OCTOBER 14, 2017
IN 1998, when the impeachment of Bill Clinton seemed like the moral bottom of the nation’s civic life, the Lutheran religious scholar Martin Marty wrote of his hope for the restoration of our democracy. In The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good, Marty argued not for the unreachable goal of a shared national narrative, but of a more generous national discourse, in which “every story well told, well heard, and creatively enacted will contribute to the common good and make possible the deepening of values, virtues, and conversation.”
The essays gathered in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, demand that we see the black-American experience as not incidental but central to the founding stories that makes America possible. Coates lucidly synthesizes centuries of intellectual ferment to explain why the United States is still shackled in the 21st century by the plunders first committed in the 16th. The meaning of the “We” in his title is as fraught as the term “black American,” and simultaneously as capacious as the hope to atone for the country’s great original sin. “Perhaps we, as Americans, could elide the terrible history, elide the national crime,” he writes. “Perhaps it was possible to think of black people as a community in disproportionate need, worthy of aid simply because they were Americans in need.”
Coates is speaking of the collective redemption imagined possible through the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first black president. But the book is also an elegy for the passing of that period of potential reconciliation: “I shouldn’t have put it past us,” he writes of the American capacity to elect a white supremacist like Donald Trump. Obama’s great genius was his ability to weave multiple stories into a message of redemption, accomplishment, and, of course, hope. There was not just one black-American story to which Obama claimed to be heir, but multiple conflicting stories, a complexity this book recognizes.
The first essay in Eight Years considers Bill Cosby’s organic black conservatism — a kind of up-by-the-bootstraps sermonizing Coates compares to the “straighten up talk” President Obama would often deliver to black males on their graduation from college. Coates is no fan of such rhetoric, as he made clear to Obama himself when invited as a guest to the White House — an incident covered in the penultimate essay in the volume, “My President Was Black.” What fascinates Coates most about Obama is the president having “decided to become part of” the black-American experience, despite having the relative luxury of an immigrant background (Kenyan father) and white-American privilege (Kansan grandparents). In “American Girl,” Coates argues that it was Michelle Obama’s “remixing black America into another ethnic group on the come-up” that allowed us to buy “Barack Obama as the answer to America’s racial gap.” That is, Michelle’s middle-class, Chicago blackness — as foreign to Coates as Barack’s Kenyan heritage — gave President Obama the social gravitas to speak to black and white America alike. The unique nature of Obama’s story also begets, Coates argues, a certain naïve trust in white folks that makes him, and the rest of us, blind to the oncoming train of Trumpism. But it was this naïveté that made Obama’s story possible in the first place.
Coates’s writing is consistently nuanced and precise, always limited to what the writer can pull out of his own story, out of another’s, out of the archives, or out of a database. He is an exhaustive researcher whose footwork would shame many academic historians. His long-form essays anchor Eight Years; providing a seminar on essential Americana, they deserve the hard backing. Until reading this volume, I realized how limited my real knowledge of Coates’s corpus was. Even as a long-standing admirer, I hadn’t contended with it, probably because I’d read his journalism online without real engagement with his primary sources. For example, in researching his essay “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?,” Coates becomes a self-professed “Civil War buff,” puncturing James M. McPherson’s and Woodrow Wilson’s sweeping memorializations of the era with a deft deployment of archival research, memoiristic observation, and visits to the war’s battle sites.
Several intimate reflections on Coates’s life are included here, and they are worth the cost of the book by themselves. In his essay “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” Coates presents the slain Muslim militant’s story of self-creation as a predecessor to Barack Obama’s ascetic self-discipline and self-narration; yet in the short memoir piece that precedes this article, Coates bemoans what he sees in hindsight as a “strained” parallel. Confessions like these are the most delicious bits in Eight Years. They provide a too-rare peek into the processes of a first-rate mind conversing with itself and of a man writing his way to greatness. I have hardly ever found a professed humility so enjoyable, a self-revealing so lacking self-regard.
