Early in “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ third book, he writes, “[t]here is a notion out there that black people enjoy the Sisyphean struggle against racism. In fact, most of us live for the day when we can struggle against anything else.” However, as he explains throughout these pages, black Americans struggle out of fear for their and their children’s lives; they struggle to avoid their feelings because “to actually consider all that was taken, to understand that it was taken systematically, that the taking is essential to America and echoes down through the ages, could make you crazy.” Coates’ writing emerges from this struggle while articulating a way of holding this madness at bay aesthetically and intellectually.
With “We Were Eight Years in Power” Coates returns to the literary center quickly on the heels of his PEN- and National Book Award-winning “Between the World and Me.” In July 2015 when his book-length essay appeared, Coates had already been built a strong reputation for his provocative efforts on the Atlantic’s electronic and paper pages and his excellent 2008 memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle.” Across his oeuvre, Coates’ prose style and literary prowess are hip-hop sharpened: he believes in the art of dexterous reference, potent, lyrical critique and political storytelling.
With a line from Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents II” as the new book’s epigraph, Coates reveals his belief that black life is central to any analysis of American experience or history: “We don’t just shine, we illuminate the whole show.”
Made up primarily of nine essays originally published in the Atlantic from 2008 to 2017, Coates has arranged this new volume to showcase his abilities as an essayist and a memoirist. Whether studying Michelle Obama from a distance or interviewing Bill Cosby over lunch, weighing the life and influence of Malcolm X or calculating the economic and psychological devastations that mass incarceration wreaks on black families, Coates couches his analyses in a synthesis of investigative and reported journalism, African American studies, political science, sociology, literary criticism and American history.
Coates fronts each piece with context-shaping, prefatory narratives. In total, the personal writing develops a portrait of the artist: first, as a young man in a Harlem unemployment office, then as a burgeoning blogger identifying his subjects, and finally, as a critic whose magazine publications have become socio-literary events. Of note, I think, is Coates’ willingness to describe openly the precarious financial straits he and his wife, Kenyatta, navigated as he sought steady employment. Few writers discuss money matters. Coates, however, writes about his lack of income in order to narrate a feeling that many working class and ethnic Americans striving for careers in the arts likely recognize:
“This focus on money must seem strange, if you have never been without it, and it still must seem strange if you have been without it before, but think of the world of writing, as I once did, as some hallowed place beyond the reach of earthly difficulties…. And more, my chief identity, to my mind, was not writer but college dropout, which meant I had already forgone the one safety net my parents had urged me to secure. ‘College dropout’ means something different when you’re black. College is often thought of as the line between the power to secure yourself and your family and the power of someone else securing you in a prison or grave. I was, by then, seemingly well beyond the grasp of the streets. But at night, I would see myself falling, not just into poverty but into shame.”
While the writing charts Coates’ rise from shame to cultural power, the essays’ publication dates parallel the years of Barack Obama’s two terms as president. Obama’s 2008 election spurred Coates to imagine that “white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime.”
But his attitude shifted in 2012, as he writes in his essay “Fear of a Black President,” when Obama addressed publicly George Zimmerman’s fatal assault of Trayvon Martin. Obama entered the national discourse on blackness, the political third rail he’d avoided throughout much of his first term. Pledging to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened” to Martin, our first black president actualized the nation’s fundamental ironies: “For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts — one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.”
Though many pundits claimed Obama’s presidency would signal America’s turn toward becoming a post-racial society, Coates explains that Obama’s blackness “demonstrated integration’s great limitation — that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld.” Many black Americans read Obama similarly, and the community “quietly seethes.” Even in the highest political office, they recognized, black folks had to confront what Coates calls “this fraudulent equality.”
Their anger rose because black people experience facets of American public life as a system rigged against them while white Americans dismiss their realities as fabricated and false. Both this disadvantage and disbelief are elemental components of white supremacy, Coates argues in “The First White President,” his recent, incendiary essay about Donald Trump and the white supremacist attitudes of the American political class. Appearing as the collection’s epilogue, this essay contends, among other things, that white supremacy ensures “that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (and particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification.”
