We Were Eight Years in Power: An Amer­i­can Tragedy

The Week (US) - - 21 - By Ta-Ne­hisi Coates

(One World, $28)

When­ever Ta-Ne­hisi Coates scru­ti­nizes the state of the Amer­i­can soul, “ex­pect no sug­ar­coat­ing or cod­dling,” said Renée Gra­ham in The Bos­ton Globe. The 42-yearold es­say­ist rose to promi­nence over the past decade by re­mind­ing read­ers that racism re­mained a toxic force in a na­tion that had just elected its first black pres­i­dent— that black Amer­i­cans had not yet stepped into a “post-racial” age. Coates’ new book col­lects nine of the most sig­nif­i­cant es­says he pub­lished be­tween 2008 and 2017 and pairs all but the last one with new in­tro­duc­tory com­men­tary. The book’s arc is clear: Nine years ago, even Coates be­lieved that Barack Obama’s rise fore­told a day when Amer­ica would be free of racism. To­day, he’s con­cluded that racism is not a tu­mor that can be removed, but, in his words, a fea­ture of the Amer­i­can body politic that’s “both na­tive and es­sen­tial to that body.” Tak­ing in a decade of Coates at once can be a brac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, “like drink­ing a triple scotch, neat,” said Jen­nifer Se­nior in The New York Times. He’s “the pre­em­i­nent black public in­tel­lec­tual of his gen­er­a­tion,” and his es­says force us to con­front dis­com­fort­ing ideas—such as the pat­tern by which eras of black progress have reg­u­larly trig­gered vi­o­lent back­lashes. Coates isn’t per­fectly con­sis­tent: He ad­mits to hav­ing looked past the anti-Semitism of Louis Far­rakhan when he par­tic­i­pated in the 1995 Far­rakhan-led Mil­lion Man March, then dis­par­ages Don­ald Trump as a white su­prem­a­cist and scolds vot­ers who looked past Trump’s his­tory of racist sig­nal­ing when they voted for him. Still, Coates’ bleak per­spec­tive on re­cent his­tory be­comes per­sua­sive. “Amer­ica couldn’t have a black pres­i­dent with­out boomerang­ing back to its ugli­est self.”

“At his weak­est,” Coates for­gets that pol­i­tics is “sup­posed to be about the art of the pos­si­ble,” said Lloyd Green in FoxNews .com. He of­fers no ideas about how to bring enough vot­ers to­gether to el­e­vate a new pres­i­dent and agenda he could sup­port. But though he over­states his case that the idea of white pri­macy is in­te­gral to Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, his co­gent, deeply felt ar­gu­ment “needs to be heard.” The hu­mil­ity with which he presents his own in­tel­lec­tual jour­ney should help in that re­gard, said Jamelle Bouie in Slate.com. He’s not at all afraid to in­clude and crit­i­cize his weaker work, or to re­vise his opin­ions. Ad­mit­ting he’s un­com­fort­able that he’s now ex­pected to be an or­a­cle, “he asks his read­ers to con­sider him as a writer, noth­ing more and noth­ing less.”

Coates: An or­a­cle against his will

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