I have a complicated relationship with blackness. Growing up, I had a white mother who was present and a black father who was absent. My dad left me my skin colour, my nose and a fear of abandonment. Everything else I got from my mother.
Although my mother worked hard to make sure that I felt able to access my missing parent’s culture, throughout my teenage years I took the same attitude to blackness as I did to the suggestions from relatives that I should try to get in touch with my father: he wasn’t interested in me, and I wasn’t interested in him, his skin colour, or his culture.
Years later, as a hungry freelancer, I experienced the double-edged sword that was writing “as a black person”: on one hand, it made it easier to get paid to write. On the other, every time I did it, I felt as if a cage was slowly being erected around me: that any success I might achieve would come with a dirty great asterisk in the shape of the prefix “black”. I received plenty of well-meaning advice that the only way to succeed as a minority writer was to avoid minority subjects wherever possible.
Ta-Nehisi Coates stands alone in having defied that rule. He is one of the English-speaking world’s pre-eminent writers and public intellectuals, no prefix required. He is the biggest star at the Atlantic, an 160-year-old American magazine with a majority white readership and an international reach. Yet he has achieved this while writing predominantly about blackness.
As a result, I always come to his work with the same surprise that Coates approached the victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Coates never believed that there could be a black president, and I never thought that a black writer could achieve the fame and success that Coates has without downplaying their blackness.
Coates credits his own rise to the presidency of Barack Obama. Fascination with the black president, Coates writes, “eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home”. That community was black America. In We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates reflects on the administration that gave him his big break and analyses the manner of its death: how the first black president was followed by a president who gloried in the support of white supremacists, and whose explicit mission is to destroy Obama’s achievements, from health care to climate change.
The bulk of the book consists of eight pieces Coates wrote for the Atlantic, one for each year of the Obama presidency, each prefaced by his reflections on the essay form, Coates’s life and the Obama administration. The final essay is on Donald Trump’s victory and its aftermath. Coates’s big argument, both on the art of political writing and on the cause of Trump’s success, is that you can’t escape race.
The secret of Coates’s success is not only the deftness of his prose but that he is an Obama-sceptic: combative where Obama is conciliatory, pessimistic where he is optimistic, loud where he speaks softly, or not at all, not least on race. To Coates, Obama is “a conservative revolutionary” who offered black people “the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible”.
Obama, a keen and ecumenical reader, used to invite Coates to spar at the White House when he disagreed with an article, and it is these clashes that underpin the success of what is to my eyes the book’s strongest essay, “My President Was Black”. (Coates disagrees, naming “The Case for Reparations” as the best piece.)
The differences between Coates and Obama form one of the most interesting themes of the book and are best distilled by their feelings about Donald Trump’s victory, an outcome that neither predicted. “I thought Trump wouldn’t win, whereas Obama thought, categorically, that he couldn’t,” Coates recalls of a dinner that the two men shared before the election. “I can’t say I knew white people would elect Donald Trump but I did not put it past them.”
It is Coates’s view of what powered Trump to victory that has dominated much of the early discussion of the book. His thesis is that Trump cannot be separated from the United States’ original sin: white supremacy and the myth of African-American inferiority. It wasn’t the only cause, nor is it one that can be separated from the missteps of Hillary Clinton or the damage caused by globalisation. As Coates writes, “The politics of race are, themselves, never simply driven by the politics of race.” Yet it was still a cause. Not every supporter of Donald Trump was a white supremacist, “but every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one”.
This is a nuance that the book’s predominantly white critics have struggled to appreciate. Ryan Cooper, writing in the Week, claimed that Coates believed that “white backlash is the only factor behind Trump’s success”, while in the National Review, David French accused him of ignoring the impact of Clinton’s unpopularity. Both statements are as far from the truth as Donald Trump is from being fit for office.
A fair criticism of Coates’s argument is that it is banal: that the inescapable logic of Trump’s victory is that the people who voted for him were, at best, relaxed about the prospect of a white supremacist in the White House. That it is considered radical is almost as good an argument for the enduring power of the myth of white American innocence as anything that Coates writes.
It also serves as a validation for Coates’s other argument that, far from boxing himself in by writing largely about race, those writers (including me) who have tried to steer clear of writing about race have “boxed themselves out”.
There is no fact-based account of the rise of Donald Trump that doesn’t include race. There is no explanation for the loss of the Conservative parliamentary majority in Britain that doesn’t include the defection of affluent ethnic minority voters from the Conservative column in 2015 to the Labour one in 2017. There can be no sensible discussion of Brexit that doesn’t include the hostility to which Britons of all colours feel towards Polish migrants to the UK.
Coates, then, succeeds twice over, in justifying not only his account of one election, but the importance of his entire body of work.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
Hamish Hamilton, 384pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer