Ta-Nehisi Coates connects with SOJC students

Story by Andra Brichacek
Photos by Jack Liu

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ visit last week was a powerful and eye-opening event for many of the nearly 5,700 students, faculty, staff and community members who packed the Knight Arena to hear him speak on a rainy Friday evening.

Coates signs copies of his books for students.
Coates signs copies of his books for SOJC students.

For Coates, it was his fifth and final talk on a five-day tour of universities around the nation. And for the many UO students who have been reading and discussing “Between the World and Me” in classes and the Common Reading program since this summer, it was a fitting culmination to a year that’s been fraught with controversy, changes and questions on campus and across the nation.

Of all the students who came out to see Coates’ talk, however, his visit may have had the biggest impact on a lucky few in the School of Journalism and Communication, which sponsored the Ruhl Lecture through its Robert and Mabel Ruhl Endowment with help from the Hearst Foundation for Visiting Professionals Endowment and the UO President’s Office.

Robert W. Ruhl, publisher and editor of the Medford Mail Tribune, was a Pulitzer Prize winner who, like Coates, used his pen in service of social justice.

“In the 1920s, Ruhl waged an editorial battle with the Ku Klux Klan and won,” said the SOJC’s Edwin L. Artzt Dean Juan-Carlos Molleda. “He was not afraid to speak out against injustice.”

Coates’ first stop when he arrived on campus Friday afternoon was Allen Hall, where he interacted with 150 SOJC students he met in a question-and-answer session moderated by SOJC Instructor Lisa Heyamoto and Carolyn S. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising Deborah Morrison.

Senior journalism student Meerah Powell said she appreciated Coates’ forthrightness. “One of the things I found interesting and specifically relevant to Eugene and the UO were his thoughts on ‘white guilt,’” said Powell, who wrote the recent Eugene Weekly cover story “Black by Unpopular Demand.” “‘Between the World and Me,’ though emotionally evocative and important, is not a platform to guilt all modern-day white people into thinking they're responsible for slavery. It's a realistic look at life as a black man in America. If you’re applying it to your own ‘guilty’ experience, you might be missing the point.”

Following the Q&A, Coates attended a private student reception with 25 SOJC students. At the small gathering, members of the student group Combined Culture, which has publicly released a number of videos on controversial social issues ranging from school shootings and racial profiling to sexual assault, presented a gift to the guest of honor.

Coates answered questions at a Q&A with 150 SOJC students in Allen Hall.
Coates answered questions at a Q&A with 150 SOJC students in Allen Hall.

“I tasked the team to read ‘Between The World and Me’ and bring back their favorite quote and what it meant to them,” said Chandler Carroll, an advertising major who heads up the group. “I curated this into a book called ‘Between Me + You,’ with a cover designed by Stephanie Hastings and layout designed by Tucker Stosic. I gave my friend Cody Galvin a concept for a raw wood box, and we 3D-lasered the Combined Culture logo into the interior of the box with a wave design. After Coates digested everything, he said, ‘Send this to my father’s house.’”

Drake Hills, an SOJC junior studying sports journalism and co-director of the Black Male Alliance, said he and Coates connected through their shared love of writing.

“I immediately sensed compassion and pride in Mr. Coates when he spoke to us in Allen Hall,” Hills said. “I listened to him tell his story and why it drives him to write what he writes. We made a connection through writing, as I am a writer too.”

Hills said the author also asked him what it is like for black students on campus. “He spoke about his time at Howard University and the difference in culture, compared to the UO, and I informed him of the stereotypes black students endure on this campus,” Hills said. “It is common to be asked if I am a student athlete by other fellow students. All students must realize that black students — athlete or not — are here to be educated. We also spoke about the similarities and differences between black students who are athletes and those who aren’t.”

Coates was so affected by his conversation with Hills that, when he finally took the stage to a standing ovation that night, he referred to it in the opening minutes of his talk.

“If you look at the most decorated universities across the country, athletics tend to be a really big cash generator,” Coates said. “Just look where I’m giving this talk right now. … University systems across the country should spend some time thinking about the extent to which the wealth they have accumulated was drawn from black bodies.”

Coates then transitioned to a wider discussion of the many ways U.S. society has extracted wealth from black bodies, beginning in the 1600s with slavery and continuing into the present. Despite the difficult nature of his topic, Coates delivered his message with the authenticity and frankness characteristic of his work.

“He was very genuine,” Hills said. “I appreciated his curiosity and effort to learn about us.”

Andra Brichacek is the SOJC Communication team’s writer, editor and editorial content planner. She has nearly 20 years’ experience creating content for print and online media and has specialized in education since 2008. Follow her on Twitter @andramere.