On the Unbroken Tradition of White Supremacy in American Politics: A Review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power
I’m blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle
Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles
Like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex
Broken glass wall better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing
Say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream
But you chain cats get they CHA-POW, who dead now
Killing fields need blood to graze the cash cow
It’s a number game, but shit don’t add up somehow
Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
When I was twenty years old, I was attacked by a group of people outside a nightclub. They kicked me in the head until many of the bones on the right side of my face were broken. That was when I learned what a bone sounds like as it snaps. If the same bone is kicked two or three more times, it makes a wet sound, like mud beneath a boot.
I don’t remember how or when I came to be talking to a police officer, only that at some point I asked him if I needed to give my statement so that I could press charges. I can still feel the white-hot scorn radiating from his words as he told me that things like this happened to people like me every day, and he had no intention of pursuing the matter. I was confused, because I was in college on an ROTC scholarship, made decent grades, and had never been in trouble, but I didn’t ask any questions.
I retreated to my hometown so that my bones could knit and my ego heal. There was a man in my church with whom I was friendly, and who had a great many scars. He and I had met for breakfast occasionally for several years, during which time he had, in so many words, confessed to having been a killer and a loan shark before the Holy Spirit stirred the waters of his heart. He chastised me for playing at being tough in a city of which I had no understanding, and in which I didn’t belong. I’d been meat, he told me, and I would always be meat to such people. I hadn’t told him the details of what happened, and it was humiliating to know that my shame was etched into my face, and there was nothing I could say or do to ameliorate it. I’d claimed a toughness I hadn’t earned, and had the claim fed to me by a cluster of people with malice in their fists.
Even with the loan shark’s help, I needed time to understand what had happened to me and why, to see that I’d stepped out of my lane into a world in which a different kind of gravity held sway, one governed by laws that were foreign to me and presided over by judges in settings I didn’t recognize as courtrooms. I needed space, too, and a safe outlet for the rage that I was only just able to contain. And I was given all those things.
In his 2015 book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates recounts stories of the physical violence he has suffered as a black man to create an account of the vulnerability of black bodies in white America. Among them is an experience not unlike my own, in which Coates was knocked to the ground, stomped on, and kicked. Yet whereas my violation was an outlier easily attributable to hubris and the poverty of my judgment, a single battle in which I was defeated by adversaries that will never again impinge on my ability to relish life, Coates’ assault was anything but a one off. It was, rather, yet another battle against unseen foes seeking to destroy his mind, soul, and body, along with those of his entire race.
I had my loan shark, and plenty of time and space to make sense of what happened to me. Coates was given no such luxuries, only the fires of racial hate lapping at his body, malevolent tendrils tightening around his neck, and an unrelenting dread saturating every cell of his body. The similarity between our experiences is superficial, and yet even as we recognize this, we struggle to calibrate our minds in a way that enables us to perform the racial calculus that differentiates black experience from white experience in a multitude of ways, on several distinct registers.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy is Coates’ attempt to make sense of the violence perpetually bearing down on his people by demonstrating racism’s imbrication in the foundational mechanisms that birthed America, and which continue to sustain her in the present day. Part social critique, part memoir, the book weaves together Coates’ essays published throughout the eight years of the Obama administration with present-day reflections on his previous work made possible by the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Plunging into the American archive, he excavates documents and artifacts that demonstrate that black suffering is produced and perpetuated, strategically and systemically, “by American design.” What he seeks, ultimately, is a narrative that will confirm his intuition, validating his experiences and observations of racially motivated violence and oppression in the face of a system that would have him doubt his own sanity. The resulting collection is a gift, not only to himself, but also to all those who daily feel the dread of living in a country that denies them their humanity.
