October 10, 2019 

By Lapacazo Sandoval 

Contributing Writer 


There are moments in our shared experiences of being human that have been captured in old photographs or film footage where you can almost hear the people screaming out to you “I was here. I am history” — that’s how it felt to me (and also expressed by others) on September 23, 2019, when celebrated author Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down with living legend Oprah Winfrey who interviewed him as part of the Apollo Theater's inaugural Master Artist-in-Residence.


It was a chilly Monday night in New York City and the packed crowd was dressed to impress. The men, young and old, were peacocks able to hold their own with the styled out, turned out women who made it their collective business to show off whatever assets GOD has graced them with.


I will not lie, the decorum of the packed house surprised me, but also made me proud. I don't think there was an empty seat left. It warmed me, to my soul, to see such a diverse and beauti-ful sea of Black faces show the time of excitement I attach to childhood innocence when you believed in the magic of possibilities.


To my left, I head a woman tell her friend "this must have been what it was like to see [James] Baldwin or Malcolm [X]. I mean girl this voice [Ta-Nehisi Coates] is my voice and he's with the Queen [Oprah Winfrey]. I don't get no better than that, and we are here girl. We are here."


And then it began. It was like going to church and I liken Winfrey to a minister, meaning, she was aware and comfortable with letting the spirit of the moment come and settle among the assembled souls. 


It was a Winfrey conversation. Amazingly candid and punctuated with laughter and soulful intonations and responses from the packed crowd.


Ms. Winfrey knew. “I love a talking back audience,” Oprah said. 


The almost hour-long conversation felt like minutes. In the interview, Coates shared that his first novel, The Water Dancer, which was chosen to relaunch Winfrey’s book club with Apple TV+, took 10 years to write.


Coates confessed that he had to discard his entire first draft. All that remains of it are three paragraphs. His confession is both humbling and inspiring. He trusted his editor said he flat out told Coates that the work wasn’t on point and admitted that “it’s really hard to write a novel.”


“The Water Dancer is the story of Hiram Walker who is an enslaved African American in ante-bellum Virginia. His father is a White slaveholder in the plantation Lockless where he lives, his mother has been sold off by his father,” Coates explained of his mystical, historical tale.


Think about it. We as Black and Brown people have a deep and personal connection with the supernatural. We are not afraid to embrace something bigger than ourselves. Coates’ books tap into that inherited DNA. 


“Hiram has a preternatural gift of memory, a photographic memory, except when it comes to the things that are most important to him, most intimate to him, starting with his mother,” he continued. “The book traces Hiram Walker’s attempt [to escape], his voyage towards freedom and his coming to (pronounced “tew,” because Coates is so Baltimore) acceptance that free-dom is much more than he thought. That it goes past his individual freedom; that it has to em-brace the community that he was raised in.”


From the start of the conversation, Winfrey made it clear that Coates’ novel “pierced” her, of-ten hugging the book to her bosom. There were many things that impressed her about the book, but she highlighted his ability to capture the inner lives of those in bondage (known as the “Tasked” in Coates’ novel). How he got to the depth of the characters was a question she asked a few times. Coates likened his process to that of an actor preparing for a role.

“So, you study, you read and you research enough until you feel like it’s pouring out of you … it’s not artificial anymore,” he said. “You actually can feel yourself there and you have the mannerisms and you have the words, and you’re not thinking about it—it becomes like second sense or muscle memory for you to write in that way. I tried to get to that point where I’m no longer thinking, where I can sit down and if you woke me up at 2 a.m., and asked me, ’Ok, give me 500 words on what Hiram did today’, I could do it. That’s what I tried to get to.”


History wants to erase our contributions, but we were more than mere beasts of burden and the White slave owners stole much more than our lives. They dared to step into our minds. Coates agreed adding: “To me, it countered the notion that we so often think in slavery just about the body. But in fact, Jefferson [was] living off these folks’ genius, too.”


Winfrey asked Coates about his muse where he confessed that he also summoned his muse through language. Not a surprise.


“I’m a language person,” he explained. “Which means, literally the arrangement of words holds meaning for me. So it might not be what someone is saying but the way that they say it. I read a ton of 19th-century writing, particularly by enslaved folks. People in other centuries don’t talk like we talk today. So within that language, there’s a reality...and I was trying to put you in a very particular place. So it really was that research that did it for me, reading those folks.”


