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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book explores race and pol­itics. Wiki­media Commons

In middle school, my friend Danny Cannon told me a story about race. As a 3-year-old, his younger brother had embar­rassed his mother in a Safeway. While she was scanning junk food, he was studying the guy bagging the gro­ceries. This man hap­pened to be black.

Danny’s brother had never seen a black person before, but he was impressed with the man’s darker glow, espe­cially in com­parison to his own pastiness. So he offered a com­pliment.

“Hey. Nice skin,” he said.

When Danny told us that story, we pounced on him with cries of “Ohhhh that’s so racist! How did your brother not know he can’t say that?”

Of course, 3-year-olds can remark on skin tone and no sane person will assume mali­cious intent. It’s only when an adult does the same that we call it hateful. After all, there’s some­thing cold and eco­nomical about com­pli­menting inherent skin qual­ities. 

According to essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, the 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 Pres­ident Donald Trump, whom Coates calls a racist and mys­te­ri­ously, “the first white pres­ident.” Pub­lished this October, “Eight Years” 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 when 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.” For his own part, Coates pub­lished “Between the World and Me,” a No. 1 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 “Eight Years” is no exception. Before each essay, Coates includes what he calls an “extended blog post” explaining how his work fits into his pre­sumption that there is nothing in this life greater than bodily security; the glo­ri­fi­cation of the body is the greatest end to which a man can attain. Coates argues that this glo­ri­fi­cation cul­mi­nated in eight years of “Good Negro Gov­ernment” under Obama.

The actual essays them­selves are fine, except for the gar­gantuan novella-length ode to Obama, “My Pres­ident Was Black.” Aside from that self-indulgent love nest, The Atlantic editors rein in Coates’ ten­dencies to wax elegiac or browbeat his readers with repet­itive sen­tence struc­tures. He 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 deepcut 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 Tim­ber­lands. For although a public agnostic, Du Bois wrote with a preacher-like con­viction that all blacks are con­nected in a spir­itual realm, that all is like an ocean, all flows and con­nects; touch it in one place, and it ripples at the other end of the world. Du Bois begins his opus, “The Souls of Black Folk,” with the phrase “Between me and the other world” and seeks to accept the question issued from the whirlwind: How does it feel to be a problem?

Coates pushes Du Bois’ project further. He tries to answer the question. Par­tic­i­pating in that spir­itual world demands humility and the acknowl­edgment that human intel­li­gence cannot always under­stand the cosmic order. But humility is not enough for Coates. 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 that means cutting out that “other world” which gave Du Bois and so many others hope for peace.

Hence that lonely memoir title. Hence this new tragedy. 

When Coates borrows the phrase “Good Negro Gov­ernment” from Du Bois, he loses 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 Southern aris­tocracy. Coates is mourning the loss of a pres­ident who was so cool that he didn’t always wear a necktie to press con­fer­ences and clothed his daughters in J. Crew polos bought full price at Tyson’s Gal­leria. Du Bois’ writings aspire to a unity sought not just by blacks but by anyone who believes in the dignity of a people. Coates’ work just reflects a bitter sort of mate­ri­alism.

If all that should matter to blacks is the security of the body, then Coates has nice skin, but his phi­losophy offers nothing more.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Barack Obama will be known more for what he didn’t accom­plish as Pres­ident than what he did. He could have accom­plished a great deal, but couldn’t break away from the mindset of his African father’s antipathy directed at the world colonial powers. His Pres­i­dency was more about dis­daining the his­torical greatness of America under the lead­ership of cau­casian Pres­i­dents than it was pro­moting our world engagement in a more ethical way. To Obama, America like the colonial powers in Africa was inher­ently evil and unable to get over that in it’s policies. He pro­vided no lead­ership to fill the vacuum he created, instead with­drawing from the world stage at a point in our history when that lead­ership is most needed. Dis­daining America’s worldwide influence in the past, he had nothing to replace it with. While pos­sessing an engaging per­son­ality and a matter-of-fact delivery that people enjoyed, he offered little policy sub­stance and less direction. Pres­ident Obama will go down as America’s first African American Pres­ident-that will be his legacy-and little else. Being against some­thing isn’t suf­fi­cient for Lead­ership.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    “trips over his own tim­ber­lands”  — explain the ref­erence please?