At the southwestern corner of Baltimore’s North and Pennsylvania Avenues, the strike-point of the spring 2015 uprising, a mural features two portraits. The first is Billie Holiday, raised in city and who called it home. At first glance I presumed the other was Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the pan-Africanist leader. In fact, it is Ta-Nehisi Coates, a forty-two-year-old black man born in Baltimore, who, during the presidency of Barack Obama, achieved recognition as a sort of avatar of uncompromising black journalism. His regular point is that black people are “plunder” in a piratical network of ill-gotten American gain. (He has not yet extended the point to consider “plunder” in the making of the modern world.) To conflate Garvey’s mythic vision of return to a united Africa aimed at a black audience and Coates’s contemporary brand, offering pessimistic insights from black life to a predominantly white readership, snuffs out the debates and experience of more than two centuries. But the improbable fusion of the two figures is also a sign of something new, an epistemic luxury in the history of Africans in the West. When the Baltimorean Frederick Douglass learnt to read, he had access to the meeting house in Happy Alley, the black abolitionist and Sharp Street Church schoolteacher William Watkins, and the legacy of African Methodist Episocopal ministers including Daniel Coker and Jacob Fortie. But, for the most part, Douglass’s wrestling with other black writers was confined to his imagination. Coates, by contrast, has produced a critique of America from a rich archive, much of it written by blacks themselves. Coates is the native with a library card.
The mural’s foisting of Coates into a narrative of epic black genius is symptomatic of a mood that has, in recent years, gained strength among the general public. The inclusion – indeed, veneration – both gratifies and embarrasses Coates, he tells us in We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection which gathers eight essays previously published in the Atlantic – one for each year of Obama’s presidency. The whole is anchored by the influential “The Case for Reparations” (2014) and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (2015), two essays which, in particular, made available to elites heartfelt and tenacious criticism which had previously, for the most part, escaped them. Coates framed his arguments in language these readers admired and thought was hip, and referenced sources they valued.
The new writing in the collection represents an effort to figure out how he was launched – and, to a degree, launched himself – into the rarefied circles inhabited by the majority of his readers. He introduces these essays with what he terms a blog post, but the writing feels more carefully wrought than that. By the sixth year of the two-term Obama presidency, Coates is in the driver’s seat. On the subway, people begin to recognize him, acknowledging him as a significant force in American life: “But the part of me that I most identified as ‘me’ . . . was mortified”. What is also mortifying is the imprimatur of power. His argument in favour of reparations was “seen as serious and respectable” by white Americans because the Atlantic – which was founded in 1857 with a pro-abolition message – published it:
If [the Atlantic] was putting an argument for reparations on the cover, reparations had to be
New Black Men
Writing about the Obama years
LAWRENCE JACKSON sexuality, where he is, in Mark Anthony
T a - N e h i s i C o a t e s W E W E R E E I G H T Y E A R S I N
P OWER An American tragedy 384pp. Hamish Hamilton. £16.99.
978 0 241 32523 0 US: Oneworld. $28. 978 0 399 59056 6
considered . . . . It’s quite sad and partially speaks to the ways legitimate ideas are dismissed, because people of the right “reputation” have yet to vouch for them. How bizarre and confusing it was to look up one day and see that I, who’d begun in failure, who held no degrees or credentials, had become such a person. With the exception of an Epilogue, the collection relies on material published before the election of Donald Trump to carry the load of “what to do now”. Since the new administration has gone about undoing everything tendered by the former President, “The Case for Reparations” now seems absurd fantasy. In fact, it was always less a demand for reparations from the US government to blacks for servitude and apartheid than it was a request for the passage of a Bill in the House of Repre-
Neale’s term, a “New Black Man”. Coates, has written lovingly and critically of his father, a former Black Panther who had seven children by four women, and who is thus difficult to distinguish from famous post-Civil Rights era black male leaders known as much for their amorous as for their political prowess – Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, Jamal Bryant and Cornel West come to mind. Coates repudiates the tradition: “All my life I had watched women support the dreams of men . . . only to wonder, in the later years, whether it was all worth it”. He cautions himself against ever doing the same to his wife, who inspires and steadies him. He professes himself at his happiest when she is succeeding. The New Black Man not only recognizes the sacrifices and celebrates the achievements of women, but is also devoted to domestic life. Unlike other maladroit fathers crafting wayward sons, Coates appears in his early essays as an eager and loyal partner, forlorn when unable to provide and care for his family. We Were Eight Years can be read almost as a romance of a struggling writer coming to terms with the legacy of American racism while preparing the way for his child. That the Baltimore mural depicts him holding his baby son is pertinent.