The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
The construction of a cultural identity is a violent process rooted in the structure and dynamics of narrative. Narratives consolidate and articulate common experiences and cultural practices to produce such artificial markers of identity as “African American,” imposing a frame that creates meaning by fiat. “This Is How We Lost to the White Man” (2009), “American Girl” (2009), and “The Legacy of Malcolm X” (2011) examine the ways in which epistemic violence is implicated in the narrative construction of African-American identity. In these essays, Coates unpacks the intellectual and behavioral torsions demanded of black America by white America as the condition of its participation in national life, along with the modes and performance of African-American compliance and contumacy.
Coates locates African-American identity at the nexus of two centrifugal necessities: on the one hand, the need to acknowledge, understand, and respond to the reality of white racism, and on the other, the need to promulgate an account of black agency which renders resistance and self-creation possible. The African American who ignores the existence of white racism is liable to get blindsided; the African American who cowers in the face of white supremacy dies without having lived. The African American who overestimates his own powers in dealing with white America will likely end up crushed; the African American who believes himself incapable of resistance and self-defense finds himself subject to a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Coates unrelentingly demonstrates, Black America is located somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis.
African-American culture, like all cultures and communities that live in a state of unrelenting duress and perpetual peril, is susceptible to ideas and beliefs that not only fail to serve its best interests, but preclude the realization of those interests, taking root in the bosom of society, and building up around themselves ideological edifices and a machinery of practices that elevate their dictums to carcinogenic orthodoxy, a phenomena corroborated by theorists such as Steve Biko, Franz Fanon, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Malcolm X, and others. Coates analyzes the impact of black conservatism and the concomitant rhetoric of personal responsibility on the African American psyche, posing them as examples of precisely such edifices. Pointing to African-American leaders such as Louis Farrakhan, Bill Cosby, and even Barack Obama, Coates traces the moralistic message back to seventeenth-century assertions of black cultural pathology and individual moral turpitude, taking care to demonstrate that black America’s development of such ideology, while autonomous, was predicated on a logic that reified black inferiority, and thus guaranteed harm.
Michelle Obama has never been a slave; she grew up on the south side of Chicago, in a world sufficiently segregated to allow her to slip into the warm complacency intrinsic to the belief that the world was made just for her, and people like her. It was only when the time came for her to leave Chicago and enter into the larger world that she was made to realize that her survival depended on her compliance with a new and very different set of rules, on her mastery of code-switching, on her willingness to void herself of any behaviors, opinions, patterns of speech, references, and behaviors that evoked African-American culture or identity. The price of her admission was her complicity in the maintenance of white-American mythology, her silence on the matter of the most fundamental element of her being.
None of these three essays measure up to Coates’ present standards, lacking the coherence and clarity of both observation and intellect that characterize his more mature work. To his credit, Coates openly acknowledges their faults, writing, for example, of “The Legacy of Malcom X” that it “sounds better than it reads.” Be that as it may, each essay still possesses the spark of life. “This Is How We Lost to the White Man” begins to differentiate faction from faction, person from person, allowing the uninitiated eye to glimpse the flex and breath of a diverse community, while “American Girl” extends the journey, leading the reader beyond the flattening, pro-forma laments of the evils of racism and poverty by lifting the veil of simplicity and obfuscation beneath which whiteness seeks to bury African-American lives. In “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” Coates conjures the elemental violence of Malcolm’s rage that ate at him from the craw, and his rendering approaches the sublime. Taken together, the essays illuminate the very thing white-supremacist culture cannot acknowledge, the textured emotional, intellectual, and spiritual life of black America.
We have come over a way that with tears has
We have come, treading our path through the
blood of the slaughtered.
