Ta-Nehisi Coates’ career has been on fire of late.
The critically acclaimed author is nominated for two NAACP Image Awards this year: Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author and Outstanding Literary Work for a Biography or Auto-Biography. And it’s quite well-deserved. His 2014 series of essays on slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow resurged our country’s conversation on reparations for African Americans.
Coates then became a MacArthur Fellow in 2015, the same year that his second book, Between the World and Me, became a New York Times Bestseller. This book has been hailed by America’s most widely-read and respected writers including Toni Morrison, Michelle Alexander and Isabel Wilkerson.
On top of that, Between the World and Me snagged the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction after being in competition with other highly celebrated works, such as: Hold Still, by Sally Mann; The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery; If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power and Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith.
Coates’ acceptance speech for the honor was just as impressive as him winning the award itself. As he stood before 700 guests at Manhattan’s Cipriani Wall Street on November 18, 2015, Coates spoke about the life of his college friend and police brutality victim, Prince Carmen Jones, Jr.
“He was an exceptional student,” Coates said of his Howard classmate. Jones was only 25 at the time of his death in September 2000. “He could have gone to Harvard, could have gone to Princeton, could have gone to Yale, but wanted to come to Howard University…I know that everybody says this about people after they die but I tell you: I’ve never met an individual that was so filled with love and compassion.”
Coates explained that Jones was the inspiration behind his critically-acclaimed book. The journalist for the Atlantic said he felt compelled to find his own way to avenge his friend’s killing at the hands of racism and the false stigma that Blacks are inclined towards criminal behavior.
“I’m a Black man in America,” Coates said. “I can’t punish that officer…I can’t secure the safety of my son…But what I do have the power to do is to say: ‘you won’t enroll me in this lie.’ You won’t make me part of it.”
It is the advancement of digital media technology that has made it easier for Blacks to tell our own stories and to accurately be cast in the media when we’ve had altercations with the police—especially when we can no longer speak for ourselves.
Coates said he has been waiting 15 years for Jones’ story to get the recognition it deserves. Unfortunately for Jones, his death at the hands of police came long before footage from body cameras and smartphones has countered sketchy (and sometimes blatantly-fabricated) testimonies from officers and police departments involved with other police brutality cases like those of Samuel DuBose, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald.
With his brilliant commentary and stirring, heartfelt words, it’s no wonder Coates is being heralded as the next James Baldwin. Watch the clip to hear Coates’ powerful speech in full above.