Coming to Terms

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy BY Ta-Nehisi Coates. One World. Hardcover, 400 pages. $28.

The cover of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power collects eight essays published in The Atlantic between 2008 and 2017, padded with fresh introductions. Three meanings of the time period in the title are apparent. The first refers to the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The second, alluded to in the book’s introduction, refers to the eight years of “good Negro government” cited in vain by black congressman Thomas Miller in 1895, as the predominant political climate of the South transitioned, as Coates puts it, “from the egalitarian innovations of Reconstruction to an oppressive ‘Redemption.’” The third, quieter sense in which “eight years” can be understood is that of Coates’s recent rise to prominence: “Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms. . . . I was one of those writers.”

These three overlapping senses of “eight years” offer a loose guide for navigating the politics of this inevitably important, occasionally brilliant, and sometimes infuriating book. On the subject of Obama—whom he describes as “a caretaker and measured architect,” a self-created “symbol of a society that has moved beyond lazy categories of race”—Coates is a critical but still devout fan. The book describes an arc that must be familiar to many: Moved and delighted against his better judgment by the spectacular rise of America’s first black president, Coates was swept up in a version of the then-epidemic post-racial fantasy, only for his dreams to crash into the reality of the structural persistence of racial oppression. This strand of the book is Coates at his most centrist; he believes in (black) America, good governance, broad social programs, and the value of rational, historically grounded argument in public discourse on race. On this last point his faith has not been entirely rewarded: Coates’s description of some plain facts of American history—slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the continuing existence of co-constitutive legislative, symbolic, and everyday racisms directed specifically against black people—has been received by some critics as if it amounted to a declaration of race war, an evocation of mythic demons, or a renunciation of class struggle.

The book’s reality is half-obscured by the accumulated layers of commentary and counter-commentary; it comes as a small surprise to discover on reading Eight Years that this font of controversy is a conscientious reporter not especially given to flights of fancy, who tends to cleave in thought and syntax to the middle of the road. As Johns Hopkins history professor N. D. B. Connolly wrote in a careful analysis of Coates’s essay on reparations, “For Coates, the government clearly remains front and center. . . . There remains . . . a tendency among critics like Coates, presidents like Clinton, and even urban historians like myself to propose modest solutions within established government structures in order to reach the widest possible audience. . . . But I quarrel with the notion that some vague sense of renewal and reckoning is what we need.” Nevertheless, Connolly praises Coates’s abundant talents: “Coates remains practically unparalleled in his ability to ground structural problems in lived experience. His expansive history of white kleptocracy totally kills.” Both aspects of Coates’s work—the deft navigation of a sweeping history of violence and its consequences, and the cozy overreliance on familiar political categories—are on display in this new book.

As the bluntly titled essay “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” makes clear, Coates is more of a nerdy history buff than a fire-and-brimstone revolutionary, and it is history’s rather than his fault that in writing as the former he ends up sounding like the latter. He takes his family on tours of Gettysburg and Petersburg, among other Civil War sites, assessing the relative merits of their respective visitor centers like a conscientious Yelp reviewer. He politely suggests that descendants of enslaved people and descendants of free whites might find different meanings in the memory of the Civil War. He concludes, “White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.” The power of sentences like this is in the striking interaction between the hard truth of the content and the eminently reasonable tone, evidently conditioned by years of work at a mainstream liberal publication.

Paradoxically, it is his commitment to centrist realism and bourgeois measures of achievement that at times makes Coates read as mildly nihilistic, the mildness itself no small feat in these very nihilistic times: “The liberal notion that blacks are still, after a century of struggle, victims of pervasive discrimination is the ultimate collective buzzkill. It effectively means that African Americans must, on some level, accept that their children will be ‘less than’ until some point in the future when white racism miraculously abates.” Equally, white people of all classes and rich people of all races might experience some kind of buzzkill on contemplating the fact that all their ostensibly meritocratic achievements are based on a rigged system that is indifferent not only to the fates of individuals but also to the continuation of organized human life in general. But rather than mounting a critique of racial capitalism as such, Coates often seems preoccupied with the ways that the majority of black Americans have been shut out of the middle-class American dream of home-ownership and professional careers. Toward the close of the book, he mourns “the degradation brought about by an unrestrained capitalism,” but capitalism is inherently expansionist and its lack of restraint may well be constitutive. Of course these are matters of fierce argument, but Coates is more or less on the side of the reformist.

