Review: We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest book We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays written over the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Most were published in The Atlantic, where Coates has been making waves as “America’s best writer on race,” an assessment he admits makes him “retch” (117). He doesn’t explicitly say so, but I suppose it’s partly the fact that so many white people turn to him as the authority, the purveyor of “the black perspective.” I wonder if he feels like, as a character in The Freedom Writers claims, “the Rosetta Stone of black people.” He asks, “Why do white people like what I write?” (118). He admits that this “voice inside” him, this question, would “eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did” (118). I would argue he is one of the most lucid and persuasive writers of his generation, and perhaps because of it, he has attracted an audience he didn’t necessarily believe he would attract. It’s clear he is confused by this attention, but one need only read the pages of We Were Eight Years in Power to understand why the attention confuses him. He is accustomed to a white America that does not listen to the complete story of itself. It believes its own myths. He has a gift for laying those myths bare and reminding us to consider what we would prefer to forget.

Coates writes a preface to each essay, except for the last, “The First White President,” which serves as an epilogue. In his prefaces, he discusses where his mind was at the time of writing the essay, what his process was like, and how he views the work now. It’s as much about writing as it is about issues of race in the time of America’s first black president.

The title comes from Thomas Miller, an African American congressman who served South Carolina during the South’s period of Reconstruction:

We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity. (xiii)

Coates saw parallels between Miller’s disbelieving appeal and Barack Obama’s legacy as the first black president. Certainly, Coates seems to capture our times in ways that few writers can. The prefaces to each essay are the writer at the height of his critical powers, both of his own work and of the current historical moment.

Of the collected essays, I agree with Coates’s assessment regarding “The Case for Reparations”: “I thought I was at my best when I could combine the reporting and the essay. ‘The Case for Reparations’ is, for that reason, the best piece in this volume to my mind” (288). I had been meaning to read that essay for years and even carried a printout of the article as it appeared in The Atlantic in my school bag for a long time, but I did not actually read it until I read this book. It’s a powerhouse of research and writing. However, all of the essays made me think and challenged what I understood to be true from my perspective as a white woman. If I have one quibble with the book, it’s that I think Coates does not consider sexism at all when he deconstructs Donald Trump’s election win in “The First White President.” He seems to ascribe Hillary Clinton’s defeat entirely to racist backlash against Barack Obama, as she would have cemented his legacy. While it’s true that Obama supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and it’s probably true that racism played a large part in her defeat as voters heard Trump’s promises to undo all that Obama had done, it’s impossible to say that racism is entirely to blame. Had Hillary Clinton been a man with all the same qualifications she possesses, I think she’d be president now. She did win the popular vote, and I believe that she would also have won the electoral vote if she were a man. None of that is to say that Coates’s analysis doesn’t bear thinking about. Perhaps many people haven’t thought hard enough about just how much of a role racism played in that election since the two major party candidates are both white. This quibble does not mean I felt the book needed to lose any stars in my rating, however. Coates has a brilliant mind.

I found it interesting to read about Coates’s struggles as a writer, and I want to share this selection from an interview he gave about writing and the writing process.

via ytCropper

As a writer myself, I found it incredibly heartening to hear such a gifted writer discuss his struggles with the craft.

If you are concerned about social justice issues and racism in our current moment and across the broad swathe of American history, you need to read this book. It’s a book I wish all Americans would read and think about.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

I almost reviewed James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on my education blog rather than here, where I mainly talk about books and other things. I consider it professional reading in addition to personal reading. However, I think I will write there more generally about the educational implications of this book and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I finished earlier this week as well.

Baldwin writes lucidly and persuasively about the oppression of African Americans in 1963. I wonder what he would make of the world we live in today. Not much seems to have changed, and Baldwin’s warnings about the dangers we face if we cannot begin to love one another, if we cannot be free, seem to be boiling over in our current political climate. One wonders if what we see around us is the last gasp of white supremacy before it is submerged finally. I hope this is true, but I cannot tell.

The structure of this book takes the form of two letters: one letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the second letter to Americans in general. It was a little hard not to underline everything Baldwin says in the book. Not a word seems out of place or unnecessary. Like one of the best sermons or gospel songs, the entire book and every letter of every word in it is critical. Baldwin argues that Americans fear freedom and that none of us, black or white, is truly free. Baldwin could be writing about our current political movement when he says

We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. (89)

Baldwin says that our only constants are birth, death, and love, “though we may not always think so” and “safety… or money, or power” are “chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed” (92). Clinging to safety, money, and power will result in the disappearance of “the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom” (92). We do have a chance if we are willing to take it.

[I]f we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. (94)

Baldwin concludes that “we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are to become a nation” (97). The way forward is through love. Radical love, which is the theme of the post I will write on my education blog if I can manage to string together my thoughts coherently. Radical love is what we need if we are going to survive, for “hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry” (99).

Reading Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator writing about the effects of oppression on education, and Baldwin, writing about the impact of racism on human dignity, has helped me understand what happened in our recent election with a little more clarity. Some of us are afraid. The oppressed are not staying in “their place.” But as long as continue to think of each other in terms of superiority and inferiority and cannot love each other, we will none of us be free. I wish the world around us had changed since Baldwin wrote this book in 1963 and Freire wrote his in 1970, but alas, both books speak all too clearly about and to our times.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I don’t remember when I added this book to my TBR list, but I certainly wasn’t serious about moving up the list until recently. I have definitely wanted to read it since I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title of Coates’s book comes from The Fire Next Time. I definitely want to read The Fire This Time. now.

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Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

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Review: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

I can’t believe it took me this long to finally pick up Between the World and Me. I’ve wanted to read it for months. I finally purchased it for my Kindle back in November, and it sat there on my Kindle for two months before I finally read it today.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t explain what this book is about because I feel like the last person to have read it, but in the event I’m not, and in the event you haven’t bumped into this book yet, Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his teenage son, but beyond that, it is a meditation on the history of race relations in America, a stark condemnation of the American Dream, and a powerful narrative of the current (and historical) climate of police brutality. In the Goodreads description:

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I don’t often say this about a book because I think reading is often intensely personal, and what we like and don’t like doesn’t always translate to others, but I think everyone should read this book. They probably won’t. In fact, the people who most need to read this book probably won’t read it. I’m intensely glad that I did. I learned a lot, and this book has made me think more than most of the books I’ve read. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been waking up to some hard truths about the world and specifically about America, and as a teacher, I feel responsible for my role in helping students make sense of the world around them. One feeling I had as I finished this book is a sense of failure. I know, especially early in my career, that I was not a good teacher (because I was green, mainly), but more specifically, I was a terrible teacher for the young black students in my classes because I didn’t know and didn’t understand so much.

Of this book, Toni Morrison, a writer I respect a great deal, says:

I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.

I can’t make a stronger point than Toni Morrison. If you haven’t read this book, you should, but be prepared to have your world shaken. It is one of those books that might make you measure your life in terms of before you read it and after you read it. It is beautifully written essential reading.

Rating: ★★★★★

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m chipping away at both of these challenges at a clip. I may need to up my participation level. It’s been good motivation to clear out some items on my TBR list and my shelves.
 

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