Ta-Nehisi Coates Writes His Way into American History
In “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Coates knits his work as a writer with his understanding of American history.
BY DAN DEWEESE
[This piece was originally published in the fall 2017 issue.]
IN THE INTRODUCTION to the new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates describes his dissatisfaction with the essay he is introducing. He had been assigned by The Atlantic to write a profile of Bill Cosby, and though this was before rape allegations ended Cosby’s career, Coates admits he had heard rumors. He now sees his decision to keep the essay focused on Cosby’s lecture tour—a tour in which Cosby criticized and was generally condescending to young black men—as a weakness borne primarily of the point he was at in his writing career:
I had never written for such a prestigious national publication. I had my own fears of failure lingering. Better to tell a neater story, I reasoned, than attempt the messier one and have to contend with editors I did not then know. But the messier one was truer—indeed, the messier one might well have lent explanatory power to the simple story I chose to tell. And so it happened that in an attempt to analyze, in Cosby’s movement, the lure of the simplistic, I myself fell prey to it.
The structure of We Were Eight Years in Power underscores the degree to which a writer’s sense of self informs their material: the book features a Coates essay from each of the years President Obama was in office, and each essay (all of which first appeared in The Atlantic) is introduced by a new piece in which Coates reflects on his thoughts and feelings as a writer, critic, and citizen at the time. In the opening, Coates describes himself as he sits in an unemployment office in 2007. He has been working as a journalist and wants to continue his writing, but the pursuit hasn’t allowed him to contribute financially to the household he shares with his partner and their young son. He considers alternate careers, but Kenyatta, his partner, disagrees. As Coates puts it: “Kenyatta had a more linear solution: ‘I think you should spend more time writing.’”
Coates’s commitment to the work and life of a writer binds and informs the entirety—the essays, their introductions, and the epilogue—of We Were Eight Years in Power. Some readers may be inclined to skip the introductions in order to focus on the essays proper, or even to skip the first few essays in order to focus on the later, masterful essays written when Coates had gained confidence, found his material, and began to write deeply-researched pieces that exhibit both a wide-ranging curiosity and a laser focus. Yet it is the weave between the essays and Coates’s introductions that render the book something deeper than a collection of previously published work. Among all of the cable television arguments, newspaper columns, social media memes, and political soundbites that attempt to supply explanations for how American culture has arrived at the place it is, We Were Eight Years in Power is what future readers will most likely look back on as the best entry in the new genre of How We Got Here.
Coates takes on the common, intellectually tempting belief that race and class are similarly revealing lenses through which a perceptive person might analyze society. Because the categories so clearly inform and affect each other, it becomes easy to think of them as a kind of yin and yang, equally entwined and therefore equally composing social inequality: the problem with race as a critical lens employed on its own, it seems, is that at some point in the study of disenfranchisement based on the color of a person’s skin, we realize we are also studying issues of disenfranchisement that seem inherent in capitalism. The problem with shifting to purely economic analysis, however, is that financial opportunity and success in the Unites States is so alarmingly correlated with race.
What Coates argues with great force and precision is that race and class are not equivalent forces or equally insightful critical lenses. In the essay “The Case for Reparations,” he tackles this head on. “In substituting a broad class struggle for an anti-racist struggle, progressives hope to assemble a coalition by changing the subject,” he writes. Further:
To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the “achievement gap” will do nothing to close the “injury gap,” in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.
It is race, Coates argues, that is the defining social force in American life. It has been since the country’s inception, and the ways in which racism continues to deform our contemporary national character are in fact extensions of the racism that deformed our past. Coates points out, more than once, the tendency in American civic and political discourse to speak as if we are somehow walled off from our national past—that the conditions of contemporary American life are somehow not related to and not the result of all that came before. To pretend that any national culture somehow arose on an island in time and space, unrelated to the country’s own history, would of course be strange. But to reckon with the sources of our culture is to reckon, as Coates shows, with the racism not only at the heart of our country’s founding, but that we continue to see play out on television and in social media every day.
To read about the enslavement of and, after slavery, the continued purposeful and systematic plunder of black bodies and minds by white society triggers a sense of outrage that would be shared by any feeling citizen. A normal response, of course, is to wish these things hadn’t happened—to wish they simply weren’t so. But that response is also the first move away from reality and the chance of any realistic discussion, because it is an emotional and cognitive move in the direction of fantasy. Coates points out that this desire to escape the horrors of the past is not limited to white people:
For white people who have not quite taken on the full load of ancestral debt but can sense its weight, there is a longing for some magic that might make the burden of slavery and all that followed magically vanish. For blacks born under the burden, there is a need to believe that a better day is on the horizon, that their lives, their children’s lives, and their grandchildren’s lives are not forever condemned to carry that weight, which white people can only but sense.
