/ 7 November 2017

Eight years of Obama through Coates

Barack Obama waves as rain falls during a rally for his first presidential term
Barack Obama waves as rain falls during a rally for his first presidential term

The advent of social media has ushered in what we know today as “call-out culture”, where any misinformation or ignorance communicated through any platform is being corrected by the public. But call-out culture isn’t always about correcting misinformation — sometimes the intention is solely to humiliate. It sometimes collapses careers, and those doing the calling out often don’t concern themselves with such consequences.

On the last Thursday of June 2015, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison found herself in the sights of a social media mob. Morrison committed what book lovers and activists considered literary blasphemy. After receiving advance copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Morrison crowned him the new James Baldwin — at least this is how her words were read.

“I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died; clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Morrison wrote in response to the book.

There are writers whose influence is so great that it is laughable for them to be compared with any living soul. Baldwin is one such writer and this is what got Morrison in trouble. It is rare for a figure of Baldwin’s height to ever be compared with a living writer. Literary giants are seldom replaceable. Morrison’s endorsement of Coates caused such a stir that legendary academic Cornel West accused Morrison of being seduced by linguistic glitz.

To date, Between the World and Me has sold more than 1.5-million copies and has been translated into at least 19 languages worldwide. Prominent scholars have prescribed it as necessary reading. Morrison’s words are still debatable, but what is not is the fact that Coates is easily in his own league ,both as a writer and as a public intellectual. He may not stand shoulder to shoulder with Baldwin, but Coates may be just as necessary.

Coates got to experience something Baldwin would have never thought possible — a black president of the United States. The Barack Obama presidency was something to uphold and marvel at for a country whose history is soaked in the horrors of slavery. The US is also a country whose black population is still grappling with the legacy of that era.

The prospect of a black presidency was always fictional until Senator Obama took to the stage on a chilly Washington night to announce the beginning of a different kind of American political era.

In the eight years of his stay in the White House, Obama went from a fairytale to a bad dream, for many. He went from a Nobel laureate to chief commander of the most power military on the planet. Coates was there to document it all. We Were Eight Years in Power contains some of Coates’s writing from the eight years of Obama’s presidency, with the title of the book borrowed from Thomas Miller’s 1895’s plea to the Constitutional Convention:

“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.”

With the title, Coates is drawing parallels between Obama’s presidency and the brief but remarkable era of American Reconstruction which Miller highlighted in its success, in hopes of lending it credibility.

In the book, Coates argues that just like the 1890s achievement of black government, the problem with the Obama presidency wasn’t delivery or achievement but the colour of his skin.

We Were Eight Years In Power features two of Coates’s most controversial essays: “Fear of a Black President” and “The Case for Reparations”, accompanied by eight new essays. In the essay “Fear of a Black President” Coates takes on white America, critiquing its racism while lambasting Obama on his slow reaction to addressing the boiling racial tension during his presidency.

“As a candidate, Barack Obama said we needed to reckon with race and with America’s original sin, slavery. But as our first black president, he has avoided mention of race almost entirely,” Coates writes.

“The Case For Reparations” is Coates making an old case anew: that victims of slavery and colonialism deserve more than the mere recognition of their pain but actual payment for the crimes meted out on their bodies. In the essay, Coates uses the German model of Holocaust reparations as one example of a successful reparations case that could be followed. As part of the essay’s controversy, some of his critics accused him of singing Zionist praises.

In a new essay, “The First White President”, Coates dismantles the narrative that Donald Trump was propelled by working class anger. Instead, Coates posits that what eased Trump’s march to the White House was actually racism. In the same essay, Coates names Trump as a white supremacist, writing:

“It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

With his newest book, Coates has given the Obama White House shape; through his pen, Obama is more than just America’s first black president. He is more than just the manifestation of a dream. For Coates, Obama, more than anything, was white America’s worst nightmare coming true.

Coates has been called many things: from a liberal’s favourite to a neoliberal darling. The issue many take with Coates seems to be his popularity and the excitement his work is perceived to evoke. We agree Coates is not Baldwin, but to refuse to engage with his work simply because his popularity or his politics are suspicious is to commit a literary injustice. Coates’s words to some may be empty, but it’s a beautiful emptiness.

Coates is necessary now more than ever, and We Were Eight Years in Power is an important reminder of this.