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       We Were Eight Years in Power

An American Tragedy


 Ta-Nehisi Coates


New York: One World Publishing, 2017

 Hardcover. xviii + 367 pages. ISBN 978-399590566. $28


Reviewed by Salian Sylla

Université Paris Nanterre






Coates’s latest book is fundamentally and radically American. First and foremost because it explores the eight years Barack Obama spent at the head of the United States grappling with the country’s contradictions and trying to implement what he considers the best way to overcome them. Then because the subtitle hints at a fictional masterpiece (An America Tragedy) written by Theodore Dreiser in the mid- 1920s recounting the story of young Clyde Griffiths lost in his quest for personal achievement in a tragically prosperous country. Finally, the author, though he invites an unidentified number of persons in his singular use of “we” in the title, shows enthusiasm as well as skepticism about the country’s handling of its social and political issues with regard to its African American citizens.

Coates draws the title of his book from a statement made by Thomas Miller, ephemeral Representative from South Carolina, but then one of the very few Blacks to hold a seat at Congress. In stating his oft-quoted phrase ‘we were eight years in power,’ Miller was advocating the period when Negroes first became voters and eligible citizens in the Reconstruction era. This privilege lasted only eight years before Southern conservatives and supremacists started their Redemption movement.

Coates establishes a historical continuum between that period and the advent of Obama. This continuum allows him to present right at the very beginning of his essay his belief in a “Good Negro Government,” evolving by the same token an exemplification of what he considers a praiseworthy experience through this distinctive feature. This short-lived experience in the former Confederate States was still remembered by the end of the 19th Century by some as the symbol of a “Negro rule,” then a polysemic expression that praised African American men’s new citizenship, or enhanced defiance and even sparked violence from white supremacists.

Nevertheless, the book encompasses eight chapters, each of them being preceded by a long introduction providing the reader with a view of the author’s own articles in retrospect some years before. This retrospective analysis allows Coates to add some personal and private recollections into history, turning his individual quest for a comprehensive meaning of the American Dream into a demand for justice, equality in a so-called meritocratic society. Another striking aspect of the book is the author’s desire not only to dramatize the questions he tackles in his essay, but also to knit the African American destiny into a broader and altogether more inclusively national historical fabric.

The book opens with an account of the criticism sparked by Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake speech” delivered in 2004, which exemplifies the class tensions among African American elites and the rest of their community. Combining condescension for his brothers and nostalgia for a by-gone period, Cosby violently accuses his black audiences of being responsible for their trying economic situation. Cosby’s speeches underline a billionaire’s viewpoint developing his own class-conscious opinion about people from whom he has long broken away due to his material prosperity. His attitude, as is clearly shown by Coates, evidences a radical split among the black elite; it underlines a tendency noticed among many successful self-made black men who, including Obama, repetitively blame African Americans for their dramatic economic situation.

The second chapter leads the author to the center of his subject: the election of Barack Obama first seen in a bluntly stated American all-market vision of life: “The fact of Barack, of Michelle Obama, changed our lives. Their very existence opened a market” [43]. But soon after, the author almost apologetically clarifies: “It is important to say it in this ugly, inelegant way. It is important to remember the inconsequence of one’s talent and hard work and the incredible and unmatched sway of luck and fate” [43].

Coates draws a parallel between his own brighter professional prospects and the new era expected after this event, allowing one more time history to overlap with intimacy: “I felt that I had not changed, but the world was changing around me. It was as if I had spent my years jiggling a key into the wrong lock. The lock was changed. The door swung open, and we did not know how to act” [43]. This quasi poetic description of the advent of a black president marks a turning point when “Everything was bright. Everything was rising. Everything was a dream” [43].

Unfortunately, everything didn’t turn that bright. Despite the romantic and nostalgic description of Michelle Obama’s experience in chapter 2, the rest of the following chapters shows different issues the new administration must tackle and the backlash that Obama’s election aroused among the country’s most conservative forces pushing further right. It reminds us that the American experience has always been made of giant steps forward and reverse push backward. This binary movement during Obama’s experience mirrors the Reconstruction period when the passing of the XVth Amendment sparked hostility and violence from KKK militiamen.

Though Obama managed to adapt to a country boastfully and resoundingly hailed by many media pundits and intellectuals as a nation entering a “post-racial” era, he could no longer overlook or eschew an issue deftly silenced before his election: the American legacy and the turmoil of its turbulent racial history.

Among other subjects, the author discusses the legacy of Malcolm X, hailed by Coates as one of the most important figures in African American history. He recognizes: “It was my enduring doubts about hope and change that sent me back to Malcolm X, the greatest twentieth-century skeptic of American democracy, even as I was still trying hard to believe in Obama’s vision” [91]. Coates’s own skepticism is rekindled when he thinks of many heroines from a remote period: Harriet Tubman, Margaret Garnet, Ida B. Wells, who had been confronted with the same unidentified pangs conditioning black lives in America. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martins, fatally shot in Sanford, Florida by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, most probably because the boy was young and black. Like many before him, Martins experienced the danger stalking black people’s lives.

Obama was supposed to belie history and present, but he was soon confronted with the difficulty of observing neutrality. His cautious comments on the death of Trayvon were used by his opponents as evidence of his partiality in racial matters, allowing the latter to impugn him even more scathingly. Despite his “dexterity at navigating black and white America” [123], and given all the tragic events that triggered off here and there during his two terms, one might wonder what has become of the enthusiasm shown by Coates earlier in the book.

