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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book is his clearest expression yet of political fatalism. But black activism has always believed in the possibility of change.
We Were Eight Years In Power
Penguin Random House, $19.36 (paper)
These days, the invocation of faith in the transformative possibility of self and society risks naiveté. We live in a time, after all, when the ties that bind us have badly frayed, when we seem unable to properly regard the pain of our fellows, and when political leaders seem hell-bent on exploiting it for gain and to satisfy their own narcissism. To defend the role of faith in political struggle may seem odd. Yet, hear me out.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, is his clearest expression yet of political fatalism—his “deeply held belief that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child's lifetime, or perhaps ever.” As in Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015), we again encounter white supremacy not as a political ideology, but as the defining feature of the U.S. polity—its essential nature.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, we encounter white supremacy not as a political ideology, but as the defining feature of the U.S. polity—its essential nature.
The book comprises previously published essays—one for each of the eight years Barack Obama held the presidency—prefaced by moving biographical and personal meditations that give each chapter philosophical weight. Taken together, it is about Obama and the United States—and it is about Coates.
It charts the course of Coates’s career from a time when he could not make ends meet to his recent position of speaking for and to Americans about Black America. Obama’s presidency made this possible; it opened the door for a “crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms.” This is also a book about shattering a great illusion—the idea that Obama’s presidency represented black power. “Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth. And that was always the problem.”
For Coates, Obama represented a possibility that had always been denied, the idea that a black American could one day inhabit the highest office of the land. And if a black American could be president, couldn’t the United States be more than the explicit racism of its past and the institutional racism of its present? Coates himself was taken by this seductive idea, something he laments throughout the book. As he explains:
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.
Herein lies the explanation for why a man who curries favor with white supremacists assumed the presidency after Obama. Donald Trump’s ascendancy was a virulent reaction not only to Obama, but to the idea that his presidency signaled the country’s embrace of a multiracial polity.
Coates bristles at his reputation as ‘America’s best writer on race,’ but he has also embraced his status.
The running theme in Coates’s book is that white supremacy is native and essential. It is the source of his motivation. Coates’s goal is to distance both black Americans and himself from thinking of white supremacy as a focus of transformative politics. And his theme should guard against the familiar tendency to deny the national past by invoking its ever-present commitment to redemption. Sometimes denial comes in the form of efforts to sanitize history, Coates tells us, as was the case with Americans seeking to reconcile themselves to a civil war that was about rights, or railroads, or tariffs—anything but race. But denial also comes in the form of believing in “an arc of cosmic justice,” the sense “that good acts were rewarded and bad deeds punished . . . ” Coates argues instead that U.S. history is merely the record of its fundamental nature. Transcendent stories cannot relieve us of this burden.
For Coates, the desire to transform the United States reflects a naïve religious longing. When Coates tells us that “cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption” are meaningless to him, he is asking black Americans to resist the temptation to allow those things (which all seem to be interchangeable throughout the book) to have meaning for them. This is his “black atheism.” It removes the desire to appeal to white Americans because it removes the belief that white Americans are “interested listeners” (even if they are regular readers). In doing so, black Americans arm themselves against disappointment because they drop their “expectations of white people . . . ”
Challenging Coates is difficult, not because of the assuredness of his analysis, but because of his reputation as “America’s best writer on race.” Coates bristles at this reputation, but he has also embraced his status. He has mastered the balance between speaking to black pain and suffering (acknowledgement, after all, is so central to one's ethical and political standing in a community otherwise defined by disregarding black life) and lacerating a class of white Americans, many of whom perversely see such attacks as moments of cathartic release.
This is as Coates intends. Similar to his affection for hip-hop music—the way in which he was captured and captivated by the lyricism of its artists—he seeks to deploy his writings as a talisman. “Out here,” he tells us, “in the concrete and real, sentences should be supernatural, words strung together until they compelled any listener to repeat them at odd hours . . . ” Coates understands the power of music, and from his love for it, he crafted his “earliest sense of what writing should mean.” His audience is captured precisely because his words are incantations that leave them spellbound.
This is what happens when we listen only to a single voice; no conversation is possible.
But when the United States selects its eloquent spokesperson on the “race issue”—as it always does—all other voices become mere noise, and the complexity of our political traditions and our lived experiences are flattened out. In Coates’s view, for instance, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all failures. They performed the same script, they failed to move their audience to action, and they never reshaped U.S. life and culture. “All of these heroes,” Coates insists, “had failed to cajole and coerce the masters of America.” In Coates’s telling, fine historical distinctions disappear, time stands still, and the past and future collapse into the political horrors of the present.
This is what happens when we listen only to a single voice; no conversation is possible. We are disabled from speaking thoughtfully and accurately about political and cultural transformation on racial matters.
But there is a sleight of hand in Coates’s “black atheism”; it conflates hope with certainty, and hope becomes our fatal flaw. Yet we don’t need to believe that progress is inevitable to think that, through our efforts, we may be able to move toward a more just society. We can, however, be sure that no good will come of the refusal to engage in this work.
There is much in this that should concern us. Coates describes the pain visited on black bodies and engenders white guilt. He erodes the idea that who we are need not determine who we may become. He obstructs rather than opens any attempt to reckon with our racial past and present in the service of an inclusive future. And he participates in a politics where words and actions can never aspire to change the political community in which we live, and for that reason they only fortify our indignation and deepen our suspicion—namely, that as black Americans, we are as alien to this polity as it is alien to us. The aspiration to defend a more exalted vision of this country’s ethical and political life is taken as the hallmark of being asleep, dreaming in religious illusions. To be alive to an unvarnished reality, to be woke, is to recognize that no such country is possible.