—James Weldon Johnson
The ideas drafted in “White Man” and “American Girl” find further and more limpid articulation in Coates’ subsequent essays. In “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?,” Coates synthesizes insights from history, sociology, and critical race theory into a horrifying first-person narrative that constitutes a succinct and schematic vivisection of American racial politics. He cleaves through time like a scalpel in order to lay bare and reckon with the forces that coalesced in the first black codes passed by the Virginia Colony in 1661, forces that led the nation into Civil War, that gnashed their teeth through Reconstruction and the subsequent resurrection of the Confederacy, and that frothed at the mouth and swung the rope and shot and spat and cursed and terrorized black America. Coates conjures clots of blood and mangled flesh and death from the very soil, demons and wraiths that dealt in inarticulable violence, driving black bodies and black souls from their homes by the tens of thousands in acts of parturition that whelped the First and Second Great Migrations, the exodus of black legions who fled choking on white terror into cities in which soulless men and women turned firehoses on their children, tearing flesh from prepubescent bodies.
“Civil War” is an act of narrative epistemology constructed on the thematic of black erasure, and the notion of white innocence that commands it. The essay cites America’s narrative interpretation of the Civil War, with our denial not only of the centrality of slavery to the conflict, but also of black suffering prior to and during the war, as an example of the strategic, systemic erasure of black people by which the white race reinstates itself in its proper position of dominion. The production of this revisionist history also acts as a salve to soothe chapped consciences by rewriting slavery as a “benevolent institution” while purging events such as the massacre at Fort Pillow from the historical record, and ignoring the fact that slavery was a principled and programmatic annihilation of the black family. Coates demonstrates that through such a redaction of the American story, white America leaves no room for black existence, perpetuating the disenfranchisement of slavery by willfully striking from the record statements such as Alexander Stephens’ declaration that the Confederacy was “founded … upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Coates painstakingly excavates his way through the multiple layers of revisionist narratives that have obscured the violence inflicted on African Americans throughout our country’s history. Yet despite his careful work, he will never be permitted to prove that African Americans are suffering or have suffered, no matter how many artifacts he uncovers, because to do so would threaten the identity white America has claimed for herself and necessitate a rewriting of the narratives by which she understands herself. African-American pathos is not accorded much weight in the court of American society, and the burden of proof that bears down on black America anytime it dares voice its grievances is crushing. One wonders what Coates might be able to accomplish if he didn’t have to go so far out of his way simply to demonstrate that racism exists and is thriving in the same America that professes to be based on the presumption that all men are created equal.
“Fear of a Black President” is not the first essay in Eight Years in Power to drop President Obama’s name or raise the issue of his race, but it is the first to situate him explicitly in relation to the two principles that serve as the pivots of the American political system: our professed love of democracy and our white supremacist ideology. Coates describes these as two conflicting facts, but I think he does himself a disservice. As racism need not manifest as hate or violence in order to serve its interests, only to “fix black people in one corner of the universe so that white people may be secure in all the rest of it,” I see no reason to assume that democracy and white supremacy are incapable of collaboration.
Coates demonstrates that both Obama’s person and presidency are marked with implicit restrictions that render the blackness of his body a testament to the dominion of white supremacy, restrictions that impinge upon his ability to lay claim to an identity of his choosing and to articulate opinions or experiences beyond those expressly permitted him by the dictums of white society. The thinly concealed subtext of the Obama administration was always that his presence in the Oval Office was contingent upon his silence with regard to the very quality that distinguished him from all those who had previously held the office, the quality that made his presence revolutionary. As such, the unpardonable transgression he perpetrated against White America is clear: “If I had a son,” President Obama said with galling temerity, “he’d look like Trayvon.”
Hell hath no fury like white supremacy scorned.
