Dar­ryl Pinck­ney

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Dar­ryl Pinck­ney

We Were Eight Years in Power: An Amer­i­can Tragedy by Ta-Ne­hisi Coates

We Were Eight Years in Power: An Amer­i­can Tragedy by Ta-Ne­hisi Coates. One World, 367 pp., $28.00

Not long ago in the locker room of my Har­lem gym, I was the eaves­drop­ping old head who thought Black Pan­ther was an­other doc­u­men­tary about the mil­i­tants of the Black Pan­ther Party from the Six­ties. I caught on from what the young white guy and the young black guy were talk­ing about that Ken­drick La­mar had writ­ten some of the film’s sound­track. I al­most said, “La­mar is woke,” but the mem­ory of the first time I heard my fa­ther say a thing was “fly” rose up and shut my mouth.

In the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal back­lash— the only no­tion the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion has is to undo what­ever Pres­i­dent Obama did, to wipe him out—black Amer­ica is nev­er­the­less a cul­tural boom­town. My ma­ter­nal cousins emailed ev­ery­one to go to Black Pan­ther that first record-break­ing week­end, like they were get­ting out the vote. Twenty-five years ago black peo­ple were the lost pop­u­la­tion, aban­doned in in­ner ci­ties over­run with drugs, ex­horted by politi­cians and preach­ers to mend the bro­ken black fam­ily. Black in­tel­lec­tu­als were on the de­fen­sive, and bell hooks talked of the re­sent­ment she en­coun­tered from white peo­ple when she spoke of white supremacy in­stead of racism. Now white peo­ple are the ones who seem lost, who don’t seem to know who they are, ex­cept for those white Amer­i­cans who join the re­sis­tance against white supremacy and make apolo­gies to black friends for white priv­i­lege be­cause, al­though they don’t know where else to be­gin, they do know that they don’t want to be associated any­more with the how-long-has-this-been-go­ing-on.

For eight years, I didn’t care what right-wing white peo­ple had to say about any­thing. Obama’s pres­ence on the in­ter­na­tional stage de­crim­i­nal­ized at home the im­age of the black man; and the mur­dered black men around whom black women founded Black Lives Mat­ter were re­garded more as the fallen in bat­tle than as vic­tims. The vig­ils of Black Lives Mat­ter drew strength from me­mories of the marches of the civil rights move­ment, just as the pro­test­ers of the 1960s were aware of the un­fin­ished busi­ness of the Civil War as their moral in­her­i­tance. Obama’s pres­i­dency made black neo­con­ser­va­tives ir­rel­e­vant. They fumed that on pa­per he should have added up to be one of them, but in­stead Obama paid homage to John Lewis. That was Eric Holder in the Jus­tice Depart­ment. But as it turned out, not ev­ery­one was vib­ing with the tri­umphant cel­e­bra­tions at David Ad­jaye’s beautiful Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture.

White supremacy isn’t back; it never went away, though we thought it had be­come marginal or been con­tained as a po­lit­i­cal force, and maybe it has, which only adds to the un­help­ful feel­ing that this should not have hap­pened, that the govern­ment has been hi­jacked. I think of the Har­vard so­ci­ol­o­gist Lawrence Bobo in the elec­tion’s af­ter­math telling a meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­an­a­lytic As­so­ci­a­tion that, had the same num­ber of black peo­ple who voted in Mil­wau­kee, Detroit, and Philadel­phia in 2012 come to the polls in 2016, Hil­lary Clin­ton would have won in the Elec­toral Col­lege. What the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion demon­strated is that, as David Fos­ter Wal­lace put it, there is no such thing as not vot­ing. I mind this hap­pen­ing when I am get­ting too old to run from it. Shit, do not hit that fan. My fa­ther’s sib­lings, in their late eight­ies and early nineties, as­sure me that we have sur­vived worse. They grew up on Ne­gro His­tory Week. The Great De­pres­sion shaped their child­hoods; McCarthy­ism their col­lege years. My fa­ther lived to see Obama’s elec­tion in 2008, but not the gut­ting of the Vot­ing Rights Act in 2013. He would have said that the strug­gle for free­dom is on­go­ing. Look at how “they” man­aged to get around Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion; look at Cit­i­zens United, he would say, he who hawked NAACP mem­ber­ships in air­port men’s rooms or read from Wil­liam Julius Wil­son at Christ­mas din­ner. I longed for him to change the sub­ject, to talk to my Jewish friends about science, not racism.

