Lessons from Ta-Nehisi Coates: the power of memory and the luxury of forgetting

In the midst of his opening remarks for the second keynote address of this year’s Phil Lind Initiative, Dr. Phanuel Antwi, paused, looked out to a large, lively and racially diverse Chan Centre audience and said, almost in shock: “This crowd looks good.”

Since 2015, the Phil Lind Initiative’s annual dialogue series organized by UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs has welcomed prominent U.S. intellectuals to UBC to facilitate conversations on contemporary global issues. Focusing on Blackness as an experience that has critically influenced social iconographies, this year’s series, Thinking While Black, inspires speakers and attendees to consider Blackness as a manifestation of both culture and modes of thought.

A sold out mass trickled into the Chan Centre, filling each seat and leaving behind a stand-by line that snaked through the rose-garden — those trying their luck at any remaining spots to even simply overhear murmurs of the evening’s speaker: Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Author of bestsellers The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, Between The World and Me and The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s portfolio seems endless. A distinguished writer, professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and the current author of the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America, Coates undoubtedly deserved the admiration that greeted him at the Chan Centre. Nonetheless, Coates refuses to let his accolades inflate his ego in a manner that is not so much humble as it is unexpectedly confident.

“In my home, I’m leading Black dad,” said Coates, resisting not only the title of Leading Black Public Intellectual but mocking the title of Leading Black [fill in the blanks with any noun you can think of]. This refusal to build one’s esteem on specific moments of fleeting prominence was one of Coates’s many shared wisdoms.

As a writer who continuously explores contemporary race relations, Coates provided insightful awareness on the Black experience in North America and guided a collective reframing of preconceived notions of race and injustice. Employing his artistic ability to create new myths and conceive of new vocabularies, Coates restructures core beliefs into those suitable for contemporary thought — ultimately dismissing stagnant historical ideals.

“The facts are only but so important,” said Coates, speaking on the power of fictional stories to represent and inspire social change.

In Coates’ view, Black Americans occupy a pragmatic space in political elections as intergenerational trauma dictates political decision-making processes. Coates referred to Black people as having the power of memory and lacking the luxury of forgetfulness — a community unable to distant themselves from their collective past.

Continuously reiterating a belief in the unfortunate need for a cataclysmic event to shift notions of racial power imbalances in America, one theme remained prominent in Coates’s dialogue when speaking about himself, his role models and American Black communities in general: the underlying fragilities intertwined with American notions of Black masculinity creating “hurt Black men with hurt ideas of what it means to be a Black man.”

In this search for a robust institutional support towards Blackness, the 2020 Phil Lind Initiative prompts a melange of vulnerability and expression that is often disregarded by conventional silencing and the upholding of limited, homogenous mentalities. Thinking While Black is the start to a progression towards inclusion that develops under the work and wisdoms of those such as Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Phil Lind Initiative’s Thinking While Black series will continue until March 24th at the UBC Chan Centre.