With a packed crowd spread out in front of him in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room Monday night, award-winning journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates picked a raised hand.
The hand belonged to a professor, who said her class had finished his most famous work, “Between the World and Me,” and felt “disturbed” by its unflinching look at race in America.
But when the students closed the book, the teacher said they wondered, what were they to do?
As she continued the question, asking if it was in fact a writer’s job to provide possible solutions, Coates threw his hand up, palm forward.
“It’s not,” he said.
The at-capacity crowd responded with laughter and applause, as they had throughout Coates’ lecture, part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. The Series, partially funded by Pitt’s Year of Diversity, has also hosted author and essayist Maggie Nelson and will bring author Edwidge Danticat April 13. Both the Assembly Room and the overflow room next door were full, and four Pitt Police officers standing near the entrances turned latecomer attendees away before the talk.
During the 40-minute speech, Coates shared an excerpt from an upcoming untitled novel about slaves in the pre-Civil War American South and answered some questions from the room about his previous work and writing process.
Munching on Taco Bell near the back of the room, undeclared sophomore John Talley and two friends sat awaiting the start of the lecture. After reading the book, Talley went to the lecture to come ”full circle” and hear Coates speak.
“I really related a lot to [the book],” Talley said.
Coates’ has gained acclaim for his ability to blend political commentary with his personal experience as a black man in America. As a senior editor and contributor for “The Atlantic,” and as an essayist and author, he’s won both the National Book Award and the George Polk Award for journalism writing.
It was Coates’s journalistic work, not his fiction or longform nonfiction, that brought Akirah Wyatt, a 32-year-old Pitt alum who works as a social worker, to the lecture.
Wyatt said she takes “an hour to just pore over” the journalist’s columns. His column “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” has caused Wyatt to apply Coates’ observations on race in America to how she cares for her patients, especially other black Americans like herself.
When Coates took the stage at about 6:45 p.m., after a heartfelt introduction by his longtime friend and Pitt English professor Yona Harvey, he started with some brief remarks on the power of word, and especially poetry. He wrote poetry during his time at Howard University, with Harvey, but said it was mostly awful.
Still, he relates what he learned about writing from his peers and from the poets he was reading during that time to his work now.
“Poetry is the essential idea of trying to control words on the page, trying to say as little as possible and at the same time, to get the maximum emotional impact,” Coates said, before continuing, his hands clapping together with each word, “Make people feel it.”
Then Coates put his own lesson on display in a 20-minute reading from a new project. The piece is a work of fiction about three slaves in the Antebellum South who decide to escape.
One of the characters, an older woman mused, “I have spent most of my life a slave, and will spend the last on that running game.”
After finishing the excerpt, he was greeted with a half-minute of applause. He briefly rubbed his eyes and rehydrated, before quieting the crowd.
“One of the weird things is when you write, it’s like abstract for you … you feel yourself kind of trying to conjure something up,” he said. “And then when you read it it’s like, ‘Oh sh*t, this is happening.’”
After the reading, the floor was open for questions. Most kept to his writing process, or focused on “Between the World and Me.” Because the lecture was part of Pitt’s writers series, when Coates did try to teach lessons, they were usually directed toward writers in the room.
“I’m saying this to you, but I have to say it to myself too,” Coates said. “The joy for me, at the end of the day, is when I go back to that page … and I go to work on what’s next.”
Elizabeth Birra, a Pittsburgh resident and retired French teacher, thought the talk was ”magnificent” afterward, saying she “couldn’t have been more proud if it was [her] own son.”
Birra, married and with adult children, thought Coates stood apart because of his astute observations and clear voice. But her admiration for Coates is simple: “Because he is a proud black man.”
Despite Birra’s feelings, Coates’ attitude was humble. When one person asked him for advice about pushing through writer’s block, Coates was hesitant. He claimed he might not always have the answers to “fix someone’s life” with words.
“People think you sometimes have something to say to the world, but you might not,” he said. “Sometimes all you had to say was in that book.”