Coates is very good at detailing how systems operate, as he proves in his strongest essays, “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” But he’s also proven his disinterest in offering improvements, upgrades or plans for debugging the machinations that produce injustice, structural racism and inequality. Once upon a time, Coates “imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body.” But his studies have illustrated that white supremacy is pernicious, intractable and essential to the nation’s identity.
Here, one feels the forceful impress of James Baldwin’s intelligence. In his 1969 essay, “The Price May Be Too High,” Baldwin argued that white Americans hadn’t been able to “conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.” While hip-hop gave Coates his “earliest sense of what writing should mean,” Baldwin showed him that writing must generate “the reflex to strip away illusion, to break away from dreams.” Baldwin echoes throughout Coates’ thinking in the same way that James Brown breaks echo throughout the depths of hip-hop’s Golden Era.
Coates departs from Baldwin in his disbelief in hope as a powerful intellectual and spiritual tool. As far as Coates is concerned, neither religious hope for future, heavenly redemption (or fire sign of damnation), nor political hope for justice, parity, or self-determination will dismantle belief in whiteness as the American ideal. Unwilling to offer fixes for or hopefulness in the face of white supremacy, the American prison industry, redlining, reparations and good ol’ racism, Coates’ work has been called bleak by critics and readers alike.
However, given that Americans seem to have a penchant for keeping certain citizens in second-class tiers, eradicating or otherwise diminishing the civil rights of women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and people of color, keeping them from participating easily in electoral processes and redlining Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans into weak economic districts distant from actual political power, don’t we all own this bleak history and the consistent iteration of these practices in contemporary American life? I think that Coates’ work explains that the onus for change falls on those who perpetuate, benefit from and shield white supremacy.
Coates isn’t a literary aberration; nor is he simply a Baldwin acolyte. Even as an unemployed, wannabe writer, Coates understood himself as a member of a lineage: “I was a writer and felt myself part of a tradition stretching back to a time when reading and writing were, for black people, the marks of rebellion.” In other words, Coates hasn’t been and isn’t alone in interrogating the American milieu shrewdly, passionately. To my mind, Coates is part of a necessary cipher of extremely gifted freestylers — say, Isabel Wilkerson, Carol Anderson, Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, Kiese Laymon, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Junot Díaz, Jaquira Díaz, Jelani Cobb — writers who break away from the dream, rhyming improvised verses over the Baldwinian beat: “Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.”
We’re now living in a political era when these arguments must be aggregated alongside those made in other ethnic American groups. Though each group has its own historical trajectory, they all hold white supremacy as their common opponent. Black American resistance to white supremacy becomes sharper and more potent when blended with Latinx and Native American resistance narratives. And vice versa. The DACA Dreamers and those members of the Black Lives Matter movement who entrenched themselves alongside the Sioux at Standing Rock last winter recognize and practice this truth. Reading American life through Coates’ lens these last eight years has forced his many readers (myself included) to improve their own habits of reasoning and skills for argumentation. As the best critics do, Coates draws us into conversation, into argument, rather than closing off discourse with canned proclamations or static resolutions.
Coates’ title, which appears to refer to the wonder, weirdness and disappointments of the Obama years, derives from Thomas Miller’s speech at South Carolina’s 1895 state constitutional convention. “[T]wo decades after his state moved from the egalitarian innovations of Reconstruction to an oppressive ‘Redemption,’” Coates explains, Miller, a black state congressman, attempted to persuade fellow legislators to return to the post-Civil War efforts to rebuild South Carolina as a politically and economically just society rather than maintain the revanchist political policies that recreated slavery but called it another name. “We were eight years in power,” Miller said. “We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the rode to prosperity.”
When W. E. B. Du Bois studied South Carolina’s 1895 state constitutional convention, he noticed that arguments made for wresting control from black politicians — “moral reform,” “purge the state of corruption” — were merely “cover for the convention’s true aim — the restoration of a despotic white supremacy.” Coates offers this narrative in his introduction, so that by the end of “We Were Eight Years in Power” we can hear the Jim Crow South echoing loudly in the Trump administration’s calls for reform, purge and moral order. Here, Coates’ deft historical sampling might also offer us ingredients for crafting our collective rejection of white supremacy: “What is needed now is a resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil — even in the service of warring against other evils…. I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and even war finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal — a world more humane.”
Muyumba, associate professor of English at Indiana University-Bloomington, is the author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.”
One World: 400 pp., $28