Black history, books, Essays, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading

“We Were Eight Years in Power” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“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.”

unnamed-5I 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.

Black history, books, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading

“Stamped From the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi

“Every historian writes in – and is impacted by – a precise historical moment. My moment, this book’s moment, coincides with the televised and untelevised killings of unarmed human beings at the hands of law enforcement officials, and with the televised and untelevised life of the shooting star of #Black Lives Matter during America’s stormiest nights. I somehow managed to write this book between the heartbreaks of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and the Charleston 9 and Sandra Bland, heartbreaks that are a product of America’s history of racist ideas as much as this history book of racist ideas is a product of these heartbreaks.” 

IMG_0959The subtitle of “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” may seem a bit hyperbolic, even grandiose, but damn if this isn’t a meticulously researched and staggeringly far-reaching work. Ibram Kendi reaches back to Ancient Greek and Aristotelian philosophies of superiority and justified enslavement, to 15th century Portuguese slave practices and Shakespearean racism, through colonial America, Civil War and Reconstruction, through Jim Crow and the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, to the election of the country’s first black president. At every turn, Kendi is armed with facts, anecdotes, and detailed analysis.

“Stamped” presents a taxonomy of racial ideas and disparities that is robust and deceptively simple.

“Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities.” 

Kendi’s framework, carried throughout the work, is powerful and formative. It makes complicated histories, fraught with nuance and interpretation, relatively simple to distill down to their essence. And under this rubric and Kendi’s studied gaze, few are faultless. Again and again I was struck not just by the insidiousness of racism and racist ideas, but by how many of these historical figures were familiar to me, a moderately well-educated American, and yet their racist beliefs were unknown to me, had never been discussed in any forum. Even those we are taught were antiracist heroes – key abolitionists, lawmakers, even civil rights activists – proclaimed and proliferated segregationist and assimilationist ideas which were, at their core, racist.

I harbored no illusions that mainstream American history and culture was anything but racist and revisionist. But the degree to which the history I was taught was white-washed at every turn shook this cynic, this waking if not woke progressive, deeply.

“When Black people rose, racists either violently knocked them down or ignored them as extraordinary. When Black people were down, racists called it their natural or nurtured place, and denied any role in knocking them down in the first place.”

Though Kendi employs the past tense in the passage above, it’s sentiment is frightfully present.

Kendi’s tome took me seemingly forever to read, and that is ALL on me. It is lengthy, IMG_0957dense, and heavy, yes. But the length of time I took to read it reflects 1. the sheer amount of information that was new to me, 2. the time I needed to try to process, absorb, and understand what I was being presented with, and 3. my need to take occasional breaks when overwhelmed by dismay and anxiety. Please let none of these things dissuade you from reading this extraordinary book. It is packed from end to end with essential bricks of information, all of which are necessary to build the final edifice. My sticky notes and dog ears will remain in my copy for future reference, as this is a seminal text to which I intend to return.