Words written in anger, words written in ink

Robert Lashley

December 06, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power is a pensive, complex book. Interlacing memoir and essay, Coates reports on America after Barack Obama's presidency with nuance and emotional weight. This the best work I have read from him.

And yet Eight Years in Power has been attacked by many online as agitprop with biblical pretensions that aids and abets Nazism. When Coates analyzes the symbolism of Barack Obama’s success to a black America that gave him 94 percent of their vote, Dan McLaughlin says Coates is one with Richard Spencer. When Coates uses a vivid metaphor to describe the power of whiteness in America, Thomas Chatterton Williams accuses him of denying black agency, then ties him with Spencer and the fascist icon Julius Evola.

Hot takes like these have never been more pernicious (or more popular). This is the worst thing about writing about race: how easy it is, or — to be more specific — how easy it is to do in cliché. Spend five minutes on a search engine, and you’ll find a slew of race takes excruciatingly similar in generalization and rhetoric, so much so that they read less like essays and more like Mad Lib formulas: tribal sentiments expressed with a Jeremiah-like rhetoric, a style almost guaranteed to receive attention and an audience that will call the author brave.

Because these takes almost always are devoid of salient, arguable points, they are almost always ad hominem insults, and because of the subject matter, almost always done in a cruel, abrasive language. Add the confines of social media to this — with its character limits, preference for hot takes, and blogs that don’t have an editor to fact-check — and you have our present time.

It is disingenuous to pretend that these takes are coming only from one “side” of the debate America is having about race. It is also disingenuous to pretend that arguments like the two above are anything but hot takes. They exist almost solely on the emotional zinger and the loaded shot. No grunt work required, just snappy metaphor, to compare a liberal blogger with a fascist, or equate the vast collective hope of black Americans, pinned to the accomplishments of black figures who were first in their field, with a destructive Nazi ideology. (Unless McLaughlin wants the reader to believe that rooting for Jackie Robinson was “indirectly similar” to rooting for Hitler.)

In comparison, the words augmented by ink in the pages of Eight Years in Power tell a series of layered, interpersonal, and (in the end) heartbreaking stories about Coates and the America he reports on. What makes Power so compelling is how he intermixes the arguments he makes in his essays with prefaces that tell a narrative about his own personal growth as an intellectual and a human being. In detailing his flaws and foibles during an unexpected ascent to the summit of African-American literature and journalism, Coates makes himself a participant-observer instead of a narrator, and the result is a book more nuanced than any grand statement.

I consider myself a regular Coates reader. Between the World and Me put forth devastating, detailed conclusions to Coates's personal and public inquiries about the subsistence and pernicious afterlife of racism in America. But I didn’t think the book was infallible.

Like many, I was caught up in the tense, declarative power of his writing and the sweep of his coming-of-age tale involving Howard University (what he called “the mecca”) — where his teachers broke his youthful nationalism, questioned his beliefs, and molded him into a sharp-minded intellectual. A cursory glance of “the mecca” from other people who were there, though, does not jibe with his nothing-but-paradisiacal assessment of the place, which at times made me think of Hemingway’s nothing-but-paradisiacal assessment of Paris in A Moveable Feast.

That nagged at me throughout Between the World and Me. So did the stridently lyrical flourishes that entered his prose at both political and personal moments. Coates “in Baldwin mode,” is too often inorganic and ineffective. He has more than proven himself to be a great writer, and it isn’t an insult to say that he doesn’t have the once-in-a-lifetime talent to fuse the language of the black church with the language of the King James Bible and a Henry James essay. He doesn’t. But I had a gut feeling, a fear, that Coates had discovered his “dazzling declarative public” voice and would have a hard time letting it go.

Imagine my surprise when the first preface of We Were Eight Years in Power began with the sentence “This book begins where all writing begins — in failure” and told the story of the human calamities Coates experienced while trying to help provide for his family as a freelance writer. His admissions don’t feel cheap, and they don’t act as the primary narrative agents in a Horatio Alger tale like the one in Between the World and Me. Instead they serve as signifiers for Coates’s street-corner Emersonianism, an inner need for self-improvement and self-reflection that both stands in contrast to and is intertwined with the realities of race in America. Coates doesn’t project his career ascendance as an arc but a beeline, filled with failures from which he learned and triumphs on the page that ring hollow in the long term.

The absence of the grand imitation-Baldwin gesture in Coates’s personal reflections make him an organic, fluid character in Eight Years in Power, one with the right voice to tell the complex story of Barack Obama’s presidency and Coates’s (and so many people in Black America’s) failed waltz with the idea that America might be better than its grievous sins. For Coates, a hardscrabble wit from the streets of Baltimore, the reverie is short lived. Yet throughout the book, he doesn’t discount it, or Obama’s power or meaning to black people and the price they and he paid for Believing in White America far, far more than white America wanted to believe in them.