The Baltimore Penn-North mural “Sankofa” featuring Billie Holiday and Ta-Nehisi
Coates, by Ernest Shaw Jr., Nether and Eric Hendricks III
sentatives to investigate the vast social consequences of slavery. This now seems less likely than ever since John Conyers, the congressman associated with the Bill, has been forced to resign after accusations of sexual misconduct. That the salience of the essay will carry over to a future presidency seems improbable. In Coates’s hometown, after the sharpest political unrest since 1968, the per capita murder rate has set records for two consecutive years. Even if the ideas are taken up, it may well be too late.
Coates’s prominence, which shows no signs of waning, is partly connected to his involvement in a common narrative about gender and
While the ideal of two working parents equally committed to child-rearing has an appearance of equity, it is also tethered to neoliberal goals of deregulation, privatization, and entrepreneurship. Consider this distinction: Michael Eric Dyson, successful on entrepreneurial terms with his own television and radio broadcasts, his regular appearances on news programmes, and full-length books written in a strikingly similar style to Coates’s articles – and often on the same topics – has not obtained the same level of buy-in from white liberals. Why? Dyson introduced himself as a Reagan-Bush antagonist, a “welfare father”, with unkempt domestic affais; Coates addressed his best-
selling book Between the World and Me (2015) to his son, emphasizing his commitment to provide and guide, the state be damned.
Coates’s rise mirrors that of Obama (himself a much-praised father and husband), so it makes sense that the book should be titled We Were Eight Years in Power. And yet I find Coates’s claim that “I had never seen a black man like Barack Obama” disingenuous, since there were clearly many Baltimore locals during his upbringing who set an example: the Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke; the writer Wes Moore; the politician Keifer Mitchell; and the Rhodes scholar Keefe Clemons. All were, to varying degrees, Obama-like before Obama. In the most obvious sense, though, the power couple with which Coates’s readers – and indeed, Coates himself – must contend comprises Obama and Coates. The African American journalist Howard French recently upset Coates by suggesting that he is a muchlauded token in the distinctly racist business of journalism; in an exchange that led to Coates deleting his popular Twitter account last month, Cornel West battered him on a parallel point, that Coates used racial guilt to his advantage while side-stepping a structural critique of capitalism. Similar observations were made about Obama’s promotion. Despite disagreements with the former President, including Coates’s dismay at Obama’s patronising manner towards all-black audiences, the pair are aboard the same meteor to the stars, and the pace of the change is distorting:
My struggle is to remain conscious, to remember the gifts of so many out there, treading, drowning. And the praise will make you forget all that, will convince you of your own special nature, instead of reminding you that you had the great fortune of living and writing in the most incredible of eras – the era of a black president. Richard Wright used to say that if he had enrolled in as much as public high school he would have been unlikely ever to have written a word in defiance of the crudities of American materialism or racial segregation. Frequently black professors at elite colleges (Coates refers to them as “the talking heads I despise”) remark that they have chosen to write in a journalistic style and by way of the commercial press because it joins them to the possibility of a broader and more radical audience. In comparison with the Ivy League professors, Coates has succeeded in returning the work of “thinking black” to the newspaper journalist. One traces through the work of Coates – who professes atheism, a sure distinction from the popular tack of preacherprofessors including Dyson and West – the steady realization that he rides a ridge between the exceptionalist romance of America (“It is, I think, the very chaos of America that allowed me to prosper”) and something more terrifying (“the larger story . . . is a tragedy”). That place of troubling ambiguity shoots beyond the mural’s resemblance to Garvey or the writer Coates most admires, James Baldwin, to another black writer, absent from Coates’s description of his artistic lineage: Ralph Ellison. Considering the world of the atom bomb, a hot Korean war, CIA plots and assassinations, state-sanctioned thought persecution and ghettos, Ellison decided, “The mind that has conceived the plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived”. Ta-Nehisi Coates is at his best and most promising when doing just that.
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