Author Ta-Nehisi Coates is delivering the Charter Day address at Howard University on Friday morning, although on Wednesday evening, he still wasn’t sure what, exactly, he’d say.
No worry, though. Howard is home — family — for the award-winning writer, and in such situations, words rise up naturally to convey what is bone-deep and as tangible as the body itself.
And Coates “loves” Howard University.
“I plan to give thanks to the university,” he says over the telephone. “I will probably talk about my friend Prince Jones . . . and talk directly to the students about how blessed they are.”
(Jones was a fellow student fatally shot in 2000 by a Prince George’s County police officer, whom a jury later held responsible for his wrongful death.)
Coates sees Howard as a great resource for students and the country.
“That four years you can ensconce yourself and think about who you are in the world and be trained and, to the extent that it’s possible, protected from the kind of assault you get from racism and white supremacy . . . God, that’s key,” he says.
Charter Day marks March 2, 1867, when President Andrew Johnson signed the document establishing the school. Like many other black colleges, it was born shortly after the Civil War, when black churches, abolitionists and others mobilized to educate a population of slaves for whom learning to read was illegal.
Howard’s annual celebration includes Friday’s convocation and a megawatt fundraising dinner Saturday at the Washington Hilton. It’s the school’s top fundraising event.
In announcing that Coates would speak Friday, University President Wayne A.I. Frederick said, “Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to use his talents to inspire others as well as elevate racial, political, and social consciousness and discourse in this country and around the world.”
Coates, 40, didn’t graduate when he attended Howard in the mid-’90s, but he offers passionate testimony of what he got from being there. He wrote about it in his book, “Between the World and Me,” an essay written to his son to explain the hard truths about being a black man in the United States. The work also quickly became a must-read for many, including whites. It earned him the National Book Award for nonfiction. Coates, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, was also named a MacArthur Fellow last year, an honor that also brings a hefty check.
His path, he says, was set at Howard. It was there that he met black people from around the globe, where he would skip classes and spend all day sometimes reading in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
“There’s probably some statistic that says I would have probably earned more money had I been able to go to a Harvard, but I wouldn’t trade what Howard gave me for the world,” he says. “Howard trained me intellectually.”
Its list of luminaries is too long, but Coates does a decent job of listing a few.
“You can’t really imagine black political and literary tradition without Howard University. You can’t imagine that without a Thurgood Marshall at Howard Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston,” he says. “You can’t really imagine a literary tradition without Toni Morrison, without Amiri Baraka, without Zora Neale Hurston. These are giants right here.
“Say nothing about Ossie Davis and Lucille Clifton, who came through and dropped out.” He laughs. “Hopefully one day you’ll be able to put me in that conversation. Not just yet.”
Those traditions, he says, “should be treated seriously. . . . They are some of the most important aspects of American history and American culture.”
He’s aware, too, that historically black colleges and universities, which serve a significant number of first-generation college students, are facing financial strain. Many, including Howard, are working to increase alumni giving.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that he was financially able to give even a modest amount, Coates says. “Being a writer, it’s dicey.”
Of course, that’s all changing. He and Jones’s mother, Mabel, a doctor, have set up a scholarship in Jones’s name at Howard, he says. He contributed $20,000 initially and plans to help continue to grow the fund.
“I’m setting my life up,” says Coates, “but Howard is going to be a huge part of that. Howard is going to be, like, my thing.”
Those are words any university would love to hear.