This only feels worth pointing out in a climate of liberal revanchism in which celebrities such as Stephen Colbert have framed Coates as exceptionally pessimistic because he is not able to produce on request a rose-tinted dream of the future out of the bitter ashes of the present. Pessimism and optimism are not intellectual matters but questions of character; readers and pundits anxiously demanding that Coates supply a positive take on the unknowable future are making a fundamentally anti-intellectual request: that he orient his analysis of society around the comfortable anticipation of posterity. But the latter cannot be a given: Our shared world is fragile and subject to happenstance. The demands made of Coates are part of the intense expectation placed on the shoulders of black writers, who are required to operate not only as writers and social critics but as prophets, priests, activists, and policymakers. Many readers are eager for black writers to devote themselves to the question of how to save the world, despite the fact that from the perspective of blackness, some of its fundamental characteristics (its current reliance on highly extractive profiteering, for example) are not worth saving.

EVERYONE’S POLITICAL EDUCATION is necessarily ongoing, and among the most appealing aspects of Coates’s presence in public life is his capacity for learning and growing there. He reminisces fondly about the “electric seminar” that went on in the comments sections of his early blog posts, which led him to a broad range of historians and theorists. He declares himself as much influenced by the late Yale professor Edmund Morgan as by Malcolm X. He is nostalgic for the ways that the smaller, more interactive platform of the blog kept his writing and his thinking sharp: “The blog was a gym, my commenters were my trainers.” Like his more lyrical previous book, Between the World and Me, this is in part a book about writing. We follow Coates through the development of his career at The Atlantic, in eight essays, each corresponding to a year of the Obama presidency. Each has a new introduction, in which Coates describes the circumstances in which the essay was written and offers some self-critique. Few writers of similar status, gassed to high heaven by people telling them they are “important,” would be capable of the gesture.

The self-read feels timely. The current speed and variety of the disaster can quickly render commentary void, and Coates’s new introductions help refresh his arguments and give him a chance to clean up some serious errors of judgment. He was criticized by anti-Zionists for treating Holocaust reparations to the state of Israel as if they were indistinguishable from reparations to individual survivors, and here he attempts an apology: “I was aware that this inclusion would provoke some strong reactions, given that country’s policies toward the Palestinian people. In part I included it because that seeming paradox—that Israel was both worthy of reparations and used those reparations to advance policies that I thought were categorically wrong—did not seem to me to be a paradox at all.” Coates’s intention was to make an analogy between Holocaust reparations to Israel and a hypothetical future financial restitution to black Americans. The comparison reveals a parochial understanding of US politics, with no recognition of either the involvement of the US ruling class in Israeli state violence, nor the ways that Nazi anti-Semitism drew on US racial legislation and concepts for inspiration. Both would add depth to his arguments about the social centrality of anti-blackness. More importantly, Coates’s apology misunderstands the criticism, which is not that reparations should be allocated according to moral perfection, but that the terrible situation of Palestine demonstrates the danger of conflating the concrete experiences of individuals (the Jewish people exiled, disabled, and killed by Nazis) with the abstraction of the nation-state (Israel). Coates himself makes a similar point elsewhere, albeit on the subject of black nationalism: “A separate society without would almost certainly replicate the very same problems of power we found here. Niggers would make more niggers, either of themselves or of the unfortunate group they settled upon.”

The critique of Coates’s Zionism analogy can be extended: Is it the case that writers who invoke any kind of abstract collectivity, even the revolutionary and imaginary nationalisms of oppressed people, are doomed to uphold violent abstractions? To put this more simply: Is Coates’s focus on black America essentialist and even, as a bizarre critique of Coates published in the New York Times suggested, dangerously close to the race-thinking of white supremacists? The criticism seems to operate in the same rarefied air as a math problem, in which real experience can be reduced to a set of comparable ciphers. In the context of a society-wide punishment regime focused on the descendants of enslaved people, there is nothing wrong or surprising about a black American writer centering black American communities in his analysis. As for the idea that a focus on the plight of impoverished black people in particular is divisive, Coates’s approach helps us reframe the problem as white workers’ disastrous failure to unify with nonwhite workers in labor struggles, including that against slavery. Whether this stems from circumstance, divide-and-rule legislation, ignorance, or bigotry is a complicated question, and Coates’s careful research goes some way toward giving evidence for how so many people, and not only black people, have come to live in such depleted conditions. Universality (an image of social unity) and particularity (the fact that people’s lives are different and specific) are not in a fight to the death, and liberal discourse will not decide between them: They are different moments of the same process.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paris, 2016. Jork Weismann.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paris, 2016. Jork Weismann.