In 1895, the year Fred­er­ick Dou­glass died, Booker T. Wash­ing­ton gave an ad­dress in At­lanta cau­tion­ing black peo­ple to cast down their buck­ets where they were. The black and white races would be like the fin­gers of the hand, sep­a­rate but work­ing to­gether on es­sen­tial mat­ters. White peo­ple took Wash­ing­ton to mean that blacks would ac­cept Jim Crow and not ag­i­tate for restora­tion of the civil rights they had ex­er­cised dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion. They would con­cen­trate in­stead on self-im­prove­ment and eco­nomic devel­op­ment. Wash­ing­ton’s con­cil­ia­tory phi­los­o­phy made his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Up from Slav­ery (1901), a best seller. He was hailed as the most in­flu­en­tial black spokesman of his day. Theodore Roo­sevelt in­vited him to dine at the White House, much to the con­ster­na­tion of Wash­ing­ton’s white south­ern sup­port­ers.

Wash­ing­ton’s pro­gram may have won him ad­mi­ra­tion among whites, but he never per­suaded black peo­ple, as far as an an­gry W. E. B. Du Bois was con­cerned. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois ar­gued that the in­flu­ence of three main at­ti­tudes could be traced through­out the his­tory of black Amer­i­cans in re­sponse to their con­di­tion:

a feel­ing of re­volt and re­venge; an at­tempt to ad­just all thought and ac­tion to the will of the greater group; or, fi­nally, a de­ter­mined

ef­fort at self-re­al­iza­tion and self­de­vel­op­ment de­spite en­vi­ron­ing opin­ion.

For Du Bois, Wash­ing­ton rep­re­sented the at­ti­tude of sub­mis­sion. He had no trou­ble with Wash­ing­ton preach­ing thrift, pa­tience, and in­dus­trial train­ing for the masses, but to be silent in the face of in­jus­tice was not be­ing a man:

Ne­groes must in­sist con­tin­u­ally, in sea­son and out of sea­son, that vot­ing is nec­es­sary to mod­ern man­hood, that color dis­crim­i­na­tion is bar­barism, and that black boys need ed­u­ca­tion as well as white boys.

Du Bois was not alone among black in­tel­lec­tu­als in his con­dem­na­tion of Wash­ing­ton, but it was not true that Wash­ing­ton had no black fol­low­ers. For Wash­ing­ton, the with­drawal of black peo­ple from Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life was to be tem­po­rary. Black peo­ple would earn white re­spect by ac­quir­ing skills and be­com­ing eco­nom­i­cally sta­ble. If they couldn’t vote, then they could ac­quire prop­erty. How­ever, Du Bois and his al­lies main­tained that dis­en­fran­chise­ment was a sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cle to eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. Black pros­per­ity was taken by whites as a form of be­ing up­pity: white peo­ple burned down the black busi­ness sec­tion of Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, in 1921, fu­ri­ous at its suc­cess. More­over, black Marx­ist crit­ics of the 1930s held that Wash­ing­ton’s pro­gram to pro­duce crafts­men and la­bor­ers un­in­ter­ested in unions had been made ob­so­lete by the mass manufacturing econ­omy. Wash­ing­ton’s Tuskegee Move­ment came to stand for back­wa­ter grad­u­al­ism, of which the guest­house for white vis­i­tors to the Tuskegee In­sti­tute was a sym­bol. The Du Bois–Wash­ing­ton con­tro­versy de­scribed ba­sic op­po­si­tions—North/ South, ur­ban/ru­ral—that de­fined black Amer­ica at the time. Iden­ti­fy­ing what Arnold Ram­per­sad has called “an es­sen­tial du­al­ism in the black Amer­i­can soul,” Du Bois also ex­plored the con­cept of “dou­ble-con­scious­ness”:

One ever feels his two-ness—an Amer­i­can, a Ne­gro; two souls, two thoughts, two un­rec­on­ciled striv­ings; two war­ring ideals in one dark body.

