We Were Eight Years in Power: American Tragedy – Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have read 40 books this year.  This one was the best.  You should read it.

If you are a White liberal and you think you know what “identity politics” means and are very clear about why you think it’s a “distraction” from “more pressing economic concerns,” I implore you, as one who used to be among your number, to read this book and let it change your mind.

I say that as someone who had read some the essays collected in this volume.  At the outset,  I was wondering whether it would be worth my time.  I had read “The Case for Reparations,” sort-of/very quickly (because of screens) read “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” “My President was Black” and “The First White President.”  So I figured I’d either skim or skip those essays, and just check out the new parts.

Once I read the first few pages I changed my mind.  Coates has placed interstitial notes between the eight essays that make up this book; he says they’re like blog posts, about his personal history, the evolution of his celebrity, and life in American from 2008 to 2016.  The first of those notes, which explains the title – a reference to Thomas Miller, a black South Carolina congressman from the era of Reconstruction – deftly ties this time to that, and serves as a biting overture to what really builds to a devastating conclusion in the Epilogue – “The First White President,” one every bit as condemnatory and potentially hopeful as the book Coates here (in one of the interstitial bloggy things) professes to have inspired so much of his work, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

In that section – “Notes from the Seventh Year,” Coates deft describes the effect Baldwin’s actually pretty short book, comprised of the essays “Letter to My Nephew” and “A Letter from a Region of my Mind,” had had on him, and the challenge that book posed to Coates himself, as follows:

I found myself again talking about Baldwin and the beauty of what he’d done in The Fire Next Time.  I talked about how I’d read the book in one sitting and the challenge I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion, meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.

There are two essays here that haunt me in that way, but both in a way much different from the way Baldwin’s do.  Is-he-or-is-he-not-the-next-James-Baldwin is not a very productive game to play ultimately, and Baldwin’s voices is prophetic, and, I think anyway, Christian in a way that Coates, a avowed atheist, does not strive for.  But I see what Toni Morrison (yeah, she’s the one that made this comparison popular) is saying.

The first time I read “The Case for Reparations,” I felt my entire moral understanding of what it meant to be White in America drastically shift.  I wanted to find every White person I knew, sit them down, make them read the text word for word, and not let them leave until they had acknowledged its truth and vowed somehow to change their ways.  I still feel that way, which is one of the reasons why it, and Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew” are the first things I make my (mostly White) AP Language and Composition classes read – right there at the start of the year, when they’re still keyed up enough to read what’s assigned for homework just because I said so.

And “The Case for Reparations” is the intellectual, journalistic and historical backbone of this book.  I think having read it before allowed me to understand so much of what Coates means throughout this volume when he uses words like “plunder” or “extraction,” his shorthand critique of respectability politics, what he means by “white,” as I encountered them in the other essays.  And it still stands as an epic re-conceptualization of American history.  The first time I read it, I thought, this is what James Baldwin would have written like if he had been a better journalist.  And I say that as someone who loves every word I’ve read by James Baldwin.

But there is so much more here than just a group of essays you might have read before.  Those interstitial passages re-contextualize almost every essay, and I haven’t read them word for word, but it sure felt like they had been edited, expanded, redacted, whatever, in ways that made them feel new.  This felt like listening to an album where I had only encountered singles before.

It’s tough to do justice to my reactions without re-summarizing Coates’s argument.  One way you can get a sense is by watching this interview, from when I saw him interviewed at my high school, by our principal, Dr. Marcus Campbell:

Somehow the essence of all of Coates’s claims was captured in an exchange where he offered a criticism of the phrase “race relations,” like it was just two random groups of people, he explained who just needed to “get along”— no, it’s the relationship between a pirate and those who have been pirated.  Because, he explained, “race” is the child of “racism,” not its father.  The entire construction of “the races,” and the idea that they need to “relate” forgets the history that allowed those designations to be forged: by European colonizers and their social-scientific apologists who build an entire discourse, premised on the idea that perceived physical differences could be built into distinct “races,” so that those we were other than “white” could be dehumanized, and then plundered.  I’m not explaining it half as well as he did.

