October 6, 2017
NY Times Book Review: “We Were 8 Years in Power”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “We Were Eight Years in Power” has yet to come out, but it’s already generated a storm of discussion. The Atlantic ran an excerpt; conservatives went on the attack; George Packer, a highly-regarded and left-leaning journalist who got caught in Coates’s cross hairs, issued a rebuttal. A new book from Coates is not merely a literary event. It’s a launch from Cape Canaveral. There’s a lot of awe, heat, resistance.
The simplest way to describe “We Were Eight Years in Power” is as a selection of Coates’s most influential pieces from The Atlantic, organized chronologically. The book is actually far more than that, but for now let’s stick with those pieces, which have established Coates as the pre-eminent black public intellectual of his generation.
It’s not an accident that these reported essays span the years of Barack Obama’s presidency. “Obama’s presence opened a new field for writers,” Coates writes, “and what began as curiosity about the man himself eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home and all the old, fitfully slumbering questions he’d awakened about American identity.”
Coates was one of the first to show up to discuss all three of these themes: The man, the community, our national identity. He critiqued respectability politics. He wrote about mass incarceration. He wrote about Michelle Obama and Chicago’s South Side. He wrote about how Barack Obama was exceptional, in many senses, and about the paradoxical limits of the first black president’s power to address race and racism. He wrote about the qualitative difference between white economic prospects and black economic prospects, thanks to discriminatory policies promulgated by the government even during progressive times, and about how, in his view, reparations would be the only way to redress the problem.
Coates often discussed matters of race in a way that many African-Americans wished Obama could have.
One of the book’s most persistent, recurrent themes, a shuttle that flies through the loom, is that black progress is always met with a violent backlash — the modern apotheosis of which was the election of Donald J. Trump. Most of these pieces force a reckoning with ideas that people, mainly whites, avoid contemplating or reject or insist (sometimes rightly) are more complicated: That American democracy was predicated on an enslaved class of Africans; that most white Americans still can’t tolerate the idea of equality; that acknowledging the many legacies of slavery is too much to ask of most whites, because it would disrupt our conception of our country and ourselves.
Coates provokes and invites argument. He’s had a rich life as a blogger, and one of the ways he’s learned — he’s not shy about noting he’s an autodidact — has been through his many followers. It’s as if he’s still carrying on the conversation in his magazine stories.
As indispensable as his voice is, he might well have been crowned “America’s best writer on race,” as one newspaper put it, prematurely. Simply reading and name-checking him came to feel sufficient for some white readers, preventing them from consuming other African-American voices with different points of view and different readings of history.
But taking in Coates’s essays from start to finish is still a bracing thing, like drinking a triple scotch, neat.
Perhaps an even more compelling reason to read “We Were Eight Years in Power” is for the new material Coates has written. He introduces each magazine story with an essay that serves not just as connective tissue, binding one work to the next, but as meta-commentary, reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s italicized re-reflections in “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.” He calls each one “a kind of extended blog post,” offering a glimpse into what he was thinking and feeling when he wrote the article that follows it. You see in these mini-essays the same mixture of feelings that saturated his two previous works, “The Beautiful Struggle” and “Between the World and Me”: pessimism and vulnerability, mistrust and melancholy, anger and resignation. You realize they must inform, to some degree, his outlook and his journalism. “I had no expectations of white people at all,” he writes at one point.
His disposition also informs his reaction to the experience of sudden celebrity. Coates was dogged by feelings of failure and inadequacy even after he published his first story for The Atlantic, which landed with a splash and a whorl. (“My chief identity, to my mind, was not writer but college dropout.”) As his fame grew, he started getting invited to the White House, and he would leave those visits in a fug of self-doubt. The first time, he thought he had “failed” to get his points across to Obama; the second, he feared he had argued with the president too theatrically. “I was trying to prove to myself that I would not be cowed or seduced by power,” he writes. “It was ridiculous.”
More confusingly to him, white liberals started to bathe him in praise. Throughout his career, Coates had strained against writing anodyne pieces that would soothe the white conscience. What was “The Case for Reparations” if not an argument that sorely tested the imaginations of whites, arguing for “ideas roundly dismissed as crazy”? Yet still he was anointed. It’s a position he finds uncomfortable, which may explain the weariness one periodically sees in Coates’s appearances before largely white audiences, when they come seeking assurance and he responds with all the encouragement of a slamming door. “What if there was no hope at all?” he asks. “Sometimes, I said as much and was often met with a kind of polite and stunned disappointment.”
This is where Coates obviously parts company with Obama, who campaigned on the very notion of hope and the perfectibility of America. Obama still seems to believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. With Obama’s election, Coates briefly allowed himself to entertain the same belief. He was quickly disenchanted. It’s clear he now believes this arc, at best, reaches an asymptote — that dastardly dotted line it can never quite touch. And even that’s probably too optimistic a reading.
One can understand this point of view and deeply sympathize with it. But there are times when Coates seems to unwittingly complicate it. When he writes that he realized, after living in France, that he was lucky not to have been born there — “It is, I think, the very chaos of America that allowed me to prosper” — one wishes he would reckon with this idea for more than a paragraph.
In the election of Trump, Coates sees an affirmation of his bleak worldview. “To Trump whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power,” he writes in the final essay here, recently published to much attention in The Atlantic. “Every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist,” Coates writes. “But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.”
In their quest for affirmation, it’s true that human beings have a depressing capacity for selective listening. Some white voters without a college education, Trump’s most overwhelmingly enthusiastic constituency, took his racism far less seriously than they should have, or just overlooked it — and those are the best-case scenarios. Others privileged their anti-abortion beliefs above all else, or their fealty to the Republican Party, or (in a different vein entirely) their hatred of Washington, hoping to shake the Etch A Sketch and start anew. Or they thought Hillary Clinton was a criminal and moral degenerate.
But I would add that many of us can listen selectively — including Coates. In the first piece in this collection, he recalls the exhilaration of attending the Million Man March organized by Louis Farrakhan. “For us, Farrakhan’s opinions on the Jews mostly seemed beside the point,” he writes. “What stuck was the chance to assert our humanity and our manhood by marching on the Mall, and not acting like we were all fresh out of San Quentin.”
He had to hold contradictions in his head in order to allow himself to get swept up in a moment led by an inflammatory figure. Some Trump voters may have done the same.
It is to Coates’s credit, though, that by the time you’re done reading “We Were Eight Years in Power,” you also see what he does — namely, that far too many whites are overlooking what is so plainly staring them in the face, and that America couldn’t have a black president without boomeranging back to its ugliest self.
Hence Coates’s subtitle: An American tragedy.