Yale historian Matthew Jacobson has claimed that from the nineteenth century onward, there has been “an unquestioned acceptance of whiteness as a prerequisite for naturalized citizenship,” and Coates is clear that Donald Trump’s birther-ism amounted to a bald attempt to levy the barrel of time-honored racist narratives of black illegitimacy at the commander-in-chief. Tragically, the willingness to act upon such crass racist impulses is not unique to our president, but rather, as we have said, endemic to American government. And should you have any doubts about the contempt with which the denizens of American government regard African Americans, it is hard to imagine a case that could do more to dissolve that doubt than Barack Obama’s, a political moderate bound for eight years by the chains of a pathologically obstructionist Congress, and subsequently escorted from the Oval Office at the end of his term with the Republicans’ two wars still raging; Guantanamo Bay open; drones dropping bombs in the Middle East; Wall Street, big finance, and the American automotive industry having been bailed out with nary a finger wagged at those responsible, and with more immigrants having been deported than were under any other administration in American history. But for his largely successful, if deeply flawed, healthcare program, it would be difficult to put a finger on Obama’s affront to the national cabal. Nevertheless, he continues to be regularly pilloried by the proliferation of rightist media outlets willing to endorse, or at least turn a blind eye to, Donald Trump.
In case you still have doubts about the power and prevalence of racism in America, Coates invites his readers to conduct a thought experiment: Attempt to conceive of a black analogue to Donald Trump, an African American who has ascended to the highest office in the nation with six bankruptcies to his name; an African American best known for his turn on a reality-TV show that enabled him to flaunt the sadistic psycho-sexual behaviors that led multiple women to make formal accusations of rape and sexual assault against him in a court of law; a brother with no experience in politics or public service who is brash and crass where his predecessor was studied and dignified; an OG willfully and proudly ignorant instead of assiduous and informed; a baller who has spent more on golf and vacations in the first year of his presidency than his predecessor spent in eight; a playa taking golden showers in hotel rooms provided by a foreign, historically hostile, government.
You can’t. It’s inconceivable.
What is it, then, that sets Trump apart? Why do serious people in positions of power grant him their blessing, comparing him favorably to Obama?
In the book’s final essay, “The First White President,” Coates contends that it comes down to a quality that Trump possesses, which Obama did not, and does not, and will not.
He is white.
The common goal of twenty-two million Afro-Americans is respect as human beings, the God-given right to be a human being. Our common goal is to obtain the human rights that America has been denying us. We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans.
As is so often the case, I have the least to say about the most important elements of Eight Years in Power; work of the importance and achievement of “The Case for Reparations” justifies careers, and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” is nearly as good. Together, they lay bare the mechanisms of white supremacy in arduous detail. Coates charts white America’s progressive denigration of black America, its manufacturing of black poverty, deprivation, and terror through the judicious use of redlining, racial violence, and social and political disenfranchisement, through the creation and maintenance of a carceral state, unequal law enforcement, and predatory lending.
These are not essays to be described, but ones that must be read, because their weight and value stems not from the novelty of the ideas they contain, or the presentation of an abstract conceptual apparatus that can be employed as a hermeneutic lens, but from what they verify, and what they deny. They are words to be read by little black boys who’ve just been accosted by a policeman for the first time for no reason other than that they were running, trying to make it home from school before somebody’s cousin made good on his threat to jack them up; they are words to be read by stoic old men and women, grandparents who never said a word to anyone about all they’d been made to suffer and bear; they are words for convicts who felt like they never had a chance, and words for high achievers whose answer to every challenge was simply to go harder. These essays are expressions of Coates’ freedom, which is the freedom to scream, to challenge the story of white America, white innocence, and its Pollyanna mythology of post-racial liberty and justice for all. “The masters could lie to themselves,” Coates writes, “could lie to the world, but they would never force me to lie to myself.”
Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,” and while his faith is uplifting and beautifully expressed, Coates, finally, is either unwilling or unable to ratify Douglass’ optimism. Coates penned “Reparations” and “Mass Incarceration” to illuminate the processes by which slaves continue to be made and kept by the oppressive narratives of white America, but he is clear that unveiling the true story of race in America, while an act of defiance, ultimately matters little “if the world is set upon hearing a different one.”
Perhaps it is only a response to the vitality of Coates’ art and the vivid detail of the images through which he renders black America’s suffering, but I am skeptical of his professed fatalism. I can’t imagine enduring the fires of black America’s torment apart from the belief in something enduring, in humanity’s capacity for transformation, and in writing these words, I recognize that I have only just now understood the true nature of the violence of white supremacy.