These essays speak to and about Bill Cosby, Barack Obama, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Malcolm X, Hillary Clinton, and everyone in between.  They take some interlocutors (like Cosby or Moynihan) more seriously than I ever had, and for all the arguments Coates marshals against them ultimately, he maintains a very effective rhetorical balance that lets us take their arguments seriously, making his replies all the more devastating once offered.

That book-long commitment to taking counter-arguments seriously comes to a devastating close in the book’s final two essays.  “My President Was Black” features an extended dialogue between Barack Obama, whom Coates interviewed and quotes at length – like – block quotes you actually end up reading – and then argues for pages and pages.

But for me, the coup de grace came in final pages of the Epilogue.  Coates destroys the explanations of half a dozen exponents of different variants what has started to become the “conventional wisdom” about “what happened” in 2016: yes, Hillary Clinton, yes, Barack Obama, but also Nicholas Kristof, Mark Lilla, and a handful of others.  In so doing, he reaches far beyond the 2016 election, demanding perspective about the entire American project, an act of circumspection that almost makes Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” sound kind and measured.

Reading the final pages of this book, I felt like I was witnesing the political-journalistic- intellectual equivalent of demolition by blowtorch, and as each of Coates’s rebuttals gathers energy, the fire builds upon itself, so that in the final paragraphs, Coates is able to slice open this country’s mythologized self-conception with such an acute lance that I was left speechless for the rest of my train ride this Saturday.  When I got home, I offered to read the final three pages to Brooke aloud, and since she’s my wife, and I get like this sometimes, she listened.  Here they are for you:

The American tragedy now being wrought is larger than most imagine and will not end with Trump. In recent times, whiteness as an overt political tactic has been restrained by a kind of cordiality that held that its overt invocation would scare off “moderate” whites. This has proved to be only half true at best. Trump’s legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with. It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump.

It has long been an axiom among certain black writers and thinkers that while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world. There is an impulse to blanch at this sort of grandiosity. When W. E. B. Du Bois claims that slavery was “singularly disastrous for modern civilization” or James Baldwin claims that whites “have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white,” the instinct is to cry exaggeration. But there really is no other way to read the presidency of Donald Trump. The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.

[This is where the essay ended in the first running, in The Atlantic.  In the book, it continues for three more paragraphs, and this is where Coates, just for a moment, approaches the sweep of both of Baldwin’s two closing paragraphs, in “Letter to My Nephew” and “Letter from a Region in my Mind” – because they were new to the book, I had to type them by hand]:

But not damned by it.  There is nothing done in the service of whiteness that places it beyond the boundaries of human behavior and history.  Indeed, what makes the epoch of Indian killing and African slavery, of “war capitalism,” as Sven Beckert dubs it, so frightening is now easily its basic actions cohere with all we know of human greed and the temptations of power.  There is something terrible in being able to imagine oneself as the plunderer, something discomfiting in knowing that moral high ground is neither biological nor divine.  This understanding does not require a flight of fantasy.  Americans, too, belong to a class–one responsible for and intrinsically tied to a history of torture, bombings, and coups d’etat carried out in our name.  And Trump has only heaped more upon that burden.  In the global context, perhaps, we Americans are all white.

Still there was nothing inevitable about Donald Trump’s election, and while great damage has been done by his election, at the time of this writing it is not yet the end of history.  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.  One must be able to name the bad bargain that whiteness strikes with its disciples–and still be able to say that it is this bargain, not a mass hypnosis, that has held through boom and bust.

And there can be no conflict between the naming of whiteness and the naming of degradation brought about by an unrestrained capitalism, by the privileging of greed and the legal encouragement to hoarding and more elegant plunder.  I have never seen a contradiction between calling for reparations and calling for a living wage, on calling for legitimate law enforcement and single-payer health care.  They are related–but cannot stand in for one another.  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.


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