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.

books, Essays, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading, Women Writers

“The Origin of Others” by Toni Morrison (and two Atlantic articles by Ta-nehisi Coates)

“Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us, whether they are continental or on the same pillow, whether they are distances of culture or the distinctions and indistinctions of age or gender, whether they are the consequences of social invention or biology.”

On this day – September 12, 2017 – the newest works of two heavyweights are being IMG_0805released to likely widely differing attention. Hillary Clinton’s memoir assessing and assigning blame for her tumultuous loss in the 2016 presidential campaign is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and at the top of every news feed. What isn’t likely to get the buzz and analysis that “What Happened” is enjoying is Toni Morrison’s new release,”The Origin of Others”. This small but weighty treatise, drawn from Morrison’s Norton Lectures, also reflects on the current socio-political climate, particularly on how ‘othering’ informs history, politics, and literature.

One would face little argument in placing Toni Morrison among the greatest living American writers, and this work is introduced by a foreword from another, Ta-nehisi Coates. In the foreword, Coates beautifully captures the premise of Morrison’s collection:

“This is a work about the creation of aliens and the erection of fences, one that employs literary criticism, history, and memoir in an attempt to understand how and why we have come to associate those fences with pigment.”

This premise is one of great promise and desperate timeliness, and this collection of essays is deeply informative and flawlessly composed. What it isn’t, unfortunately, is the commanding, mesmerizing voice one has come to expect from Toni Morrison. I suspect that hearing Morrison deliver these thoughts in their original lecture format would have been powerful and impactful. Their tenor and tone as essays, however, are constricted by their origin as lectures; in the place of narrative flow, one finds frequent quotations and a pedantic tone that just don’t translate well to the page. I suspect that her agents and she herself are well aware of that fact, thus the relatively quiet release by a small publishing house. “The Origin of Others” is a less successful work by an inimitable author, but one which is timely in its content and as part of America’s struggle to understand ‘what happened’ and how can we change what we have become. In no way does its measured success diminish her voice, her body of work, or her stature among the greats.

In an unusual turn and out of respect for the import and validity of Morrison’s premise, I would like to turn to two articles which I consider to be companion pieces to “The Origin of Others” and which, in my opinion, carry out the premise to greater effect. I am referring to a pair of Coates’ own articles in The Atlantic: the January/February 2017 “My President Was Black” and the October 2017 “The First White President”.  In these two breathtaking and heartbreaking articles, Coates points to the role of race in this political moment and eviscerates the argument that what this moment is a result of the voices of the white underclass being ignored.

“These claims of origin and fidelity are not merely elite defenses of an aggrieved class but also a sweeping dismissal of the concerns of those who don’t share kinship with white men.”  (October 2017)

Coates unabashedly indicts the role of racism in the 2016 election and in the fraught landscape of 2017.

“[W]hiteness – that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.” (October 2017)

“Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.”(January/February 2017)

Ta-nehisi Coates has a gift and a power which he is exercising for the common good. Reading these and other in depth works by Coates, I am simultaneously invigorated and despondent. He can say the things I long to say because he is a gifted writer. He can say the things I long to say because he has aspirational access – to people and platform. He can say the things I long to say because he has unimpeachable credibility. He can speak his heart, and in doing so, speak so many of ours.

Thank you to Harvard University Press for providing a complimentary copy of “The Origin of Others” in exchange for a fair and honest review.