me about the city. I struggle to turn the tables. Luckily, I have time: the service is mercifully slow and, for a man in such demand, Coates seems unhurried. Not once during our two-and-a-half-hour lunch does he check his phone. At moments of deep thought he covers his face in his hands, concentrating.
We place our orders, starting with a shared plate of seafood tapas and a glass of wine each. His restaurant French (arguably the essential level for foreigners) is serviceable. Coates has embraced the French belief in the primacy of eating. “It’s hard to tell people, ‘I love it here because of the food,’ as though that’s enough — except it feels like enough.”
He isn’t just here for the food, of course. “My son is 15, I had fallen in love with the [French] language, and I realised I would be working on it a long time. I didn’t want my son to be my age and be working on his facility with the language like I am.”
There’s also a tradition of American writers who come to Paris to escape the US. Baldwin, one of Coates’s role models, said the city gave him the gift of ignoring him. For a black American, that felt like freedom. “I feel that, too,” Coates agrees, “which I think is different to saying there’s no racism here. But when I talk to people here, the first thing they sense is about [my] Americanness. That’s the mask I have on for them. It’s an incredible experience. This is the first place I’ve been where I felt people saw something different. It allows for greater comfort walking down the street.” The fragility of the black American teenage male’s body being a particular theme of his books, you can see another reason why Coates has brought his son to Paris. Piquantly, the boy, Samori, is named after a west-African military leader who resisted the French colonists.
“I think there’s something else, too,” he adds, as we eat the unadorned fresh seafood with little of the usual embarrassment of strangers sharing a plate of food. “There are a lot of guns in America. I’m not saying there’re no guns here, but significantly fewer. I think you feel that in the public space. When I walk down Canal Saint-Martin and I see people with open bottles of wine, sitting there, in my American eyes I think about that in a public space and I think about people getting shot. Somebody gets too drunk, bumps into somebody and then somebody pulls out a gun.”
Now he wants to write about Paris but isn’t sure how. “When I came here it was like: I clearly have nothing to add, it’s got to be the most written-about place in the world. I was talking to my wife about that: ‘What am I going to get here?’ I don’t want to write some bullshit. It’s got to be really, really, really good.” What makes it harder, he says, is that suddenly, when he writes, “so many people are looking”.
He has come a long way. Coates grew up in Baltimore, practically on the spot where the riots began in April after a black man named Freddie Gray died of injuries sustained in police custody. When I ask about the riots, Coates shrugs: “It’s hard for me to view Baltimore outside the context of what Baltimore has always been in my mind: a violent place.” This time, he says, “one questions even the word ‘riot’. Basically, two nights in Baltimore; one night really bad when they burned down the CVS [pharmacy]. I don’t know if the riot was worse than what you see, say, when [football coach] Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State.” The difference, says Coates, is that whenever black people aren’t being contained, there is national anxiety.
Our main courses belatedly arrive. Coates marvels at the beauty of his sea bream. “One day I’ll get past that,” he apologises. “We just eat differently. It’s a totally different experience with my family.”
His father, a former member of the revolutionary nationalist Black Panther Party, was an obsessive reader, collector and publisher of black literature. Ta-Nehisi (named after the ancient Egyptian word for Nubia) absorbed the black canon, but he has said he has never read one of the most famous white novels about race, To Kill A Mockingbird.
His father features prominently in his books. Paul Coates raised his seven children intensively but with frequent beatings. Coates describes him, lovingly, in The Beautiful Struggle as “a practicing fascist, mandating books and banning religion”. I ask Coates how his dad views his success. “Oh, he’s over the moon, incredibly proud.” Doesn’t he mind the way his son has portrayed him? “I told him for the first book, ‘If you don’t want me to write this, I won’t.’ I’m not going to break up my family, not for a book. They all agreed to it. He has a strong sense that you have to write.”
In the 1990s, Coates met his professional mentor: David Carr, the New York Times journalist who died unexpectedly at the age of 58 in February. When they met, Carr was editing Washington City Paper. “There isn’t a dude outside my dad who had greater influence on my life,” Coates says. He still instinctively talks about Carr in the present tense: “He’s also just a tremendous friend; I can talk to David about anything — my kid, my marriage, delinquent taxes.
“When I met him I was 20. I had only the vaguest sense of what writing was; I had been a failing student, I was not sure I was going to do anything with my life. I sent him some poetry. He called and said, ‘Take this internship.’ I was expecting what they called ‘scut work’, running around doing a bunch of shit for other people. But they were like: ‘Go find stories.’ When I came to David, I wanted to be an essayist, writing music reviews and giving my take on things. He wasn’t having that. You had to go out and report on the city, talk to people. He used to tell me: ‘Tell stories, less of the theory.’ ”
Carr made young journalists analyse articles from magazines such as Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. “That was the standard: you should be writing as good as that dude over there. That’s something to tell a kid. David’s the whole reason I’m working for the Atlantic. I had a story, I’d had just an abominable time pitching it. I was on my ass at the time, I had been laid off by Time magazine. I called him and he said, ‘Send me the pitch.’ He said, ‘Who would you like to take it to?’ The first thing I thought of was the New Yorker. I didn’t say that. I said, ‘I want the Atlantic.’ He said, ‘I know the guy who runs it.’ Three weeks went by, I heard from the Atlantic. They said, ‘How about 8,000 words?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’
“They said $2 a word, 16,000 dollars! I’m in unemployment, I’m on the corner, and I said to the person, ‘Can you say that again?’” That was only about eight years ago, he adds.
