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Ta-Nehisi Coates On HBO Adaptation Of 'Between The World And Me'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The 2015 book "Between The World And Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates was an intimate letter between a father and son about being Black, being a man, being American.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

ANGELA BASSETT: (As character) In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body. I'm sorry that I cannot save you. I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief, bright life in struggle.

CORNISH: Now it's been reimagined for television. It's on HBO, adapted by Kamilah Forbes. Actors, including Mahershala Ali and Angela Bassett, present the author's words as part of a kind of visual essay, their monologues mixed in with a collage of historical photographs, news clips and hip-hop. When I spoke with Coates about the HBO special, I asked him why he wanted to bring his words to the screen.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, I watch Courtney Vance and what he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

COURTNEY VANCE: (As character) I delivered food for a small deli. I was trying to be a writer...

COATES: You know, he's not something that I can put in the book or we know how to do myself, much less illicit, you know, as a director or anything. Like, I just - I don't have those powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

VANCE: (As character) Everyone has a story. Here's mine.

COATES: You know, and then you - it contrasts with that very bracing moment when Breonna Taylor's mother...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

TAMIKA PALMER: It was about 11 o'clock the next day.

COATES: Tells you very matter-of-factually - I think that's how you say it, I think - what happened to her daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME")

PALMER: And I said, where's Breonna? Why won't anybody say where Breonna is?

COATES: You know, I just - I love books. Books are an intimate, direct, one-on-one experience, but it is, again, necessarily limited. You know, I was certainly aware and have been aware for, you know, all my literary career that there are moments when a certain Black and almost always male voices, you know, become the, quote-unquote, "spokesman for a community." And even before "Between The World And Me," that was not a space I really was interested in occupying. You know, I didn't write "Between The World And Me" saying, this will explain to America what it's like to be Black.

CORNISH: So was it weird for you to see this past spring, essentially another crop of works that were being forced to do that work? - meaning, coming out of what I jokingly called the awokening (ph), a lot of people rushed out to bookstores to actually learn this lesson that you're talking about, which is what it's like for Black America, and thought that they could do that through their books.

COATES: I felt bad. I felt bad. I definitely felt that there was an entirely different crop of writers - you know what I mean? - who were being asked to carry something. And non-Black people and white people write best-selling nonfiction or fiction all the time, and it's not meant to assume the entire weight of a struggle. That's a tough thing for a writer, intellectual artist or whoever to carry. And frankly, it's too much, you know? If I read another piece or see another piece telling me what's wrong with Robin DiAngelo - oh, my God. Lord. Like, really? Really? Really? And that's not to take - you know what I mean? - to say that, you know, life is really - it's great or not. That's not really the point. But really? Really? Does it demand that outsized response? Really? You know what I mean? Or Ibram Kendi's work - you know what I mean? The amount of it - I mean, it's just - I think it's way, way out of, you know, proportion. You know, no one should have to, you know, carry that much.

CORNISH: Now, it's one thing for Coates, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner, a public intellectual, to carry that burden. It's another thing, I asked, about that being carried by everyday Black Americans who may have found themselves on the receiving end of exhausting questions about race and racism this summer.

COATES: It's never fun to be a Black person in that position, to have to, you know, explain, you know, ways - effectively, all your years of life experience to somebody else. The curse of power is that the person who is in power and who enjoys privilege always, always knows less about the person who lives under the weight of that privilege than the people who are actually, you know, under it. The slave always knows more about the master than the master knows about the slave. That's what I'm trying to say. And so what are you to do if you're in a privileged position and you decide that, you know what? - I actually do want to know more about this person's life? Well, you've got to ask. You got to ask. And, you know, this is weird to say, but - and maybe I should just speak for myself. I am sympathetic to sincere people who have been - or who, rather, have inherited the burdens of power. That's a strange way to think about it. But there's an ignorance that comes with that. And people asking sincerely - I want to emphasize that - sincerely, you know, to be assisted in unburdening themselves of their ignorance, you know, I think deserve a charitable greeting.

CORNISH: Did you find sincerity in that national moment?

COATES: Yeah, I did. I did. I think when a 75-year-old white man stands up in front of an advancing phalanx of Buffalo policemen in full riot gear and they push him to the ground and bust his head open, that's pretty sincere. I think that's pretty sincere. You know, when I see folks organizing for - you know, to honor the memory of Elijah McClain and play the violins and the police just, you know, show up and brutalize - when I look out and the majority of those people are not Black, I think that's sincere. The question is, is it enough? It's probably not enough (laughter). But again, you know, like, this is what we asked for. We ask people to listen. I am happy to see that. It just doesn't mean that it's the end of the conversation or the end of the war or anything like that. But it's a moment. It's a moment.

CORNISH: In the ways that this has gone beyond the issue of policing, in the ways people are starting to talk about racism or institutional racism, is that a different kind of progress? Or do you see anything in that of value?

COATES: I think what has legitimately changed is there are significantly more nonwhite people and specifically Black people in areas of power in the world of media, culture and arts. And so I think what is changing is the story America tells about itself and how it tells it. I think that's definitively changed. That's clearly changed. I think that's a very, very real statement. And I think the very fact that, you know, HBO is, you know, airing, you know, this special is a statement of what has changed in relationship, you know, between Black people and the media and the arts. That's a statement on how much things have changed.

CORNISH: Ta-Nehisi Coates - the screen adaptation of his book "Between The World And Me" is on HBO now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.