Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about cultural equity for the vulnerable population

By Carla Bell
November 27, 2017

A standard Seattle November night at Benaroya Hall, inside as much as out. Donning brands such as Patagonia, North Face, REI, Merrill, and Hunter, they raced, but not obviously, to ticket windows. One committed couple posted nearby, asking random ticketholders to possibly “buy just one.” But with a slight tip of the head, concerned eyebrows, and that smiling grimace that says sorry not sorry, Patagonia (“Pat” for short) and the others clutched their tickets and filed in line for the talk.

On this night, Seattle Arts & Lectures 2017/18 Presents hosted renowned journalist and Black civil rights advocate Ta-Nehisi Coates for a conversation about his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, which Pat and the others happily paid a little extra to receive. Sixty dollars secured a ticket and the book. I described this scene to an associate.

“It’s as if every white person in town knew about it before we did”, she said. But this was about more than simply knowing.

Recall Proposition 1, voted down earlier this year by King County residents like Pat and by others completely different – people of color, even. Prop. 1 would have provided funding, through sales tax, for delivery of cultural access programs to our vulnerable population – a group defined in the measure as “persons or communities that are susceptible to reduced health, housing, financial or social stability outcomes because of current experience or historical exposure to trauma, violence, poverty, isolation, bias, racism, stigma, discrimination, disability or chronic illness”.

In The Case for Reparations, Coates shares the story of the Rosses, a Black Mississippi family, one-time owners of land, livestock, and machinery, tragically forced back to zero, back to sharecropping, for reason of supposed past due taxes. Whether by governmental levying of burdensome, if not fraudulent, tax penalties like those which the Ross family endured or through avoidance by the privileged of measures like Prop 1, the outcomes are the same: reinforcement of status quo. Cultural “access” strategically remains out of reach.

“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others…”
Ta-Nehisi Coates

The house went from buzzing to hushed as Youth Poet Laureate Angel Gardner recited Black Courage. As she did, I wondered if she was looking for me or for someone like me. Was she searching and hoping for a connection and support from any Black face in the crowd? A recurring thought when, as many times before, I’ve sat amongst Pat and the others watching Black actors in productions written by James Baldwin or Maya Angelou. Having witnessed on those occasions Pat and the others rush to front row seats, in clear view of the artists, I’ve been humiliated and angry, on behalf of the artists and those who couldn’t afford a front row seat, to look around and find Pat in REM sleep, with chin to chest or forehead to ceiling, at the height of a performance.

Pat and the others who can afford this cultural access may not – often cannot – fully appreciate it; and those who can’t afford it may not understand the deep and rolling deficits that are strengthened and maintained by this particular brand of cultural segregation. The irony of all this has lost its novelty for me. Now, it’s just another awkward (and catastrophic) Seattle norm. These and more were my thoughts, before Coates even started to speak.

Just then an older man and woman, both white, took seats to my left. This woman, I described to a friend, “…who casually scoots her chair just a little away before sitting next to me to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates”, tries from time-to-time, even in the low light, to decipher my notes, sideways and a little upside down. Throughout the evening, she, her husband, and the entire hall are engaged, responsive to Coates stories and opinions. There’s a sense they’re actually on the edge of their seats when his words – “It’s Whiteness that has brought us to the brink” – smashed through the atmosphere. In a moment, reducing to dust that collective, self-satisfied posture.

Coates kept details to a minimum about a screenplay he’s co-authoring with a comedian, mentioned that he’s been writing a novel since 2009, and said he’s continuing his work on the Black Panther stories. When asked for suggested reads, he offered Black Reconstruction, and The Wages of Whiteness. See more here.

Coates spoke reaffirming words to me. Not to me alone, to us all, but especially to me – “writing is fighting”. Indeed, writing is fighting, and it’s activism and advocacy; and through countless experiences like this, it’s been therapy, too.

Carla Bell is a Seattle-based writer and abolitionist engaged in restorative justice and civil rights advocacy, supporting community resilience and healing, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.