In Eight Years in Power, Coates’s Obama is mixture of Frederick Douglass and Don Quixote. You first see him in the book as a dreamer whose belief in the best of democratic vérités sweeps the author:

Obama had found a third way — a means of communicating his affection for white America without fawning over it. White people were enchanted by him — and those in newsrooms seemed most enchanted of all. This fact changed my life. It was the wind shifting, without which my curiosity would have stayed my own.”

As the book progresses, Coates shows Obama as a dogged believer in self-reliance:

like Malcolm, his speeches to black audiences are filled with exhortations to self creation, and draw deeply from his biography.

. . . a dogged president forced to navigate epically hostile political minefields and change his re-election pitch toward the country (from Joshua-like idealism to old-time liberal pragmatism):

. . . the myth of being twice as good that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans — enslaved, raped, tortured, discriminated against and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history — feel no anger toward their tormentors.

. . . and a dogged believer in the American dream long after the country — in electing Trump — gave him and black America more than enough reasons not to.

It is a testament to Obama’s power and the gut-wrenching tragedy of Trump’s election that when the election was over, Coates, the Charm City skeptic with a Mencken streak:

was a mess . . . The election of Donald Trump confirmed everything I knew of my country and none of what I could accept. The idea that America would follow its first black president with Donald Trump accorded with its history. I was shocked at my own shock. I had wanted Obama to be right.

I still want Obama to be right. I still would like to fold myself into the dream. This will not be possible.

This last is an excerpt from Coates's landmark "My President was Black," which makes up the second-to-last essay of the book. Again, words on the page, words illuminated by ink.

Both McLaughlin and Williams refer to a need for an elevated tone and ground in regard to race, speaking of a need to find “common ground” and “practical solutions,” using the terminology of “we” as an oppositional dialogic ideal to the mindset they claim for Coates. It is hard to fault both writers for wanting such things. No side has a monopoly on decency or truth when it comes to our debate about race. I could also see an ethical layperson — not knowing the full subtext, and disturbed by the excesses of student movements and social media figures — being attracted to the surface platitudes of the argument of both writers.

If we are to truly be “we,” to have an elevated place of common ground, then “we” have to exist in a world where words illuminated by ink have meaning. If words illuminated by ink are to have any meaning, we have to cultivate a literary biosphere more interested in what a writer actually wrote than what a scorching internet drag says that they did.

And if we are to do that in the case of McLaughlin and Williams and the takes that follow their lead, then we have to accept that they violently fly in face of what Coates actually wrote. To be specific, they fly in the face of the clear personal ascendancy narrative in Power, in which the author admits more of his mistakes than an entire library of books by “great men”; a narrative in which Coates poignantly conflates the responsibility of the black writer with the responsibility of being an ethical human being — and writes that white supremacists “could lie to the country and the world, but they couldn’t make me lie to myself. They also fly in the face of a narrative in which Coates says — in a glowing assessment of the happiness he felt when his wife went into medical school — “It was resistance, we don’t have what to be what they [white racists] say about us.”

If America is the shining city on the hill Coates’s detractors say it is, it would behoove them to stop sloppily scanning his books for scare quotes, and to start doing the hard work of making serious counter-arguments against power:

To say why his takes on Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and other Civil War revisionists are wrong.

To say why Coates was wrong about the motivations of millions of white Americans who soured on Obama because of his sympathetic stances on Trayvon Martin’s death and Skip Gates’s arrest.

To make a case that the Moynihan Report meant more than black single mother shaming.

To present data that refute the legacy of housing segregation, redlining, predatory real estate practices, and New Deal policies that excluded blacks.

And to make a case that Donald Trump has any presidential aspects to him other than the color of his skin.

When that happens, then we might have a conservative debate about Coates that people will take seriously. Then a larger mass of people might think of the author of We Were Eight Years in Power as something other than a brilliant writer who created a devastating book about the end of the second black reconstruction — and his critics as something other than a bunch of race-baiting internet trolls.

We are not at that place yet. We are in a place where one can churn out easy takes on race, and easy takes on Coates. One can assemble platitudes from hundreds of social media posts, fill in transitional blanks, and get recognized as a beleaguered sage. Or one can read Coates honestly. One can’t do both.

Books in this review:
  • We Were Eight Years in Power
    by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    One World
    October 03, 2017
    400 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

A 2016 Jack Straw Fellow, Artist Trust Fellow, and nominee for a Stranger Genius Award, Robert Lashley has had poems published in such journals as Feminete, NAILED No Regrets, Drunk In a Midnight Choir, and The Cascadia Review

Follow Robert Lashley on Twitter: @Misterlashley

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