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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Uneasy Hope

The writer's critics call him a cynic. But as a new anthology shows, his thinking has matured in subtle ways over the years.

Anna Webber/Getty Images

The word most frequently attached to Ta-Nehisi Coates is probably pessimistic. His critics charge him with focusing on American racism’s intransigence, and overstating the power that white supremacy exerts on black life. In the New York Times, Michelle Alexander raised concern that Coates too quickly dismissed the individual citizens’ power to alter race relations via political change. Thomas Chatterton Williams characterized Coates’ approach to race as dangerously essentialist, saying that his writing, “Mirrors the ideas of race—specifically the specialness of whiteness—that white supremacist thinkers cherish.”  Meanwhile, critics from the left, such as R.L. Stephens, would prefer that he contextualize race relations within the more optimistic bounds of class struggle and interracial solidarity between workers. Coates’s critics think that he views racism as fundamentally unchanging, a static anti-blackness that infects American history from 1619 to now, and they extend that immobility to Coates’ thought: If only he introduced some movement into his analysis, they argue, he’d have a more clearheaded perspective.

One World Publishing, 400 pp., $28

What Coates’ critics most want is a sense of hope, a vision that promises a way out of America’s heretofore unshakeable history of racial oppression. Coates’ latest volume, the essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, stages a challenge to this demand for hope. Spanning the eight years of President Obama’s tenure, Coates’ trenchant accounting of white supremacy’s enduring presence asks us to sacrifice easy optimism in favor of a hard-nosed analysis of how history continues to limit and oppress us. Most importantly, this volume reveals that Coates’ critics to have been attacking a straw man all along.

Eight Years, which includes eight essays that appeared in the Atlantic between 2007 to 2016, reveals a mind in motion. Though many readers will have encountered these essays before, this volume alters the way we engage with them. A short preface accompanies each essay, allowing Coates to narrate the political and personal circumstances in which he was writing. Gathered as they are in this volume, they amount to an intellectual autobiography of a changeable thinker whose assessment of racial politics adapted to explain the perennial problem of the color line. As the years pass, Coates attacks the same problem from different angles of approach, and revises his thought in public. But the sense always remains that each iteration of Coates’s thinking is provisional, due to crumble in the face of a future realization.

Coates’s thesis is simple: The history of American democracy, he claims, has always been premised upon a few foundational myths, the most important of which is that black people are outsiders without the capacity for citizenship. This myth, Coates argues, is the animating force of American democracy. “American myths have never been colorless,” he asserts. “They cannot be extricated from [slavery], which holds that an entire class of people carry peonage in their blood.” The central drama of American history, then, is black people’s determination to participate in a democracy never intended for their use. In a democracy informed by Thomas Jefferson’s assumption that black people are not human, this is no simple proposition. Black citizenship—or, as Coates terms it, “Good Negro Government”—terrifies white supremacists because it short-circuits every assumption upon which their democracy and identities rest.

In the nineteenth century, white supremacists did everything they could to forestall Good Negro Government’s arrival. As W.E.B. Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction, his massive history of Reconstruction’s attempt to create black citizenship, Reconstruction’s collapse was not a historic inevitability; it was a choice. Slavery was the enabling factor that made democracy and economic mobility possible for white Americans. Remaking blacks into citizens threatened to upend the entire rationale for white rule—the certainty, promulgated by the likes of Jefferson, that blacks were fundamentally unfit for the responsibilities of democratic government. With that transformation, the pillar of America’s white supremacist republic would collapse, and democracy would have to be thought anew. Eight Years is an extension of Black Reconstruction’s thesis: Since white supremacists couldn’t forestall Good Negro Government in this century, they did everything they could to sabotage its success once it arrived—specifically, once it arrived in the form of Barack Obama.  “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,” Coates writes. “And that was always the problem.”

In Eight Years, Reconstruction and its failure are precedents for understanding Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. The book articulates a grim symmetry between the end of Reconstruction and our own historical moment. The implication is clear: White supremacist forces are poised to foil yet another attempt at racial justice. Coates summarizes a nightmarish image of “history, awful and undead, reaching out from the grave” to drag our society back into the past.

Coates own insistence on the language of repetition presents this return as a historical given: Because America is rooted in the history of a slave state, it is doomed to replicate the same struggles that that trade set in motion. But Coates arrives at this thesis gradually. Eight Years begins in the winter of 2007, with Coates licking his wounds after suffering another in a string of professional failures. He’s been fired from his job and is sitting, ironically, in a seminar on “work, responsibility, and the need to stay off the dole.” The racial issues that he deems crucial to understanding America are not the issues that interest the rest of the nation. He feels alienated and unmoored. 

