March 21, 2017
Ta-Nehisi CoatesBy Dave Pemberton

In 2014, University of Detroit Mercy Professor of History Roy Finkenbine received a call out of the blue from author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was working on a piece titled “The Case for Reparations.”

Finkenbine provided Coates with some of his research on reparations, which Coates referenced in his article. The article would go on to receive worldwide attention and what started with a phone call from Coates to Finkenbine developed into a friendship between the two.

Today, Coates is talked about as one of the most original thinkers on race in America.

His’ 2015 book, Between the World and Me, earned him the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction. He was also the recipient of a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation and last year was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”

The friendship between Finkenbine and Coates also helped Detroit Mercy land Coates for a speaking engagement on April 4 at Calihan Hall. Coates will deliver a talk titled “Between the World and Me” at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets for the event are free for Detroit Mercy students, faculty and staff and $10 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased at the Calihan Hall box office. Tickets are general admission and doors open at 5 p.m.

“He did say he felt, which I was willing to take advantage of, he felt some sense of obligation and wanted to come here,” Finkenbine said. “So I talked to him about ways we could make that happen. … He did, and I’m very proud of that, he did think my work was enough of a contributing factor to the middle part of his essay on the case for reparations, that he wanted to come and speak here. I wasn’t going to let that go.”

Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he continues to write about social issues, culture and politics. He’s also a writer for Marvel’s Black Panther comic book. He currently resides in Paris, France, which Finkenbine believes allows him to not only speak on race from his personal experiences in the United States, but also speak from the outside looking in.

“He is able to say in provocative ways a lot of things people in the African-American community are thinking, and issues about race that a lot of people in the broader American community are at least contemplating,” Finkenbine said. “Race has been at the forefront of a lot of our concerns and problems. … There’s a lot of conflict, a lot of division, a lot of disagreement. He’s a guy that can speak boldly to that, speak provocatively to that (and) does it in such a way that he brings his personal and community experiences into it.”

Coates, like many authors and journalists who speak on race, gets his share of negative feedback from all different sides of the issue. Finkenbine believes by attending the event, people can cut through all the noise surrounding Coates’ work and get the raw message directly from Coates.

“Quite frankly, he’s in a long tradition of black intellectuals and activists who have said what needs to be said and they do get attacked from both sides,” Finkenbine said.

“We live in a social media age, where most of what we get is second hand,” Finkenbine added. “So people are passing along things they heard or they’re sharing something that someone else has written. I think just the value of going firsthand is appropriate and important.

“Hearing someone firsthand, you cut through all the filters and all the lenses, and it allows you to think about things free of those constraints that we often have. Let’s face it, if we see someone firsthand, we can empathize with them more and we can approach their thoughts and their ideas and their words more unfiltered and more for their own value. That would serve people to come here for that reason.

Finkenbine is anticipating a large crowd to hear Coates’ speech and encourages everyone in the area to take advantage of the rare opportunity to hear Coates speak.

“Given the importance of what he’s talking about, for people out in the community, $10 for a ticket is a highly subsidized amount,” Finkenbine said. “They probably aren’t going to have that many chances in their life to hear somebody of his intellectual and social importance, dealing with a key American concern. So I’d urge people to come out within the University, it’s a free ticket. The last time we probably had somebody of this intellectual importance speaking in Calihan Hall was Robert Frost in 1962. It doesn’t come along that often. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, take advantage of it.”