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REVIEW: A Rumination on the Obama Years

Lester Spence assesses Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power.

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“…[I]n the collective sense what this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government. It applauds, even celebrates Good Negro Government in the unthreatening abstract—The Cosby Show for instance. But when it becomes clear the Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, and birtherism emerges.”

As I reflect on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, this line, taken from his essay “Notes From the Fourth Year” stands out. It communicates Coates’ ideas about both the Obama and the Trump eras.

We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates’ third book (after the award-winning A Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me) represents a hybrid of sorts. On the one hand it’s a compilation, reprinting one essay/feature published in The Atlantic each year of Obama’s two terms in the White House. The piece written the first year (“This is How We Lost to the White Man”) deals with Bill Cosby’s call-out tour, generated by his controversial “pound cake speech” delivered on the anniversary of Brown vs Board. The piece written the third year (“Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”) attempts to answer the question it asks while also providing insight into the hold the Lost Cause has on a large segment of Americans. The piece written the fifth year (“Fear of a Black President”) tackles the racial animus that attended Obama’s first term in office, written near the end of it. (It also coincides with the year Coates became a household name.)

Coates prefaces each essay with a commentary detailing the thought process and context that shaped each feature, which makes it kind of a non-fiction equivalent of a graphic novel replete with extras. For people who’ve already read the individual essays selected, having one book that contains them all can be satisfying as it enables the reader to identify themes and shifts in his writing (and in our society) over time. When Coates wrote “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” for example, Cosby was still publicly viewed as America’s father, even as rumors swirled about his private behavior. In the commentary preceding the feature, Coates acknowledges that he should’ve forcefully dealt with the assault claims—Cosby’s private actions were swirling around him in the ether even then. When Coates writes “Fear of a Black President,” he has no idea that just a few years later Donald Trump would be elected president after Obama.

From Ta-Nehisi Coates

The features where Coates brings his skills to bear most fruitfully, are those written in the third, sixth, and seventh years, on the civil war (mentioned above), reparations (“The Case for Reparations,” which carefully uses Jim Crow-era Chicago to make a strong case for what he calls “plunder”), and mass incarceration (“The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which begins with Daniel Moynihan’s sixties-era report on the black family and uses it to engage in a trenchant critique of the carceral state). They present information the average reader may not have been exposed to, and give enough information (particularly with the added footnotes) for the reader to do more digging.

The other features, on Cosby, on the Obamas (here I’d also include “The Legacy of Malcolm X”), and on Trump do not hold up as well in comparison because they are based more on Coates’ ideas and interactions with the subject than they are on reporting and investigating. Putting words and thoughts in the mouth and head of the dead is always a problematic enterprise; but given Malcolm X’s trajectory at the moment of his death, there’s at least as much reason to suspect that he’d rail against Obama as to think he’d consider Obama an extension of his legacy. Coates’ essays on Obama, written from the standpoint of someone who had no idea that someone like Obama was even possible, don’t take into account the fact that a range of black elected officials navigated similar terrain as Obama did. We can understand a great deal about Obama by going back to the Harold Washington era in Chicago, for example. Similarly his essay on Trump takes his election as inevitable without considering the role institutions have played and continue to play in shaping political opportunities. If Hilary Clinton had spent just a little bit of money in the Midwest for example, or if Obama had responded differently to the threat of Russian government interference, we could be looking at a Clinton presidency rather than a Trump one.

But even these pieces work, particularly if viewed as a snapshot of how a certain class of writer responded to the Obama era. The “we” in the title represents the class of black commentator that rose alongside Obama—people like Coates, Jelani Cobb, and Melissa Harris-Perry, to name a few, as well as entities like The Root and Grio. While not all in this class had the same take on Obama that Coates did—the radical writers at Black Agenda Report have a very different take on these eight years—there’s still a general common sense that Coates’ work articulates. In response to the critique that Coates’ isn’t hopeful enough, I’d suggest that those making this critique don’t quite understand the hold hip-hop has over Coates, and by extension many African Americans. Coates has worked hard to craft a writing style that evokes Baldwin, but even this style owes as much to LL Cool J as it does to Baldwin. And while hip-hop is many things, hopeful isn’t necessarily one of them.

A much better critique would point to the lack of sustained engagement with Black Lives Matter—Coates writes about it but only as part of his rumination on Obama—or even Occupy Wall Street, which helped generate the conditions for Bernie Sanders’ historic run. Academics and journalists who have a firmer grasp on the subject matter Coates’ tackles aren’t likely to appreciate the content as more than a snapshot, though they may (as I did) appreciate the quality of the writing. However, I think that over time we all will come back to this book as a vehicle with which to examine the common sense of the Obama years.

 

For More:

Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed his work and the Obama years with journalist Michele Norris during a program co-sponsored by The Atlantic magazine at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Watch that conversation here.

Coates and Michele Norris

 

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