There’s something cold and economical about classing people according to the color of their skin.
According to essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, this slave market mentality has always dominated the black experience in America. Change only occurred under Barack Obama’s presidency—and only for a brief time—when black skin became one of the coolest commodities in the country. Coates’ new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, a collection of essays originally published in The Atlantic, chronicles the rise of black America under the calm guidance of the first black president and bemoans its loss to Donald Trump, whom Coates calls a racist and, mysteriously, “the first white president.” Published this October, the book seeks to explain how the white man’s fear of successful black people led them to elect a Twitter-wielding firebrand as Obama’s replacement.
At the same time, Eight Years eulogizes a period when American arts focused almost exclusively on the glory of black skin. These were the years, Coates argues, that rapper Kendrick Lamar called himself a “proud monkey” in his song “The Blacker the Berry,” and comedian Jordan Peele satirized a cultural obsession with the physical superiority of black skin in the movie Get Out. Coates published Between the World and Me, a number-one bestselling memoir advancing his theory that “our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” Blacks, he argued, must prize the security of their individual bodies above all else. After all, the body is all there is.
Coates’ theory of black bodies pervades all of his work, and his new book is no exception. Before each essay, Coates includes what he calls an “extended blog post” explaining how his work fits into his presumptions about the importance of bodily security. The actual essays themselves are fine, except for the gargantuan novella-length ode to Obama, “My President Was Black,” which describes the “Good Negro Government” the country supposedly enjoyed for eight years. Aside from that self-indulgent love fest, good editors were able to rein in Coates’ tendency to wax elegiac and browbeat his readers with repetitive sentence structures. Coates rightfully rips into institutions and people who have mistreated those in poverty and in prison, all the while serving up a cultural framework that hinges on checkpoints as wide-ranging as deep cut Nas references and repurposed W.E.B. Du Bois allusions.
But as much as he admires Du Bois, by repurposing the Jim Crow-era reformer’s words, Coates consistently trips over his own Timbs. For although publicly an agnostic, Du Bois wrote with a preacher-like conviction that all blacks are connected in a spiritual realm, one that flows and ripples across the world. Du Bois began his opus, The Souls of Black Folk, with the following statement: “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question. . . How does it feel to be a problem?”
Coates pushes Du Bois’ project further by attempting (and ultimately failing) to answer that question. Participating in that spiritual world demands humility and an acknowledgment that we can’t always understand why the world is ordered as it is. Coates has little patience for such humility. He needs answers and reparations for injustice, both of which he knows no black person (or any person who has suffered) will receive, at least in this life. And so for Coates that means cutting out that “other world” which gave Du Bois and so many others hope for peace.
Coates borrowed the phrase “Good Negro Government” from Du Bois, but he didn’t understand the fullness of its meaning. Du Bois was talking about ordinary black people organizing and associating in a way so civilized and coherent that it troubled the old racist Southern aristocracy. Coates, by contrast, is merely mourning the loss of a president who was so cool he hobnobbed with celebrities and didn’t always wear a necktie to press conferences. Du Bois’ writings aspire to a unity sought not only by blacks, but by anyone who believes in the dignity of the human person. Coates is merely bitter that his fellow Americans seemed not to see the loss of Obama’s cool presence as a national tragedy, as he does. If Coates, now a celebrity public intellectual in his own right, wants to do more than preach to the choir, he needs to grapple with the fact that his worldview lacks not only humility, but also an understanding of human dignity that could encompass and inspire people of all races, colors, and creeds.
Image: By David Shankbone (Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons