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We Were Eight Years in Power
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates has had an incredible journey. I love reading his work because he makes me smarter, and he does so with eloquent, precise language.
Each of the eight The Atlantic essays featured in this book can still be found online, but the bound compilation is worth purchasing for his insightful notes alone. All of the essays were new to me, with the exception of "My President Was Black," which I wrote about last year.
A true revelation for me. One of its central themes: this country was built on a foundation of lies, plunder, and cruelty. Coates' anger, disappointment, and cynicism surrounding this fact is palpable. The conclusion seems to be that this nation cannot make meaningful, permanent progress until we can accept its whole truth. I agree.
"At that moment, in that classroom, going through all the mandated motions, I could not see it. I could not see anything. And like almost every other lesson administered to me in a classroom, I don't remember a single thing said that day. And as with all the other buried traumas accumulated in the classrooms, I did not allow myself to feel the ache of that failure. Instead, I fell back on the old habits and logic of the street, where it was so often necessary to deny humiliations and transmute pain into rage. So I took the agony of that era like a collection notice and hid it away in the upper dresser of the mind, resolved to return to it when I had means to pay. I think now, today, I have settled almost all of these old accounts. But the ache and aftershock of failure remain long after the drawer is bare."
("Notes from the First Year," pp. 6-7)
"I remembered that once, as a child, I was filled with wonder, that I had marveled at tri-folded science projects, encyclopedias, and road atlases. I left much of that wonder somewhere back in Baltimore. Now I had the privilege of welcoming it back like a long-lost friend, though our reunion was laced with grief; I mourned over all the years that were lost. The mourning continues. Even today, from time to time, I find myself on beaches watching six-year-olds learn to surf, or at colleges listening to sophomores slip from English to Italian, or at cafes seeing young poets flip through "The Waste Land," or listening to the radio where economists explain economic things that I could've explored in my lost years, mourning, hoping that I and all my wonder, my long-lost friend, have not yet run out of time, though I know that we all run out of time, and some of us run out of it faster."
("Notes from the Second Year," pp. 35-36)
"The twentieth century, with its struggles for equal rights, with the triumph of democracy as the ideal in Western thought, proved Douglas right. The Civil War marks the first great defense of democracy and the modern West. Its legacy lies in everything from women's suffrage to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East. It was during the Civil War that the heady principles of the Enlightenment were first, and most spectacularly, called fully to account.
In our present time, to express the view of the enslaved–to say that the Civil War was a significant battle in the long war against bondage and for government by the people–is to compromise the comfortable narrative. It is to remind us that some of our own forefathers once explicitly rejected the republic to which they'd pledged themselves, and dreamed up another country, with slavery not merely as a bug, but as its very premise. It is to point out that at this late hour, the totems of the empire of slavery–chief among them, its flag–still enjoy an honored place in the homes, and public spaces, of self-professed patriots and vulgar lovers of "freedom." It is to understand what it means to live in a country that will never apologize for slavery, but will not stop apologizing for the Civil War."
("Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?" p. 80)
"Nothing in the record of human history argues for divine morality, and a great deal argues against it. What we know is that good people very often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world. There is no evidence that the score is ever evened in this life or any after. The barbarian Andrew Jackson rejoiced in mass murder, regaled in enslavement, and died a national hero. For three decades, J. Edgar Hoover incited murder and perfected blackmail against citizens who only sought some equal pursuit of liberty and happiness. Today his name is affixed to a building that we are told was erected in the pursuit of justice. Hitler pushed an entire people to the brink of extinction, escaped human censure, and now finds acolytes among some of the very states he conquered. The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.
Ideas like cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption had no meaning for me. The truth was in the everything that came after atheism, after the amorality of the universe is taken not as a problem but as a given. It was then that I was freed from considering my own morality away from the cosmic and the abstract. Life was short, and death undefeated. So I loved hard, since I would not love for long. So I loved directly and fixed myself to solid things–my wife, my child, my family, health, work, friends.
I found, in this fixed and godless love, something cosmic and spiritual nonetheless."
("Notes from the Fifth Year," preceding the essay "Fear of a Black President" pp. 110-1)
"Fear of a Black President" earned Coates a National Magazine award.
"At thirty-six, with a now eleven-year-old son, I felt, for the first time in my life, a sense of financial stability. Kenyatta was back in school and had transformed herself into a scientist. She still worked part-time, but it was less necessary. Soon it would not be necessary at all. I took pride in watching her grow. She was always introducing me to things–Paris, pre-Code Hollywood, E.L. Doctorow. And now she was adding the wonder of cells and biological systems to her repertoire. I had not been prepared for the simple charm of watching someone you love grow. I had not known to look forward to it, and I guess that is because so often it does not happen, or perhaps when it does people generally grow apart. I don't really know. All I can say is seeing Kenyatta remake herself from liberal arts savant to med student, and doing so in service of her own mission, has been one of the great pleasures of my life. It was resistance: We do not have to be what they say about us. And it was more, something that I was actually lacking in my own life: service."
("Notes from the Fifth Year," preceding the essay "Fear of a Black President" p. 117)
"To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America's origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.
Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country's shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.
Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate–the kind that HR 40 proposes–we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion–and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper–America's heritage, history, and standing in the world."
("The Case for Reparations, pp. 200-1)
"This was a shocking definition of "political correctness" proffered by a politician of the left. But it matched with a broader defense of Trump voters. "Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and just deplorable folks," Sanders said later. "I don't agree." This is not exculpatory. Every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist, just as every white person in the Jim Crow South was not a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one."
("Epilogue," p. 358)
"Still there was nothing inevitable about Donald Trump's election, and while great damage has been done by his election, at the time of this writing it its not yet the end of history. What is needed now is a resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil–even in the service of warring against other evils. One must be able to name the bad bargain that whiteness strikes with its disciples–and still be able to say that it is this bargain, not a mass hypnosis, that has held through boom and bust. And there can be no conflict between the naming of whiteness and the naming of the degradation brought about by an unrestrained capitalism, by the privileging of greed and the legal encouragement to hoarding and more elegant plunder. I have never seen a contradiction between calling for reparations and calling for a living wage, on calling for legitimate law enforcement and single-payer health care. They are related–but cannot stand in for one another. I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and even war finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal–a world more humane."
("Epilogue," p. 366-7)
This is How We Lost to the White Man
Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?
The Legacy of Malcolm X
Fear of a Black President
The Case for Reparations
The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration
My President Was Black
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