ta-nehisicoates
Photo: Ilana Wurman

Hundreds of students, faculty and Philadelphia residents gathered at Irvine Auditorium on Nov. 1 to attend the annual Higginbotham Memorial Lecture featuring writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of the 2015 book “Between the World and Me,” was a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, more commonly known as the “Genius Grant." He is also the author of the Marvel Comics series, “Black Panther.”

Though the event was part of Coates’ tour for his new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” he discussed subjects ranging from President Donald Trump to the Civil War and Bo, the Obama family's pet dog.

“Trump is professionally stupid,” Coates said, receiving a laugh from the audience. “You cannot convince me that someone who was black and that politically unqualified would even make it as governor,” he continued, “if Donald Trump was black he wouldn’t have made it off the block.”

Photo: Ilana Wurman

Coates’ new book, and much of the discussion during the event, revolves around the black experience in America during the Obama administration. Touching on the double standards that he identifies between Obama and Trump, Coates argued the 2016 election would have played out differently if Trump weren’t white and male. 

Hosted by the Center for Africana Studies and Penn Law School, the event began with introductory remarks by Penn Law professor Dorothy Roberts, followed by statements from Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett and Dean of Penn Law Theodore Ruger. Director of the Center for Africana Studies Camille Charles and Coates sat down for a 40-minute conversation, which was followed by four questions from audience members. 

Roberts emphasized the “urgency and timeliness” of the event, referencing recent comments by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and said conversations about race are especially relevant in the current political climate. 

Pritchett emphasized the need to strive to be more inclusive on campus and nationwide. 

"How much work is there left to be done?" Pritchett asked. "There's Goddamn plenty."

At one point, Coates said that “white people are crazy,” citing the fact that a majority of white voters voted for Donald Trump and recent arguments over Civil War monuments as evidence. 

College freshman Mariko Lewis said this message resonated with her. 

“As a black Penn student, I really understand that because I feel like when I’m in the classroom, I can’t say something crazy,” she said. “I have to put my best foot forward in a way, if I’m in any social situation.” 

Coates also talked about privilege in America, and how his race and gender inform his world view. 

“I’m privileged by the fact that I’m able to attend Penn, but the fact that I’m a minority makes me a targeted identity,” College freshman Simran Chand said.“That dichotomy of our identities is really important to embrace and understand and I think he put that in context really well.”

Temple University sophomore Anthony James also attended the talk, and said he felt Coates talked about things black students don’t always feel they can voice. “I think what I viewed today was cool because it was a real look on what I think on what mostly black students may think of, but don’t say out loud," he said. "It kinda was somebody else saying it for us.” 

Lewis said she noticed the audience was primarily black, and she hopes more white students will attend future events. 

“The more privileged people that hear his words and just words similar to that will be more open-minded, and that creates a better climate on campus,” Lewis said.

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