We gone fight till we can’t fight no more
You can’t fight no more
You gone lie down and bleed a while
You gone get up
Fight some more
Want you say it with me
Repeat it after me when I say it
We gone fight
—The Roots, Stomp
The lucidity of “My President Was Black” and “The First White President” is such that one experiences their assertions and conclusions as obvious, an illusion that speaks to Coates’ proficiency as a writer, and which readily dissolves as the reader deepens her consideration of the text. Coates interrupts his exposition of Obama’s circumscription by the governmental structures of an ideologically white society in order to tout the “major feats” accomplished by the administration, a move that feels filmy, as I find it extremely difficult to accept that a man who has dedicated roughly three hundred pages to the exposition and analysis of systemic dynamics truly believes that a raft of largely symbolic gestures will have a significant and lasting impact on American governance or social politics.
Coates’ summation of Obama’s significance for America’s racial politics is concise and incisive, demonstrating in the space of a page that the entire discourse of racial trauma, and the full force of miscegenation, slavery, emancipation, regression, oppression, and resistance converge upon the body and being of America’s first black president, a man whose success is attributable, if not to his inner whiteness, then, at the very least, to his preternatural capacity to disarm white America’s instinctual terror of black men. Yet, despite his possession of such extraordinary qualities, Obama’s ascension to the presidency constituted an affront to white supremacy for which black America had to be punished. That punishment took the form of Donald Trump and his band of truculent bigots, of Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and the parade of incompetents such as Ben Carson, Kellyanne Conway, and Sean Spicer, to say nothing of the attendant reintegration of David Duke into mainstream America, and the normalization of Klansmen and Nazi salutes.
Granted, the above account is contested, but Coates raises and destroys the facile narrative now preeminent in liberal circles that frames Trump’s victory as a backlash against liberal elites’ “contempt for white working people,” an argument so demonstrably vacuous that deploying Coates to refute it is the intellectual equivalent of going after a hangnail with a chainsaw. The fact that poor black workers, who have for years suffered under a far more programmatic and intense contempt than their white counterparts, have yet to flock into the open arms of team Trump would seem to indicate that economic hardship and bruised feelings are further down the list of incentives drawing people to support the Trump administration than Charles Murray, George Packer, Nicholas Kristof, and others would have us believe, a notion Coates supports with statistics on the economic status of the average Trump voter.
Coates makes clear that the lionization of the white working class is neither new nor accidental. The left’s failure to recognize or recover an awareness of the enmity established between white labor and black is a failure to acknowledge the exalted place that whiteness occupies within American politics. This is what renders the Donald Trumps of the world possible. Coates calls him the “most dangerous president” in American history, made all the more so “by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.” And here we arrive at book’s end, and at an exhortation that undermines Coates’ fatalism and professed atheism: “There was nothing inevitable about Donald Trump’s election, and while great damage has been done by his election, at the time of this writing it is not yet the end of history. What is needed now is resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against bringing oneself to evil.… I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and even war finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal—a world more humane.”
Much of We Were Eight Years in Power is bleak, and given the conditions in which we find ourselves, necessarily so. Nonetheless, Coates ends his book with the idea that even a world cut and carved with racial hate can be set on a better course, and calls upon the reader to do what he may.
It appears that even the atheist clings to a modicum of faith.
Ciahnan Darrell is an adjunct professor in the English departments at King’s College (PA) and Wilkes University. He holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the University at Buffalo, an MA in philosophy from Stony Brook University, and an MDiv from the University of Chicago. An Africanist, he currently researches representations of racialized and gendered violence in Southern African fiction, and examines the implications of neoliberalism on depictions of subjectivity in Southern African fiction. A contributing editor at the Marginalia Review of Books, he has also published fiction in Gone Lawn, Rum Punch Press, The Legendary, and elsewhere.