In his previous book, Between the World and Me (2015), Coates narrated his early practices of writing, cultivated by his mother during his childhood, as acts of self-interrogation. Coates has described becoming “politically conscious” as a state of being, a constant questioning:
[Q]uestioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty. […] I devoured the books because they were rays of light peeking out from the doorframe, and perhaps past that door there was another world, one beyond the gripping fear that undergirded the Dream.
He started a blog in early 2008, with support from his partner and his father. For a handful of posts a day, his father paid him a small stipend. Even in times of great emotional struggle, during which he felt himself to be a strain on their relationship, his partner supported him unflinchingly, suggesting he write more, not less. They were both “united in a desire for [their] lives to mean something, to devote [themselves] to something more than simple survival, to engage in struggle.”
This “struggle” is Coates’s moniker for the burden to counter the inequities produced by the legacy of plunder that made the United States possible. Coates affirmed that, as a writer, he was “part of a tradition stretching back to a time when reading and writing were, for black people, the marks of rebellion.” He writes of mustering the gall to call himself a journalist and see himself as an artist. He writes of the “defiance of the terror radiating from the blank white page” as well as the terror of an overdrawn checking account. His support network alone does not explain his rise. For Coates, writing is “me in motion, thinking matters through.” The struggle to get something right, to get to the bottom of things, is a singular joy that he pursues with indefatigable zeal — an energy present throughout this collection.
We see his artistry morph and develop in the long-form essays themselves. By 2014, when he writes “The Case for Reparations,” his prose is popping. Not only does he have the legitimacy of The Atlantic to talk about a taboo topic, but he has also found his footing as a formidable thinker on the page. His incessant quest for satisfaction in truth drives him to marshal the evidence that changes minds, especially his own.
Threads in this decade of writing provide a prescient, if nauseating, explanation for Trumpism. In brief, there was no Trumpian “rise” so much as a grim coagulation of the United States’s legacy concerning its dark-skinned peoples. A central theme in the book is the danger that “good Negro government,” originally a heritage of the truncated Reconstruction, posed to American whiteness. In fact, the echo of the South’s rejection of Reconstruction is what Coates hears in the United States’s choice of Trump to succeed Obama. The Obama administration threatened whiteness with its respectability, by the “ease with which black people could be fully integrated” into American life at the highest levels.
Coates writes of Shirley Sherrod, one of the first victims of Obama’s political expediency, who was fired from the Department of Agriculture after being targeted by right-wing media for allegedly making racist remarks about poor whites. Sherrod agreed to be interviewed by Coates “only with great trepidation” because she “didn’t ‘want to do anything to hurt’” the chief executive responsible for caving to right-wing pressure and removing her from her post. In another essay, Coates excavates the myth of liberal policy darling Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York senator infamous for his propagation of a racist, sexist myth about the black family. Another essay recounts the Lost Cause of the Confederacy as a story told by descendants of Confederate soldiers, a tale Coates summons black folks to answer by telling their own stories and thereby lifting “the burden of moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.”
This rare summoning on Coates’s part betrays something of his role as an American public intellectual, a role that he says he had no plan or desire to inherit. Indeed, he bemoans the role as a kind of preposterous curse. He does not want to be a “performance-prophet,” or a doctor of social ills, limited to diagnosing only those illnesses that he can “immediately and effortlessly cure.”
This book will not provide all of us with resolutions to the United States’s woes. But it is one essential modern work for a complete understanding of the American democratic process, because it is central to American storytelling. The story of Obama’s blackness helped loft him to the presidency, but it also contained the seeds by which his promise was ultimately stymied: it set the ceiling on his accomplishments; he never even managed to convince his hardcore opposition that he was even born in the United States, much less succeed in curtailing the racial oppression of the American justice system. Coates’s zealous pursuit of answers, and thereby of questions, is exactly the kind of self-driven reckoning of which the United States needs more.
Perhaps we are past the point of repair in this republic, and Marty’s call to discourse for the common good no longer matters. Or perhaps it matters more than ever. On the page, Coates flutters like Muhammad Ali because in his research he works like Joe Frazier. Here is writing as thinking, writing as pugilism, writing as storytelling and sense-making, writing as the beautiful struggle.