The word I associate Ta Nehisi-Coates’s writing with is ‘ethereal.’
Throughout his work, Nehisi-Coates conjures up myth and mysticism within his subject matter, be it casting Michael Jackson and Kanye West with divine providence or evoking the pride and power which he feels in being “the progeny of slaves.” Myth is infantilised: “I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past … I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth … what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy.”
But myth is celebrated, too: “he [LL Cool J] grabbed the mic like a cudgel, raised it to the sky, lightning struck, and the cudgel was now a hammer, and the slave was transfigured into a god whose voice shivered the Earth … for anyone who has felt, as I so often did, ignorant, enfeebled, enslaved to circumstance, this was myth and this was saga.”
We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays published in The Atlantic, coalesced to span the Obama Administration, interspersed with prologues to each. Besides the enjoyment of reading one’s writing improve over time (the best work is past the halfway point of the book), it’s a book that discerns the myths and realities of white supremacy and black struggle and offers profound pessimism – or realism – for the future of those structures.
An avowed atheist, Coates’s lack of optimism for the defeat of white supremacy has drawn criticism. Thomas Chatterton Williams accused Coates of being “glad, relieved even, that Donald Trump was elected president,” for it vindicated his argument, consistent throughout close to a decade’s worth of essays, that white supremacy is alive and well in America. Cornel West’s notable piece, Ta Nehisi-Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle, opined that “Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.”
It is a puzzling position to be in, but not an unwarranted critique when Coates routinely explores the power of the black and white races. It is difficult to conceive of a plausible immediate future wherein white supremacy is eradicated, for the twin factors of Trump’s election and America’s historic enslavement of African-Americans simply outweigh other evidence. Yet, without hope, as Williams and West have suggested, the power of those same factors is entrenched further by the writer trying to fight it. Essentially, it boils down to the question of the purpose of black-specific commentary: is it to articulate and exist within the sphere of racial prejudice, or provide a platform for its banishment?
It’s not for me, as a white man, to answer that question. But, being white, reading Coates’s work has illuminated areas of political thought hitherto unseen, for broadening the horizon of opinion one ingests – specifically the horizons of identity – can only ever lead to greater understanding, even if that understanding is to consolidate one’s pre-existing views. It is not as if I am suddenly aware that racism exists, but I do appreciate the role that whiteness played in Trump’s election to a greater extent. Coates’s lambasting of the media’s focus on the white working-class voting bloc is convincing; these white voters may feel left behind and feel angered by that, but black people have been subject to centuries of bodily plunder and psychological torture, and remain disproportionately downtrodden by the American political and economic systems, yet scores of coverage are never devoted to understanding and empathising with this pain as has been done for white people – nor have black people unleashed violent civil unrest against white people, despite the murder of black people at the hands of those who are not so.
And the emphasis must be that they are white. Ultimately, there was only one voting bloc which produced a majority for Trump: the voting bloc of white Americans, be they rich or poor, man or woman.
While each essay can be found online through The Atlantic, the literary format of Eight Years in Power formulates coherent narrative strands which connect the works through time. The themes of black respectability and black power – what America truly fears – are introduced in an original prologue, to retrospectively build upon ‘Fear of a Black President’ despite its situation later in the book. The analysis of black conservatism in ‘This is How We Lost to the White Man’ acts as a necessary contrast to the studies of the black relationship with President Obama in ‘My President Was Black.’ The finest essay of the book, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ intoxicates the reader with the history of the economic plunder of black Americans, foregrounding Coates’s later dismissal of the ‘left behind’ story postulated in the wake of Trump’s election in ‘The First White President.’
Electrifying the book, binding these strands together, is the study of power. White supremacy is power, and the foundations of America are, Coates argues, borne in the execution and relish of that power. So what happens when its president is black? Coates’s relationship with Obama is complicated and inconsistent; he is harshly critical in ‘Fear of a Black President,’ but ‘My President Was Black’ lavishes praise upon the man. Perhaps it was inevitable that this temporary reversal of power would be complex, especially given that we now know the “awful price of the first black presidency.” Try as he did to elevate himself beyond race (whilst simultaneously doing the opposite), Obama is “the man who had unwittingly summoned this future into being.”
In spite of it all, Coates’s language remains ethereal, remains beautiful, remains mythic, and harnesses the power inherent in anger and sorrow. “Sentences should be supernatural,” Coates states, “words strung together until they compelled any listener to repeat them at odd hours.” The media has no shortage of opinion columnists, churning out half-baked polemics to advance their name and their platform. Coates at least acknowledges that Obama’s presidency has been advantageous to his career – as, perversely, has Trump’s – but there is little sense that Coates writes for himself and not for a greater purpose. We Were Eight Years in Power is clear that black power was time-limited, and perhaps will forever be, and knows that no cosmic justice is coming for those who sought to demolish it.
“The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.” If America is to be saved, then it must save itself.