The con­flict be­tween na­tional and racial iden­tity has had po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion—in­te­gra­tionist/sep­a­ratist—as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal mean­ing: good black/bad black, masked black self/real black self. “Free your mind and your ass will fol­low,” Funkadelic sang in 1970, by which time the au­then­tic black was al­ways as­sumed to be mil­i­tant: there is a Mal­colm X in ev­ery black per­son, the say­ing went.

Ta-Ne­hisi Coates says that he came to un­der­stand as a grown-up the lim­its of anger, but he is in a fed-up, se­ces­sion­ist mood by the end of We Were Eight Years in Power: An Amer­i­can Tragedy. His col­lec­tion of eight es­says on politics and black his­tory writ­ten dur­ing Obama’s two terms of of­fice, in­tro­duced with some new re­flec­tions, por­trays his post-elec­tion dis­il­lu­sion­ment as a re­turn to his senses. Coates won­ders how he could have missed the signs of Trump’s com­ing: “His ide­ol­ogy is white supremacy in all of its tru­cu­lent and sanc­ti­mo­nious power.” He strongly dis­agrees with those who say that racism is too sim­ple an ex­pla­na­tion for Trump’s vic­tory. He was not put in of­fice by “an in­scrutable” white work­ing class; he had the sup­port of the white up­per classes to which be­long the very “pun­dits” who play down racism as an ex­pla­na­tion.

The ti­tle We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates tells us, is taken from a speech that a South Carolina con­gress­man made in 1895 when Re­con­struc­tion in the state was ter­mi­nated by a white su­prem­a­cist takeover. Du Bois noted at the time that what white South Carolina feared more than “bad Ne­gro govern­ment” was “good Ne­gro govern­ment.” Coates finds a par­al­lel in Trump’s suc­ceed­ing Obama, whose pres­i­dency was “a mon­u­ment to moder­a­tion.” Obama’s vic­to­ries were not racism’s de­feat. He trusted white Amer­ica and un­der­es­ti­mated the op­po­si­tion’s re­solve to de­stroy him. Coates sees Obama as a care­taker, not a rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and even that was too much for white Amer­ica. He writes from the per­spec­tive that that “endof-his­tory mo­ment” when Obama was first elected “proved to be wrong.” In the 1960s frus­tra­tion with in­te­gra­tion as the pri­mary goal of civil rights be­gan Booker T. Wash­ing­ton’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion as an early ad­vo­cate of black self-suf­fi­ciency. But it’s still a sur­prise to find him among Coates’s in­flu­ences, to be back there again. It is be­cause Coates at first iden­ti­fied with the con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ment that blacks couldn’t blame all their prob­lems on racism, that they had to take some re­spon­si­bil­ity for their so­cial ills. He names Wash­ing­ton the fa­ther of a black con­ser­va­tive tra­di­tion that found “a per­ma­nent and nat­u­ral home in the emerg­ing ide­ol­ogy of Black Na­tion­al­ism.” He writes, “The rise of the or­ganic black con­ser­va­tive tra­di­tion is also a re­sponse to Amer­ica’s re­treat from its sec­ond at­tempt at Re­con­struc­tion.” As a young man in 1995, Coates ex­pe­ri­enced the Mil­lion Man March in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., at which the Na­tion of Is­lam’s Louis Far­rakhan urged black men to be bet­ter fathers.