THE MULTIPART STRUCTURE of the book allows Coates to explore his own development as a writer, as we see him progress from, for example, a 2009 puff piece on Michelle Obama that would prefer to be a sketch of the black bourgeoisie in Chicago to a 2012 piece on her husband that is as close as Coates will ever get to a condemnation: “There is no small amount of inconsistency in our black president’s either ignoring or upholding harsh drug laws that every day injure the prospects of young black men—laws that could have ended his own, had he been of another social class. . . . Whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country.” But the republication of diverse old material with new commentary makes the book, at times, internally dissonant. In “The Case for Reparations,” Coates makes a powerful argument for how the structural operations of racial capitalism exceed and even negate individual reason and emotion: “When the mid-twentieth-century white homeowner claimed that the presence of a [black family] decreased his property value, he was not merely engaging in racist dogma—he was accurately observing the impact of federal policy on market prices.” Yet here he is, pages later, claiming that “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” The insight that the violence of individual racism is primarily made possible by structural exploitation rather than individual affect is inverted into the sentimental (and wrong) idea that the structurally exploitative mechanisms of the state are matters of individual affects such as childish innocence and proud wisdom.

Coates seems to want to rescue Obama from his disappointment in him; the former president, he writes in a January 2017 essay, “understands the emotional power of protest, the need to vent before authority—but that kind of approach does not come naturally to him.” This is, on the face of it, a strikingly redundant conclusion to come to on the subject of a president of America, whose job is to wield the kind of massive, violent, and life-changing authority that tends to inspire protest. But then part of the purpose of this book is to understand why Obama magnetizes such contradictory emotions from many black Americans, including Coates himself. This mission requires a partial archaeology of black American politics. Accordingly, the first essay in the book is a 2008 piece on Bill Cosby, in which Coates attempts to delineate some of the complicated specificities of black conservatism, placing Cosby’s politics in a tradition of anxiously reactionary takes by black people. “A century ago,” writes Coates, “the black brain trust was pushing the same rhetoric that Cosby is pushing today. It was concerned that slavery had essentially destroyed the black family and was obsessed with seemingly the same issues—crime, wanton sexuality, and general moral turpitude—that Cosby claims are recent developments. . . . For all its positive energy, his language of uplift has its limitations.” In the introduction to this essay, Coates offers an apology for his breezy depiction of Cosby, who has been accused of multiple rapes: “That was my shame. That was my failure.” Going ahead and republishing the unedited original essay regardless, with its parenthetical single mention of Cosby’s victims, is either brave or offensive, depending on how sympathetic to Coates you feel. Certainly it draws attention to one of Coates’s biggest weaknesses: his tendency to overlook gendered violence. Despite considered efforts to include black women in his narrative of black American history, his gender politics are at times nowhere to be found, an omission just as serious as the omission of race from discussions of class, although Coates is quick to spot the latter in others’ work. Passages on his admiration for his wife are touchingly goofy, and his somewhat flatly written piece on Michelle Obama pays more attention to her politics than I have seen elsewhere, even quoting her college thesis. But this is clutching at straws: His Cosby moment doesn’t do much to dispel the feeling that most men consider women’s well-being a political irrelevancy.

Again and again, Coates mentions the infamous Moynihan Report on black families, published in 1965. His account is nuanced and illuminating, describing how the report, written by New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, began as a left-liberal plea for redistributive schemes to ameliorate the effects of three hundred years of white-supremacist oppression. Later, its author became increasingly bigoted, as if to fulfill all the bad readings of his original writing. At moments it seems that Coates wants to rescue some aspects of Moynihan’s initially strategic promotion of the patriarchal family, although he dutifully points out that this is categorically bad for women. Like Between the World and Me, framed as a letter to his son, Eight Years is most pressingly concerned with fraternal and paternal political genealogies: Obama, Cosby, Malcolm X, the problems faced by black men and boys, with women in the main appearing as noble but humble supporting characters, too sweet-natured even to complain about their mistreatment. Coates’s biggest problem seems to me to be not dissimilar to that of his most off-the-wall critics: He cannot do away with the figure of the expert, the wise man—in short, the dad—and so he asks too much of Obama, just as his dissenters and his fans alike ask too much of him.

