Sunday 12 November 2017

Reconstruction and Deconstruction: Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power explores how the ideology of white supremacy expressed itself during the Obama years and the election of Donald Trump

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Photo: Stephen Voss)

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”
– Thomas Miller, South Carolina Congressman, 1895.
“The beauty in his (Baldwin’s) writing wasn’t just style or ornament but an unparalleled ability to see what was before him clearly and then lay that vision, with that same clarity, before the world.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power.

The Congressman quoted in the first epigraph was an African-American who in a futile effort was attempting to make the case that blacks in the legislature had provided competent government so why should whites attempt to disenfranchise blacks with poll taxes and literacy tests. It was not necessary for him to add the terrorist attacks from the Klan against blacks who attempted to vote. A few years later the civil rights icon, W.E.B. Du Bois, offered an insightful response: “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.’’ These two quotations provide the title and the thesis of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest offering, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (One World, 2017). The good government that Obama provided generated a racist backlash in which Donald Trump was the major beneficiary. Coates’s book is structured around eight essays, one for each year of the Obama presidencywritten originally for The Atlantic, for which he is a national correspondent, and concludes with a blistering epilogue on the white supremacist ideology of Trump in all its “truculent and sanctimonious power.” 

Each essay is enriched by an “extended blog” at the beginning that puts it in the context of what was happening in America when he wrote it, and what was happening in his own development as a writer. He freely acknowledges that the election of Obama was not only a boom to his career – he spent a lot of time interviewing Obama – but also to other African-American writers. These shorter pieces are also enlivened by his retrospective comments that critique his own essay. For instance in his first essay, a profile of the conservatism of Bill Cosby who berates the black community for “blaming the white man,” Coates references the purported sexual assaults others were writing about at that time. But they consist of two bland sentences – a rarity for him – buried in a larger paragraph. In his prologue to this essay, he acknowledges his “shame” and “failure” for not elaborating upon “the torrent of rape allegations that swirled around him even then.” Had he done so, he could have underscored Cosby’s hypocrisy when the latter argues that the younger generation has not lived up to the greatness of the sixties civil rights generation, which includes him. 

The second epigraph is Coates’s tribute to James Baldwin whom he regards as a mentor. In his Between the World and Me (2015), which won the National Book Award, is a cri de coeur written in epistolary form addressed to his teenage son after the non-indictment of a police officer who killed a young black man. It is modelled on Baldwin’s seminal The Fire Next Time, which Coates read when he was nineteen and now admits he did not fully understand at that time. But he was mesmerized by the beauty of Baldwin’s prose. As he later came to appreciate its meaning, Coates recognizes that Baldwin’s lapidary style cannot be distinguished from the power of his content – a credo that informs his own writing – and that the duty of the writer is to speak with clarity and honesty. Like Baldwin, Coates’s mission has been to grapple with and confront American racism.

James Baldwin

As Coates develops his unique voice, he shares with us his “influences – poetry, hip-hop, history, memoir, reportage – [to] produce something original and beautiful.” Before writing, he undertakes prodigious research, particularly in history and sociology inevitably citing a plethora of authors and their books. And he is all over the media: I have seen him interviewed on Charlie Rose and The News Hour on PBS and have heard him on two national programs on the CBC, like Baldwin’s ubiquitous presence on television in his day captured in Raoul Beck’s compelling documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Coates is currently one of the most acclaimed public intellectuals, an appellation that embarrasses him even though he is proud of being the black writer for The Atlantic. 

Three essays in particular in Eight Years deserve comment. His February 2012 “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” is one of my favourites and resonates with recent news reports. His answer is that apart from current major historians the degradation of black slavery has basically been excluded from the “comforting narrative of tragedy, failed compromise and individual gallantry” promoted in films, civil war sites and popular discourse. He quotes leading Confederate participants before the Civil War who argue that slavery was essential to their way of life and any attempt to limit would be intolerable to Confederates. After they lost the war, they changed their tune, proclaiming that there were irreconcilable differences between the industrial north and the agricultural south and that the inability of the national government to compromise led to the tragedy of the war. Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the years prior to the war from the 1787 Constitutional Convention onward knows this explanation is patently false. Yet this view continued to be parroted by the historian, Shelby Foote, in Ken Burns’s breakthrough 1990 documentary The Civil War, and as recently as John Kelly, the White House chief of staff in an interview on Fox, an assertion demolished by writers in The New York Times and The New Yorker.

