Ta-Nehisi Coates celebrates release of ‘The Water Dancer’ at Chicago Humanities Festival


Luke Murphy / The DePaulia

Ta-Nehisi Coates (left) with Hanif Abdurraqib (right).

Speaking to a full auditorium of nearly 1,500 people at Evanston High School this past Friday, Oct. 4, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ohio-born poet Hanif Abdurraqib engaged in a dialogue that covered a wide array of topics ranging from rap music to the Civil War, to Coates’ writing process and more. The occasion prompting Coates visit to Evanston, his second FAN (Family Action Network) event at ETHS, was the release of Coates’ new book “The Water Dancer,” released Sept. 24.

Coates, born in Baltimore in 1975, rose to prominence following the release of his 2015 book “Between the World and Me,” winning the National Book Award for nonfiction. The book, written as a letter to his future teenage son, dealt with the realities of being African-American in America. The author also gained wide acclaim for his work with The Atlantic, publishing pieces of journalism that have routinely garnered millions of views, with his best-known piece, “The Case for Reparations,” becoming a monumental piece of 21st-century nonfiction journalism. Coates also published nonfiction books “The Beautiful Struggle” in 2008 and “We Were Eight Years in Power” in 2017.

For Lonnie Stonitsch, executive director for the Family Action Network, having Coates back for a FAN event was a no-brainer after the success they had pairing up in 2017.

“He asked if he could come back to FAN to do an event when the new book was published,” Stonitsch said. “We had hosted him two years ago for the publication of his book ‘We Were Eight Years In Power,’ and he said to us at the time it was the best event of his tour. A clip from the Q&A session went hugely viral with tens of millions of views and he just really liked how we ran the event; he liked the vibe.”

The talk, often poignant, often funny and consistently engaging, judging by the reaction of those in attendance, began with Coates standing at a podium and speaking before transitioning into his conversation with Abdurraqib and an audience Q&A session.

“My goal coming into this was to make this as interesting as possible because I know we’ve both probably sat through a lot these that are not that,” Abdurraquib said at the beginning of his dialogue, which was met with knowing laughs.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the night happened just a few minutes into the evening as Coates discussed the Amber Guyger trial that had just wrapped up in Dallas, where Guyger, sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder of Botham Jean, was given a hug and a bible from Texas judge Tammy Kemp and Botham’s brother Brandt Jean after being convicted.

“One of the reasons why I wrote ‘The Water Dancer’ is because I thought, even in the literature of enslavement, I am not convinced we always come off as human beings,” Coates said with a purposeful pause. “And that inability to come off as human beings has consequences even today. It is the reason why you can walk into somebody’s apartment and you can shoot them down while they’re eating a bowl of ice cream.”

“The legal system can claim that you have ‘castle doctrine’,” Coates continued with regard to the Guyger case. “As a buddy of mine said, everywhere white people go is their castle. And then, when you’re convicted, people give you hugs and they give you bibles. Now listen, [with a] family member grieving, they can process however they want, but when you see officers of the court doing that, stroking your hair.”

Ultimately the night was about Coates’ new book, with a highlight coming when Coates was asked by Abdurraqib, in reference to the main character of “The Water Dancer” having an ability to remember everything except his mother, “How you arrived at not just magic, but that particular magic, and the idea of memory? … Of having a character who in some ways has a superpower of memory, and you live in a country that is so eager to forget its own history.

For Coates, the roughly 80-minute conversation was the sixth stop on his tour. In the next month, the author will make trips to a total of 14 cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, New York and Miami. However, when the press tour winds down and Coates is back home, he made one thing clear: He can’t wait to get back on his laptop and do it all again.