Carr would have loved seeing his protégé become famous, laughs Coates. “Good God, he’d have been telling everybody and his mama what he had done and who I was in the City Paper. When David died — I’m still getting over that. I loved him immensely.”
Coates proclaims himself “totally shocked” by the response from white readers to Between the World and Me. The book makes such painful reading for white Americans that one instinctive response is to reject it. But, Coates says, “I’m surprised how many of them are moved. I think it proves there’s an appetite to be talked to frankly, like a human being. If I’m going to read a book about women’s history, I don’t want anybody to talk to me like I’m a four-year-old, like I am oversensitive. Tell me the facts.”
I ask about the risks of his newfound celebrity (last week, for example, Marvel revealed Coates has signed on with the comic book house to pen a series starring reprised superhero the Black Panther). He is adamant fame won’t change him. He explains: “There was a long time when I wasn’t being read and I had to make peace with myself. Writing just was failure. When you go through that you have to create another identity. It became, ‘OK, if everything goes wrong today, I was a good father and husband. I took my son to day care, I picked him up, I talked to him and I spent time.’ As a young person I was desperately afraid of not being a responsible person. I had this father who I just thought was the most hardworking, responsible person I ever met. I said, ‘How the hell am I going to live up to that?’ I didn’t become that irresponsible person I thought I was going to be. I actually am responsible.
“This [success] came later. It’s nice, but what are you supposed to do with it? Chase around a bunch of women?” He doesn’t intend to become an American guru. “Frankly, I think what would come with that — because I’ve seen other people accept it — is a great deal of ego.”
In Carr’s spirit, he plans to remain a seeker and storyteller. His job, he says, isn’t to prescribe policy; it’s to push more Americans to live in truth. “If we can act with consciousness, even if we can’t fix everything, that would be a monumental improvement.”
It annoys him when Americans talk “as though the way black people are in America is some sort of fucking mystery”. For Coates, the destruction of black bodies in ghettos isn’t an accident. It’s the intended outcome of American policies from slavery to housing laws to mass incarceration. To him, the policeman who kills an unarmed black man isn’t an aberration. The guy’s job is containing and crushing blacks.
This is gloomy stuff and, in fact, the most radical aspect of Coates’s work may be its lack of hope. He breaks with a longstanding American narrative: the arc of racial progress, the inevitable triumph of justice. “We shall overcome,” sang Martin Luther King. Coates, an atheist, doesn’t necessarily believe black people will overcome. He doesn’t offer Obama’s “Yes, we can”. When I ask him about hope, he shrugs: “Who asks a historian to be hopeful? One of my favourite works of history is by this British historian, CV Wedgwood — The Thirty Years War. It is depressing, violent, ugly, lapsing into cannibalism, murder, all that. But when I was done I felt enlightened.
“I need some folks to recognise: this struggle is central to what America is. If you care about America you will take up arms and join. What happens after that, I don’t know. How do you know?”
In the off-the-record conversations that Obama holds with writers in the White House, the president and Coates have argued about whether Obama’s policies help black Americans. Does Coates think Obama has governed as a “black president”? “He is necessarily what a black President would have to look like in America. To be a black American, you have to navigate the challenge of a country that was made possible due to destruction and enslavement of black people. That’s our country. I can’t imagine being African-American, having that as a heritage, and having to stand on top of that and say, ‘OK, here’s where we’re going.’ I think he’s done actually quite a remarkable job.”
A middle-aged white American couple at the next table have been visibly listening into our conversation. Now they join in. They tell us about their holiday: Paris is beautiful, the food delicious, and being away from the kids is relaxing. After two hours of listening to Coates, their stream of banalities is jolting. But Coates is impeccably polite, echoes their enthusiasm, asks them questions.
Of course he wants dessert. He has cheesecake but then eyes my cheese plate enviously. “He beat me,” he tells the tourists. “He did better. Oh, wow.” Still, when we make our way downstairs (Coates having rejected coffee), he extols his cheesecake to the waitress. What’s French for cheesecake, he asks her. “Le cheesecake,” she replies.
“It was a beautiful meal,” he says. Then we walk home together, because it turns out that Coates is my new neighbour: he lives 150 metres from me. I’m hoping we can keep him here a while. “Truly,” he says, “if there’s anything Paris has given me, it’s distance. Because you write things about America and you really have to write them from over here — to be outside just a little bit.”
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
Illustration by Seb Jarnot