In their em­pha­sis on defense of black com­mu­ni­ties against racist agents of the state, the Black Pan­thers in the 1960s con­sid­ered them­selves rev­o­lu­tion­ary; so, too, did the FBI, which de­stroyed the move­ment. Black na­tion­al­ism wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily rev­o­lu­tion­ary: some lead­ers of the Repub­lic of New Afrika en­dorsed Nixon in 1972 so that the com­mune might ben­e­fit from his Black Cap­i­tal­ism schemes. In the Rea­gan era, black con­ser­va­tives com­plained that a col­lec­tive black iden­tity was a tyranny that sac­ri­ficed their in­di­vid­u­al­ism. What they were re­ally at­tack­ing was the idea of black peo­ple as a vot­ing bloc for the Demo­cratic Party. Black con­ser­vatism joined with white con­ser­vatism in op­pos­ing the use of govern­ment as the en­force­ment arm of change. Coates even­tu­ally gave up on move­ments that asked blacks to shape up, even though it gave him a politics “sep­a­rate from the whims of white peo­ple.” What turned him off was that, his­tor­i­cally, con­ser­va­tive black na­tion­al­ism as­sumed that black peo­ple were bro­ken and needed to be fixed, that “black cul­ture in its present form is bas­tardized and patho­log­i­cal.”

At ev­ery turn, Coates re­jects in­ter­pre­ta­tions of black cul­ture as patho­log­i­cal. I am not bro­ken. Wil­liam Julius Wil­son’s the­o­ries that link the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of black ma­te­rial con­di­tions to in­dus­trial de­cline “matched the facts of my life, black pathol­ogy matched none of it.” Coates holds the 1965 Moyni­han Re­port on the black fam­ily ac­count­able as a sex­ist doc­u­ment that has shaped pol­icy on the mass in­car­cer­a­tion of black men. He is done with what he might call the hypocrisy of white stan­dards. “The essence of Amer­i­can racism is dis­re­spect.” There is no such thing as as­sim­i­la­tion. Hav­ing a fa­ther and ad­her­ing to mid­dle-class norms have “never shielded black peo­ple from plun­der.” Amer­i­can democ­racy is based on “plun­der.”

The sub­ject of repa­ra­tions has been around in rad­i­cal black politics for some time. But Coates takes the ar­gu­ment be­yond the ex­pected con­fines of slav­ery and ap­plies the no­tion of plun­der to whites’ re­la­tions with blacks in his his­tory of red-lining and racial seg­re­ga­tion as ur­ban pol­icy and real es­tate prac­tice in post­war Chicago. He also cites the psy­cho­log­i­cal and fi­nan­cial good that West Ger­many’s repa­ra­tions meant for Is­rael: “What I’m talk­ing about is a na­tional reck­on­ing that would lead to spir­i­tual re­newal.” Repa­ra­tions are clearly the only so­lu­tion for him, but he

writes as though they will never be paid; there­fore noth­ing else mat­ters.

Be­tween him and the other world, Du Bois said, was the unasked ques­tion of what it felt like to be a prob­lem. But white peo­ple are the prob­lem. The ex­clu­sion of black peo­ple trans­formed “white­ness it­self into a mo­nop­oly on Amer­i­can pos­si­bil­i­ties,” Coates says. It used to be that so­cial change for blacks meant con­ces­sions on the part of white peo­ple. But Coates is not look­ing for white al­lies or white sym­pa­thy. “Racism was ban­ditry, pure and sim­ple. And the ban­ditry was not in­ci­den­tal to Amer­ica, it was es­sen­tial to it.” He has had it with “the great power of white in­no­cence,” he writes. “Pro­gres­sives are loath to in­voke white supremacy as an ex­pla­na­tion for any­thing.” The re­peated use of the phrase “white supremacy” is it­self a kind of provo­ca­tion. “Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is white supremacy.” There may be white peo­ple who don’t be­lieve the “com­fort­able” nar­ra­tives about Amer­i­can his­tory, but Coates hasn’t time for them ei­ther. The “ev­i­dence of struc­tural inequal­ity” may be “com­pelling,” but “the lib­eral no­tions that blacks are still, af­ter a cen­tury of strug­gle, vic­tims of per­va­sive dis­crim­i­na­tion is the ul­ti­mate buz­zkill.” He means that the best-in­ten­tioned of whites still per­ceive be­ing black as a so­cial hand­i­cap. He wants to tell his son that black peo­ple are in charge of their own des­tinies, that their fates are not de­ter­mined by the an­tag­o­nism of oth­ers. “White supremacy is a crime and a lie, but it’s also a ma­chine that gen­er­ates mean­ing. This ex­is­ten­tial gift, as much as any­thing, is the source of its enor­mous, cen­turies-span­ning power.” That rather makes it sound like hyp­no­sis, but maybe the ba­sic unit of white supremacy is the lynch mob.