Coates’s criticism of Burns’s Civil War extends to the reverence shown to southern generals, one in particular who was a slave trader, a Klansman and likely condoned a massacre of black Union soldiers who were surrendering. Yet Foote describes Nathan Bedford Forrest as “one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history.” Coates might have said much more about that series, although he would have had to acknowledge that the first episode on slavery is a searing indictment of that horrific condition. But an expanded discussion on the rest of the series, especially on the concluding episode, would have reinforced what Coates does say about how blacks in this horrendous conflict: they “feature strictly as stock characters and props.” Yet he is encouraged by his most recent visit to the Gettysburg battlefield site which he asserts is the “most honest and forward-looking,” given that the introductory film emphasizes the role of slavery in the conflict and it is now recognizing the role that free blacks played.

His 2014 cover page essay “The Case for Reparations,” is the longest and perhaps most powerful one in the book in which he identifies plunder as a core component of racism. Punctuated with his signature historical and sociological references, Coates provides a compelling historical overview of the legacy of slavery: the Jim Crow era of disenfranchisement, land grabs and terror in the South to the exclusionary policies of New Deal programs and the financial toll African-Americans confronted when they journeyed north. Framed by one man’s account of his moving from Mississippi to Chicago during the Great Migration, he served his country during World War II only to encounter discriminatory policies in housing promulgated by the federal government. For example, the G.I. Bill offered loans and credit to whites that enabled them to purchase a home in the suburbs but denied the same benefits to blacks who instead were at the mercy of unscrupulous private lenders who often seized houses when exorbitant payments could not be made. Because of the violence, fraud and theft visited on blacks, Coates makes a persuasive, albeit, given the racial climate, quixotic, case for reparations.

In “Fear of a Black President,” originally published in the fall of 2012, Coates sets out his interpretation of white supremacy when a black man who had to be “Twice as Good” to be elected faced a racial backlash whenever he commented on racial matters. After the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Coates notes how the president was savaged by offering the mildest of identifications with the dead child (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”) One of the most despicable comments came from Newt Gingrich: “Is the President suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that it would be okay because it wouldn’t look like him.” One more example: Coates contrasts the treatment of a black longtime civil and farmers' rights activist Shirley Sherrod – fired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the wake of a video doctored to reflect negatively on her to the later acute embarrassment of the Obama administration – with that of Sgt. James Crowley. Crowley, a white policeman, was invited to share a beer with Obama and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. after Crowley arrested Gates as the professor tried to enter his own home. Obama had rebuked the officer for a stupid action for which the president was subsequently assailed as a racist. Coates draws upon these two examples to demonstrate that whites must be placated as they are morally innocent while black guilt is assumed. Obama also learned how fraught his political position could become if he did not moderate and restrict his comments on race. Coates notes that Obama spoke less about race than any Democratic President since 1961. Nonetheless, the election of Obama became a rallying cry for racists and “effectively racialized white Americans’ views, even of health care policy.” If anyone doubts Coates's gloomy assessment, go online and look at the text and imagery on placards carried by individuals who opposed The Affordable Care Act. So much for the hope that Obama would usher in a post-racial paradise.

Coates retains a high regard for Obama and yet they disagree over the prospect for a more harmonious racial future. Throughout his eight years as president, Obama never seemed to waiver in his belief that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. With Obama’s election, Coates briefly allowed himself to entertain the same belief. He was quickly disenchanted. For a brief time, Coates “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.” The 2016 election of Trump confirmed his worst fears about the unjust “double standard.” If “Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible…Trump’s counter is persuasive –work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.” Yet he is not depressed; he has become more focused as he calls for a resistance that is “intolerant of self exoneration.” And like Baldwin, he does not offer comforting messages of hope: “Every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” Harsh perhaps but disturbingly true.

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