“There is a notion out there that black people enjoy the Sisyphean struggle against racism. In fact, most of us live for the day when we can struggle against anything else. But having been, by that very racism, pinned into ghettos, both metaphorical and real, our options for struggle are chosen long before we are born. And so we struggle out of fear for our children We struggle out of fear for ourselves. We struggle to avoid our feelings, because to actually consider all that was taken, to understand that it was taken systematically, that the taking is essential to America and echoes down through the ages, could make you crazy.”
I have said it before and I will say it again: Ta-nehisi Coates is one of America’s greatest living writers, particularly among writers of non-fiction. His thoughtfulness and his willingness to take risks, paired with an eloquence which makes me feel a driveling idiot, have me chomping at the bit, eagerly awaiting each new piece of writing. And so, predictably, I pre-ordered a copy of “We Were Eight Years in Power”.
In this his newest book, Coates combines previously published essays with new writing. Divided into eight, each section of the book begins with a sketch (written in 2017 and benefitting from hindsight) of where Coates was as a writer and a man in each year of Obama’s presidency, followed by an article written and published in The Atlantic that same year. What the reader benefits from is not only the compilation of some of Coates’ strongest pieces, but also the close-up exploration of his journey as a writer and of our country’s journey and, one might argue, regression into more racialized and hate-filled policy and rhetoric.
“We Were Eight Years in Power” is not just about our first black president, but also about the troubling racial politics of Bill Cosby, the strength and fury of Michelle Obama, an argument for reparations, and an exposé on the evils of mass incarceration. Coates shares some dishearteningly real talk:
“Nothing in the record of human history argues for divine morality, and a great deal argues against it. What we know is that good people often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world. There is no evidence that the score is ever evened in this life or any after. The barbarian Andrew Jackson rejoiced in mass murder, regaled in enslavement, and died a national hero. For three decades, J. Edgar Hoover incited murder and perfected blackmail against citizens who only sought some equal pursuit of liberty and happiness. Today is name is affixed to a building that we are told was erected in the pursuit of justice. Hitler pushed an entire people to the brink of extinction, escaped human censure, and now finds acolytes among some of the very states he conquered. The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.”
He pays homage to his predecessors and gives a glimpse into his emergence as an outspoken, well-spoken dissenter:
“Ida would scream into the roaring waves before she would believe the story the masters of America told. I was a writer like Ida. And I felt, even in this time, a century later, that I too would gather my words and scream into the roaring waves, because to scream was to defy the story, and that defiance had meaning, no matter that the waves kept coming, would come, maybe, forever. The masters could lie to themselves, lie to the world, but they would never force me to lie to myself. I would never forget that they were liars, that they justified rape, child slavery, and lynching by telling themselves and us and the world that there was something benighted in us, some flaw in our genes, some deficit in our culture, something unfortunate about the shape of our noses, the span of our lips, our style of speech or taste in art, something unsightly in our women or brutal in our men, something wrong with us beyond the misfortune of having been forced, enslaved, and lynched.”
Coates shares the optimism so many of us felt with the rise of President Obama –
“It is not so much that I logically reasoned out that Obama’s election would author a post-racist age. But it now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime. In those days I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body. From that perspective, it seemed possible that the success of one man really could alter history, or even end it.” –
And the heartbreak and outrage of the rise of Donald Trump –
“In the days after Donald Trump’s victory, there would be an insistence that something as ‘simple’ as racism could not explain it. As if enslavement had nothing to do with global economics, or as if lynchings said nothing about the idea of women as property. As though the past four hundred years could be reduced to the irrational resentment of full lips. No. Racism is never simple. And there was nothing simple about what was coming…”
As a compendium of stellar political articles and personal analysis, “We Were Eight Years in Power” would already be a remarkable piece of work. But, for me, the behind-the-scenes self criticism and explanations, of both writing choices as well as philosophical outlook, were utterly captivating, particularly coming from a writer whom I admire greatly for his solidity and integrity in both.