Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power is challenging and troubling, but the trouble does not derive mostly from the challenge. In the introduction Coates sets forth the following thesis: Donald Trump was elected as a backlash to the “Good Negro Government” of Barack Obama. The “symbolic power” of the latter “assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries,” and “fear . . . gave the symbols Donald Trump deployed — the symbols of racism — enough potency to make him president.” The model for this fear is a Confederate legislator who argued against recruiting black soldiers into the Southern army on the basis that, if they performed effectively, they would undermine the rationale for slavery.
It’s hard to tell if Coates really intends this to be an object-level causal explanation. His theory requires that the Rust Belt voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 and were subsequently integral to Trump’s 2016 victory both fully grasped and accepted a symbolic power and then reacted against a wound it caused. White voters did not prefer Trump over Hillary Clinton to a greater degree than they preferred Romney over Obama, and Trump did better among black voters than Romney did. White turnout was at best steady in 2016 as compared to 2012, but black turnout went down. Nobody denies that if he had been able to run for a third term against Trump, Obama would have won handily. Other plausible black candidates, like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Deval Patrick, would likely have performed better than Clinton as well. Trump’s “symbols of racism” — however “potent” — were mostly directed against Hispanics and Muslims, not black people, and based on week-to-week polling there is every reason to think that Trump won despite such displays, not because of them. His apparent ambivalence in disavowing David Duke saw a dip in his poll numbers, for instance, as did his attack on Khizr Khan.
Further, it’s not even clear that Coates thinks Obama’s government was very good. In the same introduction, he calls Obamacare “conservative” and notes that Obama “neglected to prosecute those largely responsible for [the 2008 economic] collapse” and “continued the generational war in the Middle East.” Coates clearly sees these as moral errors, as failures of judgment or conscience or principle, but he assumes that such failures were actually seen as good things by “the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth.” He never tells us why this is his reflex, but the psychology is pretty transparent: Despite being constantly feted by precisely the dominant culture he derides, Coates believes everything he finds unjust and awful is overwhelmingly popular within it.
Where we might expect analysis of these obviously relevant empirical facts we find instead an empty drip-echoing cave adorned with weird formations of glowing crystals. This cavern, warm and womblike but also dark and terrifying, is what Coates calls “history.” So in “The First White President,” included as an epilogue, he writes that “Trump cracked the glowing amulet [of whiteness] open, releasing its eldritch energies.” This is the “potency” of symbols, which “don’t just represent reality but can become tools to change it.” In Between the World and Me, Coates famously describes a scene in which a white woman shoved his son in an elevator. When he “turned and spoke to this woman, [his] words were hot with all of the moment and all of [his] history.” Symbolic power, and the history from which this power somehow emerges, are for Coates actual magic, with “potency” and “energies,” shaping reality and quite literally possessing people.
In the New York Times Thomas Chatterton Williams suggests eloquently that Coates resembles white supremacists in his belief in “the specialness of whiteness.” It is not really race, though, but history that Coates fetishizes. He is not a racial essentialist so much as a historical one: He never conceives of individuals, or even groups, as anything but avatars of one of these “eldritch energies.” The result of a presidential election cannot be contingent on present circumstances, on things like policies or strategies or personal scandals. Such events always turn on these strange clashes of Lovecraftian monster-ideologies.
The book is structured thus: eight collected essays, each preceded by an autobiographical reflection. This format is produced cleanly by Coates’s worldview: the reflections are necessary because they tell us how potent various historical energies were when he wrote each essay — how much mana they’d accrued, what their power levels were, that sort of thing. And they also show the theory of history in application: he gets to write about just what avatars were possessing him at each moment.
In the first reflection, for instance, we hear that “national energies had shifted in the wake of 9/11,” but that “Obama’s presence opened a new field for writers” by “talk[ing] to white people in a new language — as though he actually trusted and believed in them,” and by “communicating his affection for white America without fawning over it.” Coates says humbly that there is only “some truth” to his “myth of self-generated success,” explaining that “the greater truth is that the wind around [him] awakened and shifted to blow [his] small vessel back to civilization.” Humans as dinghies launched or wrecked by ancient demiurge zephyrs.
