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About the time of the publication of his previous book, Between the World and Me (2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates became one of those rare personas in our culture: a public intellectual. Some of his followers might argue that that distinction was achieved earlier, when he began publishing lengthy essays about race in The Atlantic. Whatever time it was, Coates has become a figure frequently interviewed and listened to—probed by others about his opinion on current issues—one of the most important being our last sane leader: President Obama. Coates’ feelings about the man have often been critical, or at least ambivalent, but clearly his insights into Obama’s accomplishments and failures are also profound, especially when the man is looked at as an emblem of what our country no longer represents. It should be no surprise that the sub-title of Coates’ current book, We Were Eight Years in Power, is An American Tragedy.
Both parts of the title have a dual meaning. Thomas Miller, a black congressman from South Carolina, spoke the words in 1895: “We were eight years in power. 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.” But, then, whites saw what black people could do, and took it all away from them. Negro success needed to be undermined or soon black people would be asking for the vote. Negro achievements would need to be curtailed—white supremacy needed to be restored. Most of us are familiar with the awful result: the reign of Jim Crow, thwarting whites’ greatest fear: Negro respectability.
It’s totally logical to connect Jim Crow to Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. “Trump did not spring out of nothingness but from the eight years of crazy, from the hawking of Obama-waffles to shouts of ‘You lie,’ from WHITE SLAVERY banners to Obama-phone plots, from chimpanzee memes to watermelon-at-the-White-House jokes. The former Speaker of the House John Boehner claimed Obama had ‘never had a real job’—and he was said to be one of the sane ones. Newt Gingrich called Obama the ‘food-stamp president’—and he was said to be one of the smart ones. I can’t say I knew white people would elect Donald Trump—and that is who did it—but I did not put it past them.” And that after one of the most dignified men ever elected President, with an administration virtually free from scandal, and a man who basically could never talk about race because he knew that white people would not have tolerated it.
We Were Eight Years in Power is basically a compilation of the eight, often-lengthy essays that Coates published in The Atlantic during the years of Barack Obama’s presidency, interwoven with an introductory passage for each of the eight essays. The latter describe Coates’ earlier life when he struggled to be a writer and his astonishment when he became successful. And the essays—that are often quite historical, since Coates realizes that so few Americans are familiar with our country’s own history—run from one about Michelle Obama, to an essay titled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” to an essay on Malcolm X’s legacy, to the three major essays exhaustively researched and published during the final years of Obama’s presidency: “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” and “My President Was Black.” Read in this order, they also demonstrate Coates’ growth as a writer/public intellectual, whose closest antecedent (as many people have recognized) is James Baldwin. I read several of these essays when they appeared, often in shortened form in The Atlantic, but the second time around I recognized even greater depth and honesty in their analysis of our country’s original sin: racism.
“The Case for Reparations”—clearly the most threatening essay in the volume, i.e., threatening to white people—is also an ironclad argument for why those reparations (misunderstood to be only for slavery) are justified. After years of what whites believe have been continual handouts for black people, “black people [are still] at the bottom of virtually every socioeconomic metric of note.” “White households are worth roughly twenty times as much as black households,” and “whereas only 15 per cent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do.” Historically, black poverty has not been the same as white poverty. The problem is what “America has taken from [black people] over several centuries.” Coates calls it plunder; historically, our entire system has privileged whites over blacks, effectively resulting in “affirmative action…preferential treatment of whites.” Slavery, Jim Crow, preferential housing and better education for whites: “American prosperity was ill gotten and selective in its distribution,” built on white supremacy.
The segue to the next essay, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” ought to put the nail in the coffin. Racism, Coates says, is nothing more than “banditry.” Police shootings of black people, lengthy prison sentences for black people, the astronomical rates of black people in prison ought to be cause for concern for all of us, but since they are built out of white fears of black people they are not. The entire prison system has been built on “compounded depravation.” The goal has been pretty obvious: destroy the black family. Although this analogy appears in the epilogue to the book, it serves just as well as a stark reminder of white affirmative action which results in black incarceration: “Black people suffer—if it can be called that—because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry. And so an opioid epidemic is greeted with a call for treatment and sympathy, while a crack epidemic is greeted with a call for mandatory minimums and scorn.” Blacks have always suffered, whites only recently.
The final essay, “My President Was Black” and the epilogue that follows, will no doubt be read by Trump’s supporters (should any of them read the book) as threats and/or statements from fantasy land, beginning with a statement from the second section: “For eight years Barack Obama walked on thin ice and never fell.” Coates admires Obama’s early decision to become part of the black world—instead of a more privileged role he could have chosen, i.e., work and marry someone white. That choice garners his pure admiration. But, sadly, Obama as President underestimated his opponents and their resolve to destroy him. (Think of Mitch McConnell). What eventually elected Trump was the “eight-year campaign” against Obama. And this sentence may be the saddest in the book: “The election of Donald Trump confirmed everything of what I knew about my country and none of that I could accept.”
So what we’re left with is a white supremacist so ignorant of the office and unprepared for it intellectually that his security briefings and reports have to be delivered to him “in picture book form.” That makes total sense, however, if you regard Trump himself as a comic book character, with followers who show equal ignorance about our country’s history, its constitution, its inherent racism. His election (“a triumph of racism”) was empowered by “cultural resentment and economic reversal.” And the tragic result: a second American tragedy, just like the earlier one, designed to keep black people in their place.
The truth we encounter in We Were Eight Years in Power is a little like unexpectedly getting knocked over by a steamroller. We are accustomed to euphemisms, taking around issues, and rarely being honest about them because reality is too often painful. We understand that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ unvarnished picture of America’s cancer has threatened to destroy us in the past. We are less comfortable admitting that the disease still resides within us, that our future is just as precarious as the past.
This is a book you should read and ponder.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @LarsonChuck.