Book review

Were the Obama years good for black people in America? An essayist asks the question in his new book

Why does Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about the USA’s first black President and ‘An American Tragedy’ in the same breath?

A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the years of his predecessor, Barack Obama, seem of a long gone past. Like, as Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests, a dream over too fast, indeed an aberration. His book’s title denotes the two Obama terms, when Barack Obama served the United States as its first African-American president. But the words have a wistful connotation too.

Witnessing political events from 2006 onward, Coates, at first, is disbelieving that Obama could ever become president, but then is grudgingly accepting of that fact, as he sees Obama’s “surge” toward the presidency. At that time Coates had shared the quite legitimate assumption that an African-American – consistently denied, like others of his (her) race – could never become the nation’s president. But when Obama became president, it did seem the last colour line had been breached.

Tragedy of a triumph

Yet, the campaign for the next US Presidential election, which began in 2015, suggests, writes Coates, that Trump’s victory, as the country’s “first white president” was possible precisely because of reactions to, and the historicity of, Obama’s presidency. Therein lies the American “tragedy”.

Trump’s win, argues Coates, especially in his final essay and in the epilogue, is indubitably connected to race and racism – and that it is the former that is born of the latter.

“It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, ‘If a black man can be president, then any white man – no matter how fallen – can be president.’ And in that perverse way the democratic dreams of (Thomas) Jefferson and (Andrew) Jackson were fulfilled.”

Coates grew up in a segregated Baltimore. He makes his arguments cautiously, with restrained anger, as he considers the recent past and the present. The eight chapters of the book were originally written as a series of essays for The Atlantic, an ideas magazine. Coates’s own journey toward being a conscious (and even conscientious) writer appear in prologue form to every chapter.

The persistence of history

Coates has written of his father, an activist for the Black Panthers and later a publisher who educated his sons on the African-American experience, in his first memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. He explored the trauma of being born black in America in a book written in epistolary form (mirroring James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time) to his young son, Between the World and Me. This won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.

In these books, he writes passionately, but in a matter-of-fact way, of being hindered and hemmed in by all those factors that make lives like his hard and terribly constricted. Despite the end of slavery, and the onset of the civil rights era in the 1960s, Coates is all too aware that the disadvantages, the forces of discrimination, remain heavily stacked against African-Americans. And while the community has often wearied of identity issues, the wrongs of history haven’t been righted. These continue in different ways, in myriad guises, sometimes covert, but very much present.

It is hard not to share the anger and the grief with which Coates describes the last two centuries: the decades of oppression, cruelty and outright discrimination. These make up the must-read chapters. Making the “case for reparations” for all these wrongs of history is just part of the story. For reparations make for complicated, necessary arguments and happy endings are impossible.

“In all of American life, there is the bias toward a happy ending, toward the notion that human resilience and intellect will be a match for any problem. This holds especially true for the problem of white supremacy. For white people who have not quite taken on the load of ancestral debt but can sense its weight, there is the longing for some magic that might make the burden of slavery and all that followed magically vanish. For blacks born under the burden, there is the need to believe that a better day is on the horizon, that their lives, their children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives, are not forever condemned to carry that weight, which white people can only but sense.”

Constructing race

The book’s subtitle, just to make Coates’s train of thoughts clearer, is “An American Tragedy”. There is a wider tragedy, beyond the “Eight Years in Power” that blacks (have learnt to) blame themselves for. Noted African American members of the community have, in recent decades, made the argument that African Americans need to look to themselves too.

Take Michelle Obama, who has often spoken nostalgically about her growing up years in Chicago. There was no consciousness there of being black – a fact reiterated by Coates when he writes that going out in the wider world, seeking employment, and finding himself judged and measured in a certain way made him fully conscious of his identity. Concomitantly, could the fact that Obama became president, his appeal to a cross-section of the white voters without any false humility on his part and on an equal footing, unglue the race argument?

Working with the conceit that the Obama presidency reflects his own life as well as the wider struggle of blacks, Coates considers the race aspect – as defined and written about in the Obama years – contradictory. Obama was forced to backtrack on some matters, and even made missteps on others. In 2012 came Obama’s carefully chosen eloquent words following the killing of young Trayvon Martin in Florida. “I’d have had a son like him,” Obama had said. Words that reflected his anger at what all young blacks went through but words that yearned to reach out to all Americans.

More bitterly (and surprisingly for Obama as he admits in one on one meetings with Coates) the aspect of race undercut his presidency right from the beginning. The Republicans in government refused all cooperation, and there was the “birtherism” issue, touted first by the current US president. Obama was always a consensus-maker (not, it must be said, a “dealmaker”), trying to get both sides to talk through things.

Past to present and beyond

Neither as an adolescent nor later had Obama really experienced the crueller aspects of “race”. Coates has. His wide reading makes him recount the Civil War (1861-65) and its driving imperatives – the southern states refusing to give up ownership of slaves, whom they considered property, to be bought, sold, raped and ill-treated at will. Emancipation after the Civil War was followed by a far worse onslaught on African Americans, characterised by the Jim Crow era of lynching, segregation and mass-murders of the early 20th century. Even the seemingly progressive legislation enacted by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s on benefits and the dole for those affected by the Depression, ensured blacks were left out.

There came, from the middle of the last century onward, zoning within cities and segregation of residential areas. This was when African Americans, as Coates details with the example of Chicago, were lured into the suburbs only to realise they had been conned into a series of contractual obligations that increased their debt.

Coates believes that the history of America’s trajectory inevitably makes for a tragedy. But still, the consistent questioning, the passionate anger, and the continuing debate – about the kind of country the US should be, a conversation and argument that must factor in race on all counts – also reveals hope. Coates consciously sees himself as following in a long line of black public intellectuals, including Frederick Douglass, William Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and, especially, James Baldwin, whom he appears to be speaking to and emulating.

But the mantle of being a public spokesperson, of being a public intellectual, can be hard to wear lightly. And so it is with Coates. It is a fraught time in American politics. The present, for all of Coates’s pessimism, may not be the culmination of a tragedy for race matters – but that’s something only the future can judge. Still, the tragedies, that have accompanied the African-American experience must never be forgotten.

This is where Coates makes his finest and most passionate arguments. It is vital reading for readers elsewhere, in places where history remains contested, where voices of those marginalised remain in danger of being lost. Coates’s book, with its stories of resistance and argument tells us that when tragedy looms large, the urge to question, to fight for what seems just, must always go on.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, One World.

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