Metaphors like this are pleasant moments in Coates’s much-lauded prose, but just as often it’s bursting with clichés. We hear about “buried traumas” and we’re told what “the narrative held.” Certain black leaders are found wanting because they offer only “cathartic performance”; Bill Cosby is criticized instead for having offered “nostalgia — a hunger for [an] uncomplicated time.” In places the straining for depth is just too obvious: “I did not love it, but I loved it;” regarding Michelle Obama, “she doesn’t simply make Barack black — she makes him American.” Every cliché of style too betrays a cliché of thought. Trauma, narrative, performance, memory, inchoate historical potencies, “the other”: these were precisely the trendiest topics in literary and cultural studies when I went to college a decade ago. Coates writes that “the tradition of black writing is . . . necessarily resistant,” but in his case nothing could be further from the truth: he seems almost conscious in his diligence in matching up to the thematic concerns of thirtysomething English majors. Same with his famous “black bodies”: that’s the literary reception of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty through Elaine Scarry. And his quasi-legal disclaimer “those who believe themselves to be white,” a clunky and failed attempt at getting around charges of essentialism or reification by appealing to the idea of a social construction — an already bad idea made worse by Coates’s poor understanding of it, and by his inability to offer argumentation rather than a mass of historical detail.
The second reflection sees Coates projecting his hangups onto others. He writes that “to understand Obama, analysts needed to give him a superpower that explained how this self-described black man escaped his assigned corner.” Of course, Coates did this very thing in his own first reflection just pages earlier, where he talked about Obama’s “third way” and the “new field” he opened. In the third he asks how he didn’t see Trump coming. Of course, the answer given is that America is more racist than even Coates imagined — this despite his acknowledgment in the same section that in online discussions he sometimes “assumed malicious motives behind worthy objections.” One has to figure that what Coates is saying is that he made a habit of calling people racist on the Internet. A corporate-sounding “mistakes were made”-style euphemism, from a veritable master of demanding penitence.
It’s a remarkable, unintentional theme in the book: Coates’s shrug-like recognition of his proximity to figures and movements much as problematic as many of the things he decries. He spends a paragraph excusing himself for not, in his 2007 piece about Bill Cosby, writing more about the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against his subject, but it’s clear that Cosby’s conservative mantra of personal responsibility still bothers him more than any literal crimes. He similarly brushes off Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, offering a sort of mumbled response about Farrakhan providing something men like Coates needed at a particular time. He credits Malcolm X for the fact that “no one questions [black people’s] right to self-creation” and tells us that “it takes a particular arrogance to . . . hold, as his most pertinent feature, [his] prejudices.” In a Vox interview Coates told Ezra Klein that he could envision a Reign of Terror for whiteness in America, “processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a social construct,” and that he could imagine “being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process.” I too can envision such a “process” — there’s that sudden anodyne term again — but cannot imagine Coates speaking out against it.
All through the reflections Coates combines the story of his own development with a paperback-novel ominousness regarding the conclusions he has come to about race in America. We hear a lot of phrases like: “I did not yet fully comprehend . . .,” or “Nor had I yet conceived . . . .”, or “Some not insubstantial part of me preferred not to know . . . .” This cheaply gives a sense of coming into his own powers, powers which allow him to directly observe the more “eldritch” potencies that oppress him. Coates is also the author of a comic book; I imagine it reads similarly. Amber A’Lee Frost has convincingly described a “trauma industry” which relegates the intellectual and creative output of college-aged women to personal narratives in “confession booths.” Perhaps something like that is going on here, some sort of cultural pressure that demands from black writers a prayer or a cry or a howl or a superhero story instead of a measured analysis. Coates himself considers and rejects this possibility in his fifth reflection: “I wasn’t boxed in as much as those who dismissed my chosen beat were boxed out. The notion that writing about race, which is to say, the force of white supremacy, is marginal and provincial is itself parcel to white supremacy, premised on the notion that that the foundational crimes of this country are mostly irrelevant to its existence.” To contest Coates’s historical essentialism is, for him, already to be a white supremacist. Warring powers, the ancient evil and the superhero. You’re either with him or against him.
