Award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking to students at Hofstra University Thursday, stressed the importance of voting and being an engaged citizen ahead of the midterm elections.
“Voting is the least you can do to be an informed citizen,” Coates told about 900 college and high school students, faculty and members of the public who filled the Toni and Martin Sosnoff Theater at the John Cranford Adams Playhouse. “It’s very, very important that you think of voting as the beginning of a larger process of engagement. You have to take the first step, you have to vote, but I don’t think you should just stop with voting.”
Coates’ program helped kickoff the university’s Hofstra Votes civic engagement campaign, which focuses on educating members of the campus and surrounding community to register and vote on Election Day, Nov. 6.
“When you don’t vote, you vote,” Coates said. “There’s no not voting. Your lack of voting is a statement.”
Voting and getting local representatives involved in issues of importance is vital, he said, adding that “progressive change in this country needs to come from the bottom.”
Coates is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the 2015 National Book Award for “Between the World And Me,” in which he addresses issues pertaining to culture and identity. He is also a former national correspondent for The Atlantic, and writes for Marvel Comics’ Black Panther and Captain America series.
On Thursday, Coates discussed his life growing up as a black man, the current divisive political climate, and the state of racism in the United States.
“We live in a country where a young brother was sitting in his apartment minding his own business and a cop came in and shot him,” he said, referring to the shooting earlier this month of a Dallas man. An off-duty police officer has been charged in his death.
Grassroots activism ensures that the names of those killed by gun violence re not forgotten, Coates said.
“The ballot box is where you make your choice between the options presented to you," he said. "The engagement that happens before and after the ballot box is when you get to affect what those options actually are.”
Jaloni Owens, 20, a public policy major and senior at Hofstra, said she really appreciated Coates' emphasis on activism. Having a speaker like Coates on campus helps “open a dialogue to people who are not listening to black students or the few black faculty that we have," she said.
The presentation resonated with Uniondale high school senior Carl Antoine, 17.
“Growing up in Uniondale, I’ve seen some people, friends, die from shootings,” he said.
“As a young African-American living up in New York, I believe that this event helped me see where I can be,” Antoine said. “I can basically grow up and basically become whatever I want.”