Back in April, ESPN’s Bomani Jones flew to Paris and spent two days with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the seismic Atlantic cover stories “The Case For Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” and the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me. The resulting Playboy Interview, part of our first-ever Freedom issue, was published online yesterday. Jones, who’s written for Playboy.com on pop-culture figures as wide-ranging as David Bowie and Bill Cosby, was kind enough to give us a glimpse at his time with Coates—from the effects of rapid fame to the challenges of ordering dinner in French.
Read on for a a behind-the-curtain look at our July/August Interview.
When you got to Paris, what surprised you based on what you knew about Ta-Nehisi Coates?
I think the most surprising thing about him is the balance between the confidence he has in his ability and that he always seems to be in touch with failures he’s had in the past. Not that those failures stop him, but from having experienced those failures, it almost necessitates him to not be afraid of them anymore. Life involves having to do a lot of hard things you might not be good at, and that really seems to drive him. Just because you’ve done one or two of these things that have gone very well, that almost necessitates having to do the comic book because that’s not easy.
That’s something that really shines through in the interview: his duality between being very assured but also extremely aware of his weaknesses and surprised by his success.
There’s a thin line between self-awareness and insecurity, and he seems to be comfortably in the middle of that line. The fact that the modesty wasn’t false was really striking. You get to the point where you’re like, Oh wow, this is really it; this person’s reached these heights that he’s never really thought about. He enjoys the work that he does but the fame that’s come with it really seems to shock him.
Do you think that celebrity has changed him?
I think he acknowledges that there are certain things about moving up in class that are more comfortable and he appreciates, but I never got the feeling that it changed him. His sensibilities, perhaps, but not him at his core. I think this happens when you reach a level of fame in your thirties or early forties. You know who you are already, so the adulation and all the things that comes with it—if you never sought those things before, they’re not really going to change you.
You mention in the intro that he’s incredibly friendly guy with a generous laugh, but there were also moments of discomfort.
Well, I think there was a certain level of discomfort because even though he recognizes his failures, that doesn’t mean he’s excited to talk about them. And I think that’s counterbalanced by a certain level of discomfort with the praise he’s received. I got the feeling that sitting around talking about himself is not something he really enjoys.
Do you think the setting of Paris affected the conversation? Would it have been different if he had come back to the states for it?
I think a big thing about talking in Paris was that it decreased the connection he had with our insane election cycle right now—being away from it and reading about it, but not being inundated with it all day long. And because he talked about the ugly nature of being in a place where you don’t know the language and you’re trying to learn it and that he feels like he’s always losing, I wonder how much that puts you in touch with your recognition that not everything you do is going to go the way you want.
When I walked in, I did a very businesslike handshake and messed up the dap hug that he was expecting.
What was your take on Paris, outside of the Interview?
The experience in Paris I noticed, even before I talked to [Coates], was that it’s interesting to be observed first as an American before being observed as being black. I could tell that very, very quickly. I could also tell that the reputation the French have for being rude was overstated. I found as long as you give it a try with the language, they were very appreciative and very helpful in spite of the fact that they spoke my language far better than I spoke theirs, and I’m in their world.
What about in the restaurant; was he talking to the staff in French?
Yeah. The restaurant is actually across the street from his apartment. So he and the cook, I assume he owned the place, had a bit of a rapport. It was interesting to see him speaking in French because you could see the translation in his head taking it from English and turning it into French. But he was very comfortable in the place, and the gentleman who owned the place was very comfortable with him being there. He seemed very comfortable being in Paris.
Did he want to pick your brain about sports?
Just a little bit, not so much. I get the feeling that he enjoys sports, but he’s not consuming it at a molecular level like most people who want to talk to me about those things. One interesting thing was how many times he would make a reference back to me in talking about something. Even when we were talking about him, there was a “Hey, let’s talk about you” element that, for a lot of journalists, is the natural inclination. You’re not accustomed to being the subject. I found him to be friendlier than I expected to the point that, when I walked in, I did a very businesslike handshake and messed up the dap hug that he was expecting. I was expecting him to be like, “Oh, here’s someone sent to interview me.”
Was there anything that you were extra reluctant to cut?
We talked a bit about Trump, but not really that much at the time. I don’t think there’s an in-depth discussion for him to have because he sees the Trump thing as very simple to understand and to grasp. So it doesn’t really behoove you to talk that much about it.
Are there parts of the interview that you sensed people would jump on once it was out? Anything you were expecting Twitter to blow up about?
I think it will be a certain segment of Twitter, but the stuff he said about Charles Murray and Andrew Sullivan I found to be the most interesting. “The African’s right to be wrong is sacred” was a fascinating one because it’s true. He said that, when he says something is crazy, they something is Harvard, which I think is a very profound thing to bring up about what room you have to say things off the cuff, and if you’re wrong, what room you have to recover. So I think a lot of that will catch people’s eyes. And I think the stuff about Hillary because I think that was a pretty strident critique.
So what stuck with you above and beyond anything else when you left Paris?
As someone who has gotten knocked down a lot on the way to where I was, I find myself very much struck by the way he’s been able to absorb all of this. Things about hero worship and idolatry that he thought were crazy before they happened to him, he still finds to be crazy. It’s easy to be super left-wing until your taxes get too high, right? And this is one of those people who gets all that money and says, “Well, these taxes are still my fair share,” and rides it out. I think that’s what struck me above all else: that we’re at this point and he still can’t believe it’s happened either.