Indeed, one of the most important issues developed in this book remains the chapter dedicated to Coates’s advocacy of a compensation of African Americans (“The Case for reparations”) for long decades of plundering they have helplessly suffered, from slavery to Jim Crow and long after the official end of segregation. Coates most courageously uses history as a guideline to a new comprehensive approach of the question, defying all preconceived ideas as to the matter, and shedding new light on the issue. The chapter opens with the remnants of the old debate among leftist and liberal intellectuals as to what category (class or race) the endemic economic disaster among African Americans is imputable to; and the author turns again to history in order to find valuable explanations.

Discarding the culturalist arguments, he offers his own family as an example of the discursive refutation of all kinds of social determinism. Against all odds, he managed to fight his way up, defying all predictions and presumptions weighing on the black family theory and its limited and limiting schemes. This issue points to the more reflective question of the American idea of meritocracy in its real capacities to offer the same opportunities to all regardless of their family backgrounds and social connections. Indeed, one might object that exception is nothing but a datum that, though valuable for individuals, can’t but be an abnormal side effect to a greater rule that needs that very exception to better confirm its self-appointed validity. Paradoxically, Coates offers many cases that could provide material for reverse arguments stating the actual effects of segregation in a system where African Americans have often been the target of a deliberate desire to plunder them. Chicago offers a good example of how harshly and fiercely many Blacks have long been plundered by individuals, companies and local administrations driving them to the deadlock of a housing system of segregated ghettos surrounded by a wilderness of boastful opulence. Aware of the political obstacle facing his advocacy of a due reparation policy, Coates warns his potential opponents across the political spectrum: “Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient” [207].

In the same spirit, Coates tackles the recurring but nonetheless quasi unsolvable issue of mass incarceration and its distortion of criminal justice. Once again, he chooses to go closer to the very intimacy of the victims of the system, the way their lives are being tremendously affected by the war on drugs policy. Using an approach that looks worlds apart from any sociological study, Coates focuses on personal cases, and introduces us with some anonymous persons who usually escape local, let alone national public attention. Taking a well-known report (“The Negro Family”) made by former statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan under Lyndon Baines Johnson, Coates tries to explain the shift from objective to result. Drifting away from Moynihan’s primary intentions, the report was variously interpreted, bringing in a polarity that ended up in diverging interpretations from one side to the other of the political spectrum. In fact, Johnson’s “War on Poverty” policy later gave way to “war on the poor” in successive conservative administrations.

One more time, Coates refers to history and the shaping of the black criminal mythology, which speaks volumes not about African Americans, but about the American society and its creation of otherness: “Blacks were criminal brutes by nature, and something more than the law of civilized men was needed to protect the white public” [244.] Many generations of African Americans had already been affected by the terrible stigma of that myth before Moynihan wrote his famous report pressing for social and economic changes before the disaster that is now befalling black families caught within the nets of mass incarceration. Indeed, Coates’s personal merit is to raise an old debate at the peril of being mistaken for a mere spokesperson of some new enthusiastic black radical nationalists rising from the late 1960s Republic of New Africa Party advocating a new black nation and reparations. His idea is specified without any radicalism, perhaps mainly because his source of motivation and inspiration is not Malcolm X but Barack Obama, his epitome of reconciliation who, against all odds, reiterates his strong faith in American democracy jeopardized by the advent of the “first white President” [341].

Nevertheless, Coates’s conciliatory tone reveals a shortcoming in this insightful essay, he perhaps deliberately drops out some important aspects of mass-incarceration: its economic motivations and the denial of citizenship it implies. Furthermore, Coates failed to show the historical dimension of Obama’s personal failure to curb such backlashing effects of his consensual policies as the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement as a consequence of police brutality that was still raging, and the Tea Party ideology taking control of many constituencies.

After all, Obama left the White House with a sense of optimism tempered with checked bitterness [337]. His legacy remains ambiguous as regards his half-disillusioned African American supporters. To be fair to him, the circumstances of his two terms didn’t allow him to bring the fundamental changes one might have expected, due essentially to the nature of American executive power, and the constraints imposed by the check-and-balance system.

True, Obama’s presidency was sometimes made ineffective by the symmetrical rise of the right-wing ideas and wanton opposition from many influential conservative media moguls and pundits. This situation has sometimes literally shut him away from his objectives, foiling his political agenda for more social justice and economic improvement. As a consequence, his policies left out the real essence of his election: true democratic changes. One noticeable effect of Obama’s helplessness as a longtime lame-duck President is that between 2011 and 2012, 19 States passed voting restriction laws targeting mostly Africa Americans and Latinos. The revival of successive cases wherein local policemen killed unarmed African Americans underlined Obama’s incapacity - despite former Attorney General Eric Holder’s personal efforts - to curb the institutional violence visited on Blacks.

Furthermore, and most symbolically, Obama failed to tackle strongly such important issues as the militarization of the police forces, mass incarceration, or the effects of inequality and poverty that crippled his real efforts (Affordable Care Act), toward the most vulnerable people among whom African Americans, constantly summoned to fix their own economic, albeit structural problems that visibly required stronger national efforts.

After the controversies triggered by this compelling essay - notably with Cornell West, who denounced in The Guardian Coates’s “apolitical pessimism” and “[…] personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action” - one might legitimately wonder whom Coates really includes in the “We” he uses in the title of his book. If he meant “African Americans,” then it looks like a lot is still left to be not only said or written, but actually done to prove that Obama was right when he proclaimed “Yes, We Can!”

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