Mal­colm X thought Du Bois’s dou­ble-con­scious­ness a mat­ter for the black mid­dle class—blacks liv­ing be­tween two worlds, seek­ing the ap­proval of both the white and the black and not get­ting ei­ther. But even when black peo­ple could see them­selves for them­selves, there was still the prob­lem of whether white power could be re­formed, over­thrown, or es­caped. The es­sen­tial Amer­i­can soul is hard, iso­late, stoic, and a killer, D. H. Lawrence said. If white supremacy is still the root of the so­cial or­der in the US, then so, too, are the temp­ta­tions of Hate, De­spair, and Doubt, as Du Bois put it. “As we move into the main­stream,” Coates says, “black folks are tak­ing a third road—be­ing our­selves.”

It’s as though racism has al­ways been the ac­tion and deal­ing with it the re­ac­tion. That is maybe why black thinkers and artists try to turn things around, to tran­scend race, to get out of white ju­ris­dic­tion. When black stu­dents in the 1970s baited Ralph El­li­son for his de­tach­ment from protest move­ments, he said that writ­ing the best novel he could was his con­tri­bu­tion to the strug­gle. Cor­nel West blasted Coates for his nar­row “de­fi­ance,” for choos­ing a “per­sonal com­mit­ment to writ­ing with no con­nec­tion to col­lec­tive ac­tion.”1 He ar­gued that Coates makes a fetish of white supremacy and loses sight of the tra­di­tion of re­sis­tance. For West, Coates rep­re­sents the “ne­olib­eral” wing of the black free­dom strug­gle, much like Obama him­self. Obama is lit­tle more than a sym­bol to West (and Coates in­sists that sym­bols can mean a great deal). Coates’s po­si­tion amounts to a mis­guided pes­simism, in West’s view. Robin D.G. Kel­ley, au­thor of the ex­cel­lent Th­elo­nious Monk: The Life and Times of an Amer­i­can Orig­i­nal (2009), at­tempted to me­di­ate be­tween their po­si­tions, say­ing, in part, that West and Coates share a pes­simism of out­look and that black move­ments have al­ways had a dual pur­pose: sur­vival and ul­ti­mate vic­tory.2

As a dustup en­cour­aged by news­pa­per edi­tors, West’s at­tack on Coates has been likened to the bat­tle royal: that scene in In­vis­i­ble Man where black youth are made to fight one an­other blind­folded in a ring for the amuse­ment of white men. Richard Wright re­counts in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Black Boy, how he tried to get the other boy he was to op­pose in just such an en­ter­tain­ment to stand with him and refuse to fight. Part of what drove El­li­son was his need to one-up Wright, who got to use, in his work be­fore El­li­son, metaphors they both shared. But West, how­ever ready he is to say im­pos­si­ble things be­fore break­fast, is the older man, not Coates’s peer, which makes his name­call­ing—his con­tempt in the ex­pres­sion “ne­olib­eral”—in­ef­fec­tual pu­rity. In pre-Obama times, West warned black youth against the in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal threats of ni­hilism. I re­mem­ber one even­ing at Howard Univer­sity in the early 1990s when he and bell hooks rocked the au­di­to­rium. I couldn’t hear what they were say­ing some­times. But much of Coates’s au­di­ence wasn’t of read­ing age then.

The swag­ger of 1960s black mil­i­tancy was ab­sorbed into the rap mu­sic of the 1990s. In Democ­racy Mat­ters: Win­ning the Fight Against Im­pe­ri­al­ism (2004), West in­ter­prets hip-hop cul­ture as an in­dict­ment of the older gen­er­a­tion, the lyrics of the young pro­claim­ing that they were ne­glected by self-med­i­cated adults: “Only their beloved moth­ers— of­ten over­worked, un­der­paid, and wrestling with a paucity of gen­uine in­ti­macy—are spared.”

