Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Making of a Public Intellectual

His new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” traces this ascent. In it, he collects articles he wrote for The Atlantic during Barack Obama’s presidency, interspersing them with explanatory, autobiographical essays. The book goes on sale Tuesday, Oct. 3, and already, his book-tour stop at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater has sold out — a far cry from the intimate crowds of his early career.


Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

In the beginning of September, about a month before his book was to be published, Mr. Coates gave a preliminary reading at BLVD Bistro, a soul-food restaurant in Harlem tucked into the ground floor of a brownstone that preserves old-school features like brick walls and a tin ceiling. Mr. Coates stood at the head of the room, in front of a large wall decal of James Baldwin’s face lined with the words, “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.” He wore a white button-down shirt, jeans and blue and white Nike sneakers.

The event was brimming with people close to Mr. Coates: his wife, son and mother; the New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb; Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight”; and Dr. Painter, among others. Mr. Coates was comfortable and relaxed, joking once about the rap music that blasted in through the windows as a car drove by — “That’s so appropriate, being upstaged by Kendrick.” He seemed, in that moment, perfectly settled in between the intellectualism and hip-hop that influenced him, freed from, as he describes in “We Were Eight Years,” “those young years trapped between the schools and the streets.”

When the discussion was opened up to the audience, one attendee, Adrian Hopkins, asked how Mr. Coates advised his son on the subject of political activism. Mr. Coates answered that his own father had been part of the Black Panther…

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