History & Politics

Forward Press

As a Vietnam vet, former Black Panther, and father of a literary superstar, Paul Coates has lived a life reminiscent of the great literature he publishes.

Paul Coates has lived a rich life, but enter his name in a Google search and not much comes up. Sure, you’ll find that he’s the father of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the famed writer and intellectual, who has occasionally examined their father-son bond in his writings. But those accounts belong to the son, not the father. Dig a little deeper and you’ll probably find mention of Coates’ time as leader of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s and his connections to several controversial figures. But again, very little of the information is firsthand. 

Persevere further and you might discover that Coates is the founder and director of Black Classic Press and BCP Digital Printing, one of the nation’s leading publishers and distributors of literature by and about members of the black diaspora. The press is celebrating its 40th year in 2018, and, during those decades, it has resurrected and distributed texts by seminal African-American scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois, J.A. Rogers, and Carter G. Woodson; published fiction by contemporary writers such as Walter Mosley; and championed little-known histories of ancient African societies. 

But even though one of its goals is to rescue forgotten or overlooked black figures from obscurity, you’ll find nary a biographical sentence about Coates on the business’ website. Obscurity may not be okay for others, but it suits Coates just fine. 

“I came from on the corners talking,” Coates explains. “One of the things that I fell into early on is I wouldn’t spend a lot of time talking. ‘They will know you by your work.’ It’s one of them things. I don’t like to talk unless there’s something to say.”

Sitting in his office, which is located in a nondescript office park in Arbutus, Coates cuts a thoughtful, professorial figure. The rhythmic hum of printers resounds through the walls as he parleys and reflects on a life that has had few constants, save literature.

“The largest preoccupation with my time is reading,” he acknowledges. “I get immense pleasure. It’s comparable to sex. Almost.”

Coates was born in 1947 in West Philadelphia to Douglas Cryor and Edna Coates. Cryor was a violent alcoholic who fathered at least 14 children with several women, including three sisters. As a result, Coates grew up with aunts who also doubled as stepmothers. His neighborhood was equally chaotic. His refuge was the nearest library, where the young bookworm plowed through comics, crime novels, and history titles. At the earliest opportunity, he quit high school and joined the Army.

“The service gave an option to see the world,” he says. “It [also] had to do with the military feeling safer than being on the street. You talkin’ about friends getting shot down.”

His time in the Army was uneven at best. He faced nonstop harassment and racism. One incident, a run-in with a fellow soldier, changed his life forever.

“I’d had a conflict with a Native American guy who folks used to call Chief. One day Chief . . .  calls me nigga . . . so we get to rollin’,” he says. “We got separated, [and] I’m really upset. I went into [a] room, where I paced. I saw this book that said Black Boy. I figure, somebody’s f—–’ with me. I ended up . . . going back to my room and reading it.”

Black Boy by Richard Wright is a memoir detailing the author’s early life in the Jim Crow South. For the first time, Coates had found a book that spoke to his experience as a black man in America. It was an awakening.

“It occurred to me that this was a whole genre,” he says, gesturing as if holding a book.

From there, he discovered the works of black writers such as Malcolm X, Dick Gregory, and James Baldwin.

In 1965, Coates was sent to Vietnam, where he worked as a military policeman in a K-9 unit. He served 18 months, and was discharged in 1967. While at war, he corresponded with his sergeant’s niece, a Baltimore woman. Soon after his return from Southeast Asia, he relocated to Charm City and married her. By 1968, Coates was living in Cherry Hill with a wife and child, and he had procured a job as a baggage handler at what was then Friendship International Airport.

Then, as now, the city was a hotbed of racial strife and poverty with trust in law enforcement at a low ebb, particularly in black communities. Coates, newly socially aware, sought to do his part for Baltimore. He began volunteering in a community breakfast program run by the Black Panthers, the legendary black nationalist and socialist organization that was created in 1966 to witness interactions between the police and citizens and address economic and social inequality. Though he was not then a member, Coates shared many of the group’s ideals.

“I admired what they stood for. I wanted to be identified with that,” he says.

His affiliation with the Panthers—however initially tenuous—was not without risk. Then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panther Party a national threat and directed undercover agents to infiltrate its chapters. This adversarial dynamic led to the shooting deaths of several Panthers and law enforcement officers across the country. Gradually, pressures mounted on the Panthers, internal divisions grew, and some party members turned on each other, resulting in more homicides. The party dissolved in 1982.

In 1970, Coates, still not yet a member, found himself caught in the middle. He was helping several Panthers load rifles into his car—a legal act then and now—when police swarmed and arrested everyone. Tensions had been running high in the city because a police officer had just been murdered and three local Panthers were charged—spuriously, some said—with the crime. Coates suspects the raid was an attempt by law enforcement to intimidate the Panthers and drain their financial resources.

“There was no basis for them to arrest us,” Coates says, noting that the guns were for self-protection and unloaded. “There was nothing wrong with transporting guns. We were concerned that the police were going to come and kill us. We did not want to die like that.”

About a week later, Coates and the others were released on bail. Shortly thereafter, John Clark, the leader of the Baltimore chapter, was taken by a bail bondsman to California, where he faced outstanding charges. Clark’s absence left a power vacuum in Baltimore, giving rise to internal disputes. Coates reported the group’s status at regional Panther headquarters in New York.

“They asked me who was left, and I told them, ‘Nobody.’ They said, ‘Nobody but you.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not a Panther.’ And the brother looked at me and said, ‘You a m—-f—–’ Panther now!’ I didn’t want to do it. I had a family. The last thing I wanted to do was be in charge of the Black Panther Party.’”