The 44-year-old author also visited the sites of slavery, including the “grand” plantations of the South, to research the novel, including the palatial Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, a study in cognitive dissonance.


Now … back to our genius. 


“Here is this place where for years—not lately—but for years, we have talked about architec-ture, and the genius of Jefferson, and there are wine tastings there and there are weddings there and there are kids running all over the place. But if you’re black and you have any sort of political consciousness at all, what you quickly realize that this was a concentration camp. You can immediately feel it.


“There’s a disconnect between the public face, the presentation. You’re at your Dachau and this is presented as some great American monument,” Coates added. However, the author was adamant that the book would not have been possible without the historians and archaeol-ogists at Monticello. Jefferson, in fact, helped Coates deepen his understanding of the peculiar institution and the division between reality and the ideals espoused by one of America’s great-est founding fathers, a man who literally was able to live the grand life on the backs of hun-dreds of people, most of whom were sold after he died in debt.


“I didn’t understand it on that level,” Coates continued. “I knew about [Jefferson’s ‘mistress,’ enslaved teen] Sally [Hemmings] and I knew Jefferson was a slaveholder, right? But I didn’t understand, for instance, the great beautiful columns at Monticello were actually carved by Black hands. And the genius behind that—(“Who hadn’t been to a math class,” Oprah inter-jected)—the genius behind those columns was such that when they try to figure out today how they had done it, the archaeologists down there still don’t know.


“To me, it countered the notion that we so often think in slavery just about the body. But in fact, Jefferson [was] living off these folks’ genius, too.”


Winfrey also talked about being impacted by Coates’ character, Sophia, quoting one of her lines on from The Water Dancer: “You want me to be yours. I understand. I’ve always under-stood it. But what you must get is that for me to be yours, I must never be yours. Do you un-derstand what I’m saying? I must never be any man’s.”


Winfrey also called out this passage:


“I marvel at the bonds between us, the way we shorten our words or spoke sometimes with no words at all. The shared memories of the corn-shucking; of hurricanes; of heroes; they did not live in books but in our talk. An entire world of our own hidden away from them. And to be part of this world, I felt even then, was to be in on a secret; a secret that was in you.”


She then asked if Coates was trying to reveal that secret.


“That particular passage refers to something I’ve tried to work with throughout my writing,” he replied. “[T]hat is there is a part of being black in America that we would all part with and give up. And that is the fact of being a black race; being put into a black race and having to deal with all the things that come with that. But the cultural part, we’re not giving the greens up. Don’t want to give that back. We don’t want to give Marvin Gaye back. We’re not doing that. And so, Hiram was enslaved and even he can recognize ‘there are things that I love about this.’ As much as [he’s] yearning for freedom, he would never want to be free of this particular thing.


There is a part of being black in America that we would all part with and give up...But the cul-tural part, we’re not giving the greens up. We don’t want to give Marvin Gaye back. And so, Hiram was enslaved and even he can recognize ‘there are things that I love about this’...he would never want to be free of this particular thing.


“Well, the truth is, history is never really past unless we actually reckon with it, and in all of your work it’s really clear that you are dealing with this reckoning or lack of reckoning that we never had,” said Winfrey. “Do you think this book will move the discussion forward? For people to see it differently?”


As the evening began to wind down, Coates took a moment to look around the packed house. He was not acting humble. He was humbled. To wit, he went back to how his first novel The Water Dancer almost didn’t make it. Stating again for the audience that only three paragraphs from the first draft remain. He brought his hard work home. He had to go back. He had to humble himself and he did. 


“I’ll tell you this: If being on CBS This Morning to talk about a first novel doesn’t do it; If having a billboard in Times Square doesn’t do it; if having the might of Apple behind you,” Coates be-gan. “You have to understand, first novels never get this. I cannot stress to you how unusual this is. If that doesn’t do it, I don’t know what is. I tried to write the hell outta the book and I feel like you guys are promoting the hell outta the book, and so if you get those two things togeth-er...The answer is Yes. Yes, I do think so, I do think so. Yes.”


Oprah Winfrey will have another conversation with Coates on The Water Dancer Nov. 1 at Ap-ple TV+. The schedule for Coates’ national book tour is on his website.

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