The superimposition of the Reconstruction era on the Obama presidency is a move that at first seems in keeping with an adulatory vision of Obama, framing his presidency in terms of a prior historical shift from slavery to emancipation. Yet, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that for Coates the core of the comparison is Reconstruction’s failure, which prepared and prefigured the failure of the black presidency to actualize the post-racial mirage it generated. The connection Coates makes between the two eras is not symbolic, nor based on a superficial resemblance; it advances the argument that American white supremacy is real, continues to exist, is in harmonious accord with some if not all aspects of American capitalism, and is aimed at the maintenance of a highly surveilled and criminalized black surplus population, in 2017 as much as in 1897. Coates did not invent this theory, as he is at pains to point out; it has been explicated directly by a multitude of historians, writers, theorists, artists, and so on. The contention that the highly racially striated America of the present is a continuation of the highly racially striated America of the past seems self-evident. Those who feel that capitalism’s early reliance on slavery and the production of race categories is an ancient matter only tangentially related to race and labor today should be encouraged to explain their counter-theory of history, because it is considerably harder to understand.

If this history’s grip on contemporary discourse seems at times too totalizing, that is not only because the vast scale of the disaster, and the insurgencies it birthed, invites and perhaps even demands melodramatic readings. It is also because the social conditions that transatlantic slavery made possible—concentrations of wealth in the diversity-speckled white center powered by forced labor and resource-stripping at the brutalized dark periphery—remain in place today. Transatlantic slavery and its aftermath are concretely and not metaphorically responsible for the existence of black American culture (probably the most widely consumed cultural production in the world), modern land law, shipping insurance, US housing policy, and more. It is a significant indictment of anglophone political discourse that this issue is still being debated as if oppressive usages of race can be fully subsumed into, and then dismissed as, questions of identity or sentiment. Equally, Coates’s contention that this exploitation has not only material but also symbolic dimensions should be uncontroversial; we are animals who use language, and even Karl Marx acknowledged that a certain amount of human social functioning is determined culturally and contingently, rather than solely through economic mechanisms.

This book sets out to contextualize Obama’s rise to power within US history, Coates’s own life history, and a history of black critique. On the matter of presidents, Coates strives to reconcile the wave and the particle: America is anti-black, but the only home of black America (and thus also, because of the scale of black US insurgency, a symbolic home for blackness as such); the presidency is an institution of the reproduction of racial capitalism, but Obama’s victory appearance with his black wife and kids (before he went on to behave, unsurprisingly, exactly like a president) briefly seemed to rip a hole in the fabric of reality. Obama as president was just another president; Obama as symbol opened a black vortex from which new and ancient monsters and angels have sprung up into the white world. This claim, freely paraphrased from Coates’s central theme, is lacking in robust materialism, but these days reality itself seems lacking in that too. After Obama-as-symbol, there will probably never be a president in the fullest sense indicated by the Constitution ever again. The white Enlightenment that made its false universality possible, made biology out of ancestry and secularized spirit, is dying of a congenital heart defect, and probably people not yet born will have to work out the many things that will come next.

Coates loves Obama for his symbolism, and suggests reparations as a further act of symbolic healing. But no symbol, no matter how sincere, can give the bereaved even one second longer with lost loved ones, nor turn back the brutal tide of capitalist accumulation, nor scrub away the attendant stains of pointless suffering, wastes of potential for good, and too-heavy proofs of potential for evil. It might be, as Coates suggests, a place to begin, or it might be, as his critics suggest, a misuse of more genuinely transformative energies. Contrary to Coates’s love of father figures, and in consonance with his appealing hesitance at being appointed to the office of public intellectual, no one person working alone, not even the most highly praised pundit, can know exactly what is to be done.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer. She lives in New York.