Wishing slavery hadn’t happened doesn’t mean it didn’t, any more than wishing that the various forms of racism that have continued in our legal, business, real estate, and social spheres would go away will somehow magically enact those changes, too. One of the many dynamics Coates critiques in American discourse is the move, particularly among liberals, of wishing and hoping—and the ways in which wishing and hoping not only do not require action, but allow us to feel as if we’ve done something, without actually having done something.
Optimists may feel that Coates is doing a selective reading of history—a pessimistic reading in which he focuses on mistakes and outrages, but never acknowledges breakthroughs. But a list of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement—and positivist readings of American history in general—are what all students are taught in public school. What Coates’s essays do instead are deepen, broaden, and, as a result, correct our understanding of our country’s history. And to any white readers concerned that if they pick up Coates’s book they will be reading someone writing from a de facto “anti-white” position, they can rest assured that Coates is writing as a skilled and insightful critic who trains his powers of analysis on all aspects of our political and cultural life. He notes that as his star his risen as a writer, he has increasingly been asked to occupy the uncomfortable position of somehow speaking for all African Americans. The later essays in the book reveal the impossibility of occupying this role, though, through Coates’s observations—at first from a distance and, later, through direct interviews—of Barack Obama.
In “My President was Black,” Coates points out that Barack Obama, as a boy growing up in Hawaii with a black father, a white mother, and white grandparents, had the unusual opportunity of choosing to pursue membership in black culture rather than living it as a fact of his daily life. “The kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him,” Coates notes. It’s clear that Coates respects Obama, but just as clear that he feels a right to question the degree to which Obama has actually experienced the struggles of an African American. In the introduction to the essay, Coates points out that even his opportunity to interview Obama was, like his opportunity to profile Cosby years earlier, the result of his own years of difficult work as a writer. His highly lauded book Between the World and Me had earned him new status and cultural capital, and he had used that status and capital to make deeper forays into the questions he was pursuing. Of the essay about President Obama, he says:
It was the first piece I wrote where I felt I was not engaging the questions that had so initially provoked me. I believed that the answer to the question of the color line was right in front of us. Rob a people generationally and there will be effects. I also understood why that answer, barring extreme eternal events, would never be accepted and reckoned with. It simply broke too much of America’s sense of its own identity. So I felt after this last piece that I was done arguing.
Done arguing whether race is the most powerful force in American life, perhaps—but not done arguing about historical facts. When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said in a recent interview that the American Civil War was caused by a failure of people to compromise, Coates wrote a series of tweets in which Kelly’s grasp of facts and authority as a thinker were called into question:
Notion that Civil War resulted from a lack of compromise is belied by all the compromises made on enslavement from America's founding.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Lincoln's own platform was a compromise. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He proposed to limit slavery's expansion, not end it.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
"Compromise" continued long after Lincoln's death. Compromise of 1877 led to explicit White Supremacist rule in the South for a century.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
This is really basic stuff--easily accessible, not tucked away in archives somewhere.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Notion that we are putting today's standards on the past is, in itself, racist--implies only white, slave-holding, opinions matter.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Majority of people living in Mississippi in 1860 were black. They knew, in their own time, that enslavement was wrong.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Again, this is not info hidden away in the state archives. Like, it's in the census. You can google it.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Again. This is knowable. Not hard to find out about Lee. You do not have to sit in a Harvard history colloquium to understand the Civil War.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
You do have to get these guys were the worst of America.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Been a lot of hemming and hawing over the term "white supremacist." Fools who won't be satisfied until Trump literally lynches someone.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Believes that the torturer of humans, vendor of people, who led that war was honorable...— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
When he sticks by that portrayal of a black women, in the face of clear video evidence, when he has so descended into the dream...— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Black people who are as nutty as Kelly and Trump are generally marginalized. Kelly and Trump ended up in the White House.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Coates’s response brings into stark relief the fundamental difference between a writer of Coates’s caliber and a politician—or, in this case, a retired general operating as a politician. Politicians are deliberative thinkers whose primary focus is the future—essentially, what to do next. Coates, however, is interested in unearthing the truth of the past—who did what, when. When Kelly decided to make an impromptu claim about history, he had wandered out of his element and into Coates’s area of expertise.
So though We Were Eight Years in Power is certainly about race, it is, at another level, about a writer’s attempt to use the act of writing—compose, research, analyze, clarify, fact-check, self-check, revise, repeat—to bring about a deeper understanding of American history. By sharing his evaluations of his writing, Coates allows readers to see the degree to which the process of a working writer is far more rigorous than the process of a television pundit or politician. Coates himself has appeared on television lately, of course, and those appearances are edifying in their way. But it’s his work as a writer—for a reader, the experience of reading We Were Eight Years in Power from beginning to end—that truly offers the opportunity to better understand who we are and where we came from.