The essays themselves are workmanlike, insightful, far better than the reflections; his jeremiads on reparations and mass incarceration stand out, to me. When he covers people, Coates veers into generating a kind of distortion field around them. In an included essay from 2008 about Michelle Obama he calls Chicago and New York “mostly white cit[ies].” The 2010 census had Chicago at 32% black and 32% non-Hispanic white and New York at 44% white. An essay on Malcolm X begins with seven paragraphs about Coates and his mother. Those, the Cosby piece, and most of all the collection’s most famous piece, “Fear of a Black President,” on Barack Obama, demonstrate rather a bit too much projection on Coates’s part into the mindsets and preoccupations of the people he covered.
One of the most interesting essays for understanding Coates’s historical essentialism is the third, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” Here he discusses the “near-totemic reverence for black history” his early education attempted to impart to him, which featured a “pantheon” of “our long-suffering, yet magnificent, race.” We see again the odd characterization of America’s cultural mainstream: “[T]o say that the Civil War was a significant battle in the long war against bondage and for government by the people – is to compromise the comfortable narrative.” Quite the opposite: at all our nation’s top schools and prestige publications the notion that the Civil War was about slavery is taken as a given. Coates picks a few sources and treats them as representative, neglecting the overwhelming cultural evidence we all live in each day. In Woodrow Wilson he spots “a familiar act of theater – urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters.” (“Spirit,” of course, is another “energy” or “potency.”) A similar dynamic emerges in the press reception of Lyndon Johnson’s speech on the Moynihan Report, a reception which transformed “a claim of white responsibility” into “a condemnation of ‘the failure of Negro family life,’” as Coates puts it in the seventh essay, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
This theater, Coates seems to think, is still playacted today: white and black people alike are, because of their denial of the true history of the Civil War and the true moral horror of slavery, possessed by it. But why does he think this is the case, and what political purpose does he think telling the history serves? White nationalist rhetoric depends upon quite the same history, and the same interpretation, from which Coates draws. The alt-right benefits hugely from, for instance, progressive attacks on the concept of colorblindness. On Twitter I shared an excerpt of Richard Spencer’s recent attack on Senator Ben Sasse’s short explanation of the deracialized, universalist vision of American values. I asked followers to guess the author; the most common answer, from an admittedly small and unrepresentative sample, was Coates.
Perhaps the question is misguided. Coates seems generally to provoke guilt not as a source of motivation – for what does white guilt motivate white liberals to do except read Coates? – but as an end in itself. In the sixth reflection, to prepare us for the collection’s second-best-known piece, “The Case for Reparations,” Coates discusses the “ancestral debt” which, we’re told, all white people owe but few acknowledge. Whatever reparations are owed – I myself am not against the idea – are owed by the American government, not by white people, a category Coates never quite seems to think is as unstable or historically contingent or socially constructed as he sometimes says. Reparations would come out of taxes, and black (and Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc.) millionaires would pay more into them than working- and middle-class whites. The strangest passage in the essay calls questions like “Who will be paid? . . . Who will pay?” the “practicalities” of reparations, as opposed to the “justice.” But in a lawsuit, the situation to which Coates constantly compares reparations, the questions of who has been injured and who shall make them whole are not mere practicalities. Answering them is necessary for the case to proceed, for anything to happen. A suit with neither a plaintiff nor a defendant is fitting for a jarring existential novel – one like Richard Wright’s The Outsider, perhaps. But it is not a policy.
I think reparations for slavery will someday pass in America, but I am also certain that for the historical essentialist they will never be enough. How could money be measured against that intangible mystical energy? Throughout the course of his reflections in We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates goes from being barely employed to winning a MacArthur Genius Grant and being invited to the White House to argue, one-on-one, just for the sake of arguing, with the President of the United States. In the book’s eighth essay, which covers (yet again) that now-ex-president and some of their arguments, he returns again and again to the fact that Obama faced “minimal trauma” growing up – that he was not particularly harmed on account of his race. He treats Obama as almost trans-black, electively black, black by choice: a Dolezal. But in Coates’s own reflections we hear that he’s never had a racial slur thrown in his face; the worst incident he could bring to Between the World and Me was the episode in the elevator. The kids who beat him up when he too was a kid were black. But it’s white people at whom he describes feeling furious for looking at him in the street. How could anything be enough to neutralize the hallucinogen he calls history?