Coates is pas­sion­ate about the mu­sic that helped him find him­self and a lan­guage. His am­biva­lence about Obama goes away once he claims him as a mem­ber of hip-hop’s foun­da­tional gen­er­a­tion. In his mem­oir Los­ing My Cool (2010), Thomas Chat­ter­ton Wil­liams re­calls that as a teenager im­mersed in hip-hop, it nagged at him that he and the other black stu­dents at his pri­vate school couldn’t say when Du Bois died or when King was born, but they were worked up over the an­niver­sary of the as­sas­si­na­tion of Big­gie Smalls. Coates is dif­fer­ent from many other black writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion in that he doesn’t come from a mid­dle-class back­ground. His bi­og­ra­phy is like a hip-hop story. He grew up in “seg­re­gated West Bal­ti­more,” where his fa­ther was chap­ter head of the Black Pan­ther Party. He said he un­der­stood black as a cul­ture, not as a mi­nor­ity, un­til he en­tered rooms where no one else looked like him. Early on in We Were Eight Years in Power he speaks of “the rage that lives

in all African Amer­i­cans, a col­lec­tive feel­ing of dis­grace that bor­ders on self­ha­tred.” You won­der whom he’s speak­ing for, even as he goes on to say that mu­sic cured his gen­er­a­tion’s shame, just as to em­brace Mal­colm X was to be re­lieved of “the myth­i­cal curse of Ham.” It’s been fifty years since Mal­colm X talked about brain­washed Ne­groes be­com­ing black peo­ple brag­ging about be­ing black. It’s been half a cen­tury since those books that told us de­pres­sion and grief among blacks were ha­tred turned on the black self.

Coates de­clares that when Obama first ran for pres­i­dent in 2008, the civil rights gen­er­a­tion was

ex­it­ing the Amer­i­can stage—not in a haze of nos­tal­gia but in a cloud of gloom, trou­bled by the per­sis­tence of racism, the ap­par­ent weak­nesses of the gen­er­a­tion fol­low­ing in its wake, and the seem­ing in­dif­fer­ence of much of the coun­try to black Amer­ica’s fate.

Obama rose so quickly be­cause African-Amer­i­cans were

war-weary. It was not sim­ply the coun­try at large that was tired of the old baby boomer de­bates. Blacks, too, were sick of talk­ing about af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and school bus­ing. There was a broad sense that in­te­gra­tion had failed us.

Peril is gen­er­a­tional, Coates says. He has given up on the lib­eral project, cas­ti­gat­ing lib­eral think­ing for hav­ing “white honor” and the main­te­nance of “white­ness” at its core. King’s “gauzy all-in­clu­sive” dream has been re­placed by the re­al­ity of an Amer­ica of com­pet­ing groups, with blacks tired of be­ing the weak­est of the lot. Harold Cruse in The Cri­sis of the Ne­gro In­tel­lec­tual (1967), a ve­he­ment work of black na­tion­al­ism and unique in black in­tel­lec­tual his­tory, said flat out that Wash­ing­ton was right and that Du Bois had ended up on the wrong side, that Marx­ism was just white peo­ple (i.e., Jewish peo­ple) telling black peo­ple what to think. Cruse was re­garded as a crank in his time, but his view of black his­tory in Amer­ica as a rigged com­pe­ti­tion is now widely shared, and Cruse was writ­ing be­fore Frantz Fanon’s work on the de­col­o­nized mind was avail­able in English.