This runs roughshod over that thread in the grand tradition of U.S. struggles for justice—a tradition in which hope and faith are forged through political darkness. Hope involves attachment and commitment to the possibility of realizing the goods we seek. Faith is of a broader significance, providing hope with content. Faith, the black scholar Anna Julia Cooper suggested in 1892, is grounded in a vision of political and ethical life that is at odds with the community one inhabits. It is a vision that one believes ought to command allegiance, for which one is willing to fight, and in which one believes others can find a home. Faith looks on the present from the perspective of a future vision of society, and uses the vision as a resource to remake the present. And so faith, the philosopher and psychologist William James explained in 1897, is “the readiness to act in a cause the prosperous issue of which is not certified to us in advance.” In other words, faith has never been exhausted by the political reality one happens to be living in.
Political faith rests on the idea that we are not finished. It has never been exhausted by the political reality we happen to be living in.
Political faith has always rested on the idea that we are not finished, a thought that Coates rejects out of hand. In the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson called this capacity for human renewal “ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms.” In our political life this means, as James Baldwin well knew, that both our liberal democratic institutions and its culture “depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”
Faith has always been a loving but difficult commitment precisely because it makes politics about maybes rather than certainties. One of the greatest dangers of U.S. exceptionalism, for instance, is that it has habituated us to think about the structure of political life as necessarily progressing. Writing in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott—a successful nonviolent campaign against racial segregation—King sought to chasten the obvious excitement: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.”
Yet Coates appears simply to invert U.S. exceptionalism, replacing it with the equally fatalistic idea that the United States is fundamentally broken. In a world where the good or bad is fated to happen, faith and hope have no foothold. This ultimately weakens our resolve and undermines our ability to take seriously the idea of an “American experiment.”
Black activists have not forged their faith with the stone of U.S. exceptionalism. Rather, they have used their darkest hours to “make a way out of no way”—to address the triple crises of exclusion, domination, and violence. Abolitionists such as David Walker faced it in the form of the enslavement of black folks. Frederick Douglass encountered it with the rise and crash of reconstruction. Wells faced it as she confronted the horror of lynching and the disposability of black life. And in our own time, Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists are reminded of a similar disposability of black life that goes unpunished.
And yet, they are keepers of the faith, recognizing that its vitality is not exhausted by the reality they struggle against. In her recent New York Times article, “Black Lives Matter Is Democracy in Action,” Barbara Ransby narrates a powerful account of BLM activists creating contexts for collective leadership and using those opportunities to transform the power of voice into actions that meet the needs of ordinary people. This effort would be impossible for people who accept Coates’s perspective. Their efforts may not win the day, but they certainly won’t win the day without the faith that winning is a possibility.
Faith does not deny the present, but refuses to be defined by it and sink into it. We now face a president who seeks to colonize every waking moment of our lives with feelings of dread, thus arresting our ability to imagine a reality beyond television, social media feeds, and newspapers. The illusion of our present moment is not expressed in political faith, but in the belief that we can respond constructively without such faith. Political faith is fully realistic about the present disasters and rejects illusions about assured future progress, while also insisting that we are not certain to fail. It is hopeful without being optimistic.
Black activists are keepers of the faith, recognizing that its vitality is not exhausted by the reality they struggle against.
We may falter, and the material, psychological, and political goods of white supremacy may deplete our desire to transform. We know the history—from the 1880s to the 1960s—of white backlash in response to a more expansive racial justice. In fact, we are living through one such backlash given the ascendancy of Trump. But our political community is what it is because we have made it this way. It is not fated to be. Believing otherwise makes white supremacy something more than a collection of choices, habits, and practices—it makes it part of human nature itself. Coates wants us to face the facts and embrace black atheism. But throughout the book he often slides from working in the historical register to speaking in the idiom of philosophical metaphysics—at one moment he stands in time and at another he stands outside of it, confidently telling us how history will end. For this reason, Coates doesn't dismantle white supremacy; he ironically provides it with support.
Please understand my concern. Coates is right: he doesn’t have a “responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world.” We must, as he has often done, speak the truth. But we must not claim to know what we cannot possibly know. Humility creates space for hope.
This is why James Baldwin remains so helpful and why his work is ubiquitous these days. The United States, he insisted, is a collection of choices. And precisely for this reason, we must learn how to let go of former identities as we quest after better ones. He was not a political strategist, but a keen observer and analyst of U.S. political and ethical culture and in this regard, his writings are directed to cultivating a new orientation. Baldwin’s insight for us was that we find it challenging to live together precisely because we have not always understood what it means to allow features of ourselves to perish. In depicting our many selves, Baldwin reduces the burden of letting go. If there is only one self at stake, as Coates believes, if white supremacy is the country’s only identity, then letting go is entering an abyss.
The United States, Baldwin insisted, is a collection of choices. And precisely for this reason, we must learn how to let go of former identities as we quest after better ones.
Perhaps, as so many tell us, the sun is setting on the U.S. empire. The death of an empire is nothing to lament, tied as intimately as empires are to death and destruction. But the United States is not only an empire. Its liberal democratic tendencies run deep and have often been used not merely for good, but to bring about the good as it relates to racial equality. As the empire dies, why should we abandon the idea that something new may yet be born? What we must ask ourselves now, is what in our past might we retrieve for our present, how might those resources be reimagined to articulate a political faith more humane and just than the reality we find ourselves living, and how might we allow portions of ourselves to die with grace so that we might flourish with dignity? Answering these questions begins with denying that the story of who we are is simple and settled.
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