Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture to a sold-out crowd on Thursday evening. Held at the New School Tishman Auditorium, the lecture was part of the PEN America World Voices Festival, happening concurrently in New York and Los Angeles through Sunday.
Coates, a 2019 MacArthur Fellow, writes across genres, from his National Book Award winning 2015 memoir Between the World and Me to his 2019 novel The Water Dancer to his Marvel comics scripts for Black Panther and Captain America. For PEN America, presently rallying against book bans and restricted expression, Coates ventured that present debates and legislation around freedom to read are nothing new: “We are part of a long tradition, a long lineage,” he said, that includes bans on enslaved people’s literacy, disenfranchisement of voters, school segregation to ensure unequal access to information and resources, and mid-20th century attacks on the right to assembly.
“I know we don't usually think about COINTELPRO as a violation of First Amendment rights, but that's exactly what it was,” Coates continued, because the government imposed surveillance on people for voicing political, anti-racist opinions. “The FBI tracked Black writers such as Lorraine Hansberry and Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes and Chester Himes. The war extends from them all the way up to my father,” a FBI target for his Black Panther party membership. That surveillance continued even after Coates’s father, Paul, left the Panthers, because he “did something that may have been more dangerous…. He opened a small Black bookstore in west Baltimore.” (Paul Coates opened The Black Book in 1973 and started Back Classic Press in 1978.)
Coates reflected that “here I am, all these years later. Getting calls, answering emails from people about my books being banned.” His writing, in which he calls for reparations and teaches Black history, has been cut from coursework including the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies curriculum. Even so, Coates said, “If my work was not considered, dare I say, ban-worthy, then maybe it's not worthy at all.”
To him, “books are dangerous,” and should not be underestimated, because the overt removal of books accompanies violence against “a suite of rights.” He points out that “debates around free speech, around who can say what, tend to happen on certain axes,” namely gender, sexuality, and race, so “the natural question is to ask, ‘How free are the people in those categories?’” He reflected on access to abortion rights, the danger of sexual assault, “the rights of trans people to publicly exist,” and the problem of mass incarceration, all of which point to what he called "a deep unfreedom" in the U.S.
He also cautioned contemporary thinkers to weigh their understandings of censorship and power, using as an example the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and how it fomented hatred through popular media. “At the time, the NAACP and African American leaders who argued for this banning said that Birth of a Nation was literally dangerous, that it would endanger the lives of Black people,” Coates explained. “And what ultimately prevailed was the idea that free speech should be upheld.” The film resulted in the revival of the Klan and contributed to the hatred that drove the Red Summer of 1919, he maintained.
This example of a failed effort at censorship reminded Coates of the saying that the answer to hate speech is more speech. There was in fact more speech, he said, in Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s response film, Within Our Gates. That film was censored, ostensibly due to its representations of lynching and violence against a Black woman by a white man, erasing Black perspectives while Birth of a Nation remained available. For Coates, “The difference is power. More speech might be the answer to hate speech. But when hate speech has a gun? When hate speech has an army?” He left the audience grappling with questions of silencing and threat, and urged listeners to take seriously the sensitivity of young people today, who have "an intense awareness of their unfreedom" in a climate of hostility.
Following his lecture, Coates sat for a Q&A with Yale University professor David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and took audience questions. When Blight asked Coates, “Are we in a moral panic?”—a sort of cultural hysteria around diversity and repression—the answer leaned to the affirmative. As Coates had said in his talk, “The war is old,” but it carries with it a history of resistance and a tradition of “learning as liberation.”