Afro-pes­simism de­rives in part from Fanon, and maybe it’s an­other name for some­thing that has been around in black cul­ture for a while. Afropes­simism found provoca­tive ex­pres­sion in Incogne­gro: A Mem­oir of Ex­ile and Apartheid (2008) by Frank B. Wilder­son III. A Dart­mouth grad­u­ate who grew up in the 1960s in the white Min­neapo­lis sub­urb where Wal­ter Mon­dale lived, Wilder­son is West’s gen­er­a­tion. He went to South Africa in the early 1990s and be­came in­volved with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary wing of the ANC that Man­dela be­trayed. White peo­ple are guilty un­til proven in­no­cent, Wilder­son as­serts through­out. Fanon is ev­ery­where these days, the way Mal­colm X used to be, but Wilder­son makes me think of Cé­line, not Fanon. Coates’s “cri­tique of re­spectabil­ity politics” is in some­thing of the same mood as Wilder­son, and, be­fore him, Cruse. He also has that echo of what Fanon called the re­jec­tion of ne­olib­eral uni­ver­sal­ism.

The 1960s and 1970s showed that mass move­ments could bring about sys­temic change. An­gela Davis said so.3 Un­prece­dented pros­per­ity made the Great So­ci­ety pos­si­ble. But only black peo­ple could re­de­fine black peo­ple, Stoke­ley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton said in Black Power (1967). West has re­mem­bered en­ter­ing Har­vard in 1970 and feel­ing more than pre­pared by his church and fam­ily. The fu­ture of the world as he could imag­ine it then and how it ev­i­dently strikes Coates these days is a pro­found gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence. “The war­lords of his­tory are still kick­ing our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is com­ing to save us.”

Cor­nell West is right or I am on his side, an­other old head who be­lieves that his­tory is hu­man-made. Afropes­simism and its treat­ment of with­drawal as tran­scen­dence is no less pleas­ing to white supremacy than Booker T. Wash­ing­ton’s strate­gic re­treat into self-help. Afro-pes­simism threat­ens no one, and white au­di­ences con­fuse hav­ing been chas­tised with learn­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, black peo­ple who dis­miss the idea of progress as a fan­tasy are in­cor­rect in think­ing they are the same as most white peo­ple who per­haps be­lieve still that they will be fine no mat­ter who wins our elec­tions. Afro-pes­simism is not found in the black church. One of the most elo­quent re­but­tals to Afro-pes­simism came from the white teenage anti-gun lob­by­ists who opened up their story in the March for Our Lives demon­stra­tions to in­clude all youth trapped in vi­o­lent cul­tures.

My fa­ther used to say that in­te­gra­tion had lit­tle to do with sit­ting next to white peo­ple and ev­ery­thing to do with black peo­ple gain­ing ac­cess to bet­ter neigh­bor­hoods, de­cent schools, their share. Life for blacks was not what it should be, but he saw that as a rea­son to keep on, not check out. I had no idea how much bet­ter things were than they had been when he was my age, he said. That white peo­ple spent money in or­der to sup­press the black vote proved that vot­ing was a rad­i­cal act. Bobby Kennedy hap­pened to be in In­di­anapo­lis the day Dr. King was as­sas­si­nated fifty years ago. I al­ways thought my fa­ther had gone down­town to hear Kennedy speak. No, he told me much later, he’d been in the ghetto tav­ern of a crony, too dis­gusted to talk. Yet he wouldn’t let me stay home from school the next day. A cou­ple of decades later I was re­sent­ing my fa­ther speak­ing of my ex­pa­tri­ate life as a black lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, be­cause I un­der­stood him to be say­ing that I wasn’t do­ing any­thing new and, by the way, there was no such thing as get­ting away from be­ing black, or what oth­ers might pre­tend that meant. Black life is about the group, and even if we tell our­selves that we don’t care any­more that Amer­ica glo­ri­fies the in­di­vid­ual in or­der to dis­guise what is re­ally hap­pen­ing, this re­mains a fun­da­men­tal para­dox in the or­ga­ni­za­tion of ev­ery­day life for a black per­son. Your head is not a safe space.

Amy Sher­ald: What’s pre­cious in­side of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that di­min­ish its pres­ence (All Amer­i­can), 2017; from the ex­hi­bi­tion ‘Amy Sher­ald,’ on view at the Con­tem­po­rary Art Mu­seum St. Louis, May 11–Au­gust 19, 2018

Ta-Ne­hisi Coates

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