I have mentioned that Coates maps almost too cleanly onto contemporary liberal intellectual fixations, and that he rejects the idea that he’s boxed in by talking about race – which is to say white supremacy – which is to say the basic and essential crimes of America, slavery and all its avatars. But one way in which Coates fails to fit the zeitgeist, and one way in which he seems genuinely boxed in, is his failure to be what the kids call intersectional in his treatment of American politics. The “we” who were eight years in power is explicitly black, though otherwise vague. The idea of solidarity even with other racial minorities is never broached because those other groups are never discussed. Only white people and black people exist in this book. Coates even alludes to having created a stir by comparing reparations for American slaves to reparations for post-Holocaust Jews. (The stir because of Israel, I guess.) Even to many people who believe America is a very racist nation and the Trump presidency bears that out, this will seem a rather blinkered approach. For, as I’ve also mentioned, much of the racial animus sensed in our president and his supporters by Coates’s liberal colleagues and acolytes in the media and the academy – much of that animus is directed, at least presently, not against blacks but against Hispanics, Arabs, Indians, Asians, and even, sometimes, against Jews.
This is important not because intersectionality is an uncontroversial good – I think it’s often nonsense – but because it shows the emptiness of historical essentialism. To really understand the world, we want to be able to look at it and know what’s coming next. And when our prediction is that what’s coming is bad, we want to know how we can avoid it or ameliorate its effects, to erect defenses of some sort or another. Coates’s backward-looking approach does nothing for us here.
Indeed, Coates seems to cop, in the book, to being rather poor at predicting beforehand the events he comes to think of as somehow important or probative. Like many people, but unlike myself, he thought a black man could never, or at least not so soon, be elected President in America. And like many people, but unlike myself, he thought the same about Donald Trump. But it turns out that the model of historical energies, of amulets of eldritch potencies and so forth – it turns out this model is highly flexible. One just says that white supremacy was waning at one point and waxing at another and the task is done. Dubious physical metaphors for how whiteness interacts with other
forces — “white backlash,” “white fragility,” etc. — are discussed and theorized endlessly despite having no proven concrete value. In concrete terms it’s never clear what the theory of magical historical essentialism is meant to help us with, though it’s always clear how it’s supposed to make us feel.
As I said at the outset, Coates’s work is challenging and troubling, but the trouble does not derive mostly from the challenge, and part of the trouble is that he thinks it would. In a representative passage he asks us to “imagine being an individual born among the remnants of that crime [(slavery)], among the wronged, among the plundered, and feeling the gravity of that crime all around and seeing it in the sideways glances of the perpetrators of that crime and overhearing it in their whispers and watching these people, at best, denying their power to address the crime.” It is an interesting moment of sudden “hysterical realist” style, the run-on sentence, the rhythm implying a drug-like panic. The panic is his own, though, as “to watch all the beneficiaries just going on with their heedless lives, could fill you with the most awful rage. I feel it myself,” he tells us.
Why? Because, for example, “’gentrification’ is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy.” Because history still lives in us, for Coates, like a demon, like a possessing spirit, like a drug. He walks around American cities on history the way Infinite Jest characters walk around them on heroin. It reminds me of tripping around Philadelphia a few winters ago on lysergic acid diethylamide, the way we giggled and nudged each other when groups of people passed us on the sidewalk, the way we found each others’ ears and said: “I think they’re tripping too;” or of the crisis that had come, earlier, when a friend of the crew entered the room where we were still feeling the climb of the drug, a guy who in his cataclysmic sobriety asked us towering impossible questions like how we were doing.
But not everyone is high on history, the way Coates perceives them to be; not everyone is possessed by it, produced by it; and the ones who aren’t are not fitting objects for the paranoia that accompanies so many narcotic experiences. It’s not that Coates should give up history, but he should come down, occasionally, and check his bad trip against the way the world looks without it.