In a stroke of fate, Barack Obama launches his campaign for the presidency during that same winter.. The senator from Illinois enchanted white America, and his campaign helped give rise to a new set of black writers who could interpret Obama to the rest of the nation, Coates foremost among them. And so Obama’s rise became inextricably linked to Coates’s own intellectual and professional rise.

Obama emerges as a sparring partner against whom Coates hones his thought and craft. Before Coates ever gets to meet Obama, he figures in the writer’s mind as both symbol of possibility and a purveyor of wrongheaded, conservative racial politics. Coates notes that Obama’s first presidential campaign trafficked in respectability politics. “In fact,” he argues, “this sort of rhetoric amounts to something of a racial double play, allowing Obama … to cater both to culturally conservative blacks and to whites who are convinced that black America is a bastion of decadence.” This is a theme Coates returns to often: Again and again, he asserts that nothing other than a national reckoning and massive government intervention will alleviate black suffering. This marks what Coates perceives to be a crucial break between the Obama and himself: Whereas Coates operates in a radical black intellectual lineage that demands nothing less than the total reengineering of American government and economics, Obama hews closer to a reformist agenda that Coates aligns with conservative black thinkers like Booker T. Washington.

But if Coates sometimes dismisses Obama, he’s also fully aware of the possibility for the reconciliation Obama’s presidency represents. At times he seems more than just aware of this possibility—he puts his faith in it. Reflecting on the 2008 presidential campaign, he remembers that “it now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime … it seemed possible that the success of one man really could alter history.” In an essay titled “American Girl,” he reports on Michelle Obama’s role in her husband’s campaign as a figure of black people’s assimilation into the American Dream. Coates admits that he “almost took her for white” the first time he met her. It’s not that Michelle Obama could ever be mistaken for a white woman, but that she represents an ardent belief that African Americans can be “fully vested, no Du Boisian veil, in the country at large.” Given the affection with which Coates showers Mrs. Obama, readers can safely assume that Coates shared the sentiment at the time.

This is a far cry from the Coates of 2011. In the wake of the Tea Party’s rise, which at the time was startlingly blunt in its racism, Coates writes wistfully of the stillborn post-racial era. “There was time when I believed in an arc of cosmic justice,” he writes. In “Fear of a Black President,” it’s clear that he no longer puts his faith in that arc. Instead, he’s haunted by the return of America’s investment in white supremacist government, an investment that leaves Good Negro Government no quarter. “The irony of Barack Obama is this: He has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding … radioactive racial issues,” Coates observes. “And yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.” The nation, he seems to say, will never surmount its fear of blackness. Coates paints a tragic portrait of a president hemmed in by America’s investment in white supremacy, and of a nation retreating to old patterns, once again flinching from the hard work of racial reform.

But the volume’s final essay, “My President Was Black,” most exemplifies the sense of oscillation and movement that anchors Eight Years. Written in the twilight of the Obama era, with a triumphantly black BET farewell party as the setting, “My President” isn’t so much a conclusion as an ambivalent attempt to reconcile Coates’ hope for the transformative potential of Obama’s presidency with mounting evidence of a simmering racial backlash. A sense of utter astonishment buoys the essay up. Despite white supremacy’s persistence, the fact that a black man reached the pinnacle of American power is a legitimate source of joy for Coates. It’s proof that America’s past does not have to determine it’s future, and a signal that black people are not trapped in the roles that white supremacy assigns them to. Obama’s critics often charged that his victories for racial justice were “merely symbolic.”  However, as Coates counters, “there is nothing ‘mere’ about symbols.”  

The racial backlash that Obama engendered testifies to the fact that any attempt by black people to liberate themselves fundamentally threatens the American order. This is part of the glory of Barack Obama’s presidency, that black people possess the potential to recreate America as a true democracy. But the events that have followed the Obama presidency tell us that democracy’s advent will perhaps remain more of a potentiality than a reality, a protracted struggle that the nation will not resolve without enormous strength of political will. 

Eight Years in Power asks us to linger in that tension instead of dismissing it. Coates’s gradual drift away from post-racial hopes towards hard-nosed realism shows us that he has been in motion this whole time, not denying America’s capacity to change, but realizing how monumental the task before us is.