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.