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Ta-Nehisi Coates On Writing: "You Can't Know It All—But You Can Be Brave"
Arts and Pop Culture | May 07, 2013

Ta-Nehisi Coates On Writing: "You Can't Know It All—But You Can Be Brave"

"You simply can't know everything, and you can't always be right," Ta-Nehisi Coates says of being an opinion journalist. "But you can be honest and you can be brave." In his Atlantic columns (one of which, "Fear of a Black President," earned him a National Magazine Award), Coates presents an original and perceptive voice on politics, culture, and society. Jis poignant writing on his blog has also earned him a spot on TIME's list of the 25 Best Blogs in the World. Despite his success as a writer, he admits to having only scratched the surface of the many hot-topic issues he covers. Coates says that's because there's so much academic analysis out there that it's sometimes difficult to whittle it down.

"I'm working on a story right now that is rooted in the racial wealth gap and New Deal era public policy—mostly housing policy," he explains. "One of the problems with writing about racism is that even though the public is shamefully ignorant of its effects and its foundational role in America, academics have produced reams of excellent research on the subject." Writing a well-researched and influential article on a topic so broad with so many complexities requires a knack for knowing what to include—and, almost as importantly, what to exclude. "At the end of the day, the writer is charged with sifting through a great deal of information and deciding what to present," Coates says.

In his writing, Coates tackles both small, personal questions as well as sweeping, historical ones. While he may have more digging to do on some of today's hard-hitting subjects, his writing is erudite and thought-provoking. His columns and his critically hailed debut book, The Beautiful Struggle, show evidence of his passion for learning and his ability to span disciplines to give a clear picture of the issues at hand. On stage, Coates draws from his influential body of work and caters his subject matter to his audience. While he may not know it all, he certainly knows enough to appeal to a wide array of listeners. Coates says you can't know everything, but you can be brave in telling what you do know. And, according to a glowing review of his work by the New York Times (who called him "a brave and compassionate writer who challenges his readers to transcend narrow self-definitions and focus on shared humanity"), he has succeeded in doing exactly that.
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