Reluctantly, he became defense captain of the Baltimore Black Panthers, managing all activities in Maryland.

“We started a free clothing program [and] free food programs. We’d help people with their rent. Whatever the pain was . . . we would try to intercede,” Coates remembers.

He also ensured that the Panthers, who preached a philosophy of armed self-defense, maintained a physical presence wherever blacks felt threatened.

“I never will forget; a woman from Dundalk was afraid to go to the store because she was harassed by white folks,” he says. “We sent folks down there to make sure she didn’t get f—-d with.”

Coates emphasizes that, contrary to popular misconception, the Panthers were not anti-white. In his view, capitalism was the great evil. It brought about racism, which resulted in oppression.

“The last thing I wanted to do was be in charge of the Black Panther Party.” 

“The people who benefit the most from manipulating those factors are the people who control the lines of capital. [They] bring the most pressure to bear on blacks, such as myself, and even whites,” he says.

In the winter of 1971, as legal troubles put pressure on imprisoned Black Panther members, Coates traveled to the Panthers’ Oakland headquarters for help. It would be a momentous trip.

“I’d gone to California to get aid for the guys who were in jail,” he says. He pressed to speak to the leadership, but to no avail. Disillusioned, he vowed to leave the group.

“When I came back, I was no longer with the party,” he says. “[But] the people that were in jail in Baltimore, including Eddie Conway, I still felt responsible for.”

Marshall “Eddie” Conway was one of three Baltimore Panthers convicted in 1971 for killing Baltimore police officer Donald Sager. The case against Conway, who has always maintained his innocence, rested largely on police testimony and circumstantial evidence. Conway was released in 2014 after an appellate court ruled his jury had been given faulty instructions. He and Coates remain close.

“I’ve had, over my 44 years [in prison], people come and go. I could always, no matter what, depend on Paul,” Conway says, speaking from the offices of The Real News Network, where he is a producer and host. “That was one of the things that kept me stable because, obviously, in the middle of prison there’s so much instability . . . Without his support when I got out, my life would have been a lot different than it is now. We’re brothers.”

It’s mid-October and Coates strides through his printing factory, books stacked high on shelves, ready to be boxed and shipped. The efficiency and solidity of the operation belie its humble beginnings, which can be traced back to an initiative Coates developed with other activists in 1972 called the George Jackson Prison Movement. The idea was to bring progressive and Afrocentric literature to inmates in an effort, as Coates says, to “retrieve the souls and minds of the incarcerated.” The program was run out of a bookstore Coates owned first on Pennsylvania Avenue and later on North Avenue called The Black Book. By 1978, the store had closed and the program had morphed into Black Classic Press. BCP Digital Printing followed in 1995.

Coates says Black Classic Press’ largest milestone came in 1997, when Walter Mosley, a black novelist known for crime writing (including the award-winning Devil in a Blue Dress), granted it the domestic and foreign rights to his latest novel, Gone Fishing.  

“He wanted to do it with an independent black publisher,” Coates explains. “We’re very good friends.”

Though Coates knows he has made an important cultural contribution, he has never made a fortune. Most of the company’s revenue—some 90 percent, Coates estimates—comes from the digital printing side, which churns out fliers, posters, brochures, and the like for clients ranging from libraries to online customers.  

“We have to print a lot of stuff . . . so Black Classic Press can be the voice that it is,” Coates notes. “But brother, you’ll know us through our actions—and that’s the way it is.”

Coates’ acceptance of this stems from the fact that, more than 40 years after leaving the Panthers, he holds economic views similar to those he held as a revolutionary.

“I think of myself as a communalist . . . One of the first things we did was organize ourselves as a union. I hold that the principles of unionism are closer to the fair view that I have of community,” he explains.

For Coates, family is at the center of community. He used the G.I. Bill—which paid veterans to attend college—for income while working toward a bachelor’s degree from Homestead-Montebello Center of Antioch University, later to become Sojourner–Douglass College. He then earned a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University that he would put to use working in Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where he would comb the stacks for out-of-print black literature. Another perk of this position was that his children received reduced tuition. Coates is the biological father of seven children by four different women. Two were wives and two were women in the Panthers. He is currently married and has two additional adult children through this marriage, bringing his total brood to nine.

“My family is the family I created,” he says simply.

All of his children—Kelly, Jonathan, Malik, Menelik, Ta-Nehisi, Darius, Jared, and Damani and Kristance, who both work at Baltimore Classic Press—have earned their father’s pride. Ta-Nehisi, of course, is the most widely known, writing for The Atlantic and receiving—among a host of other honors—a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2015. When asked about Ta-Nehisi’s success, Coates answers with cautious approval.

“As long as he’s not doing it to convince the world he’s cool. He comes from a tradition, and he is very connected spiritually to that tradition. That’s what gives him the power that he has. It ain’t that I raised him,” he says.

That said, Coates does think he made at least one important paternal contribution.

“I think I’ve opened up a path that all of my children have an awareness and a curiosity. I have absolutely accomplished that . . . with the help of their mothers, their grandparents, [and] the help of the community that helped to raise them,” he says.

Leading the way out of the factory, Coates points to the framed art bedecking the office walls and hallways. The array includes a portrait of Ta-Nehisi, African-themed paintings, and other works created by some of his 10 grandchildren.

“I’m connected to a tradition of black people speaking for themselves,” he says. “That’s what gets me up in the morning! I’m clear on why I do this. I’m real clear what I’m responsible for. That’s what Black Classic Press is, brother.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier draft of this article said that Coates’ father, Douglas Cryor, fathered children with three of his sisters. He did not. He fathered children with three women who were sisters. The article has been updated to rectify the error. Baltimore regrets the error.