We Made Ta-Nehisi Coates Into a Symbol

Now his new book forces us to consider him as a writer, nothing more and nothing less.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks in 2015 at the University of Michigan.

Sean Carter/Flickr CC

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Most of us who write for a living remain just that: writers. But out of any generation of those who claim that title, a select few become something more, elevated by both skill and circumstance. They become symbols, names to hold in either reverence or contempt. And in turn, both their craft and their ideas can become secondary to who they are and what they represent.

If that is true of anyone at this moment in public life, it is true of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for the Atlantic and one of the most famous scribes in the country. Hired in the midst of Barack Obama’s remarkable first campaign for president, Coates devoted his mind and prose to understanding and grappling with America’s racism. And while his work has an academic flavor—he leans heavily on the work of historians and sociologists—this has not been an academic pursuit. Raised in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic, Coates attended Howard University and lost a close friend to police violence. Racism has an interest in Coates, and he in turn has an interest in it.

Coates’ fame began with a provocative essay on federal housing discrimination, “The Case for Reparations.” But it exploded after the release of his second book, Between the World and Me, a meditation on black life and white supremacy, addressed to his teenage son, and written in the epistolary tradition established by James Baldwin in his seminal work The Fire Next Time. Between the World and Me made Coates a star, quoted on network sitcoms, invited to the White House by the president, who, he admits, made his career possible, and deemed a “genius” with one of the most prestigious awards in the world.

But this fame had an unintended consequence—it obscured his actual work. Not because Coates reveled in it, but because his elevation to near-mythic status has centered analysis and conversation on his audience, not his arguments. Critics from the right began dissecting his popularity with liberals, blasting him as a grievance artist who opportunistically peddled guilt to white progressives. Those from the left had their own critique, holding him up as emblematic of those who advance an ephemeral, almost metaphysical view of racism, and whose views preclude a politics that could actually tackle the material.

Now his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, is an opportunity to spend time with Coates qua Coates. It is a collection of eight essays written during Obama’s presidency, all originally published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016. But though the book is not quite an original work, each essay is prefaced by a short new retrospective, situating the work in Coates’ life and thinking at the time. The collection ends with a look at the present, an attempt to understand our current president, Donald Trump, in the context of American white supremacy.

Its title comes from South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller, a black man who served his state during Reconstruction and who, in an appeal to a state constitutional convention that would soon disenfranchise black residents, gave an account of the record of black governance:

We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.

“Each of the essays in the book takes up some aspect of an ongoing argument, mostly in my own head, about the utility and place of Good Negro Government,” writes Coates, where “Good Negro Government” represents the eight years of Obama’s administration. “Taken together they form a loose memoir, one that I hope enhances the main pieces.”

They do. These essays are a cross section of Coates’ work that, read with the distance of time, reveal the shifts in his thinking, even as they cover familiar concerns and questions. They also show a broadening of his perspective. The Coates who profiled Bill Cosby and gave short shift to the allegations of sexual assault that would soon define the comedian’s image is chastised by the Coates of today, who calls the omission his “shame” and “failure.” Indeed, Coates begins the collection with that piece, thus making it a kind of statement of his fallibility.

Most striking in the volume is Coates’ changing view of racism and growing awareness of the reach and depth of white supremacist ideology. Somewhat vindicating his critics on the left, the Coates of 2008 and 2009 doesn’t dive too deeply into the nature of American racism. But as the backlash against Obama sets in, as racist attacks against the president make their way into the mainstream, and as Coates moves along in his own reporting and writing, that changes. Hints of this are in his short look at black Americans and the Civil War, which ties black disinterest to a white narrative that downplays slavery to focus on heroism and valor. “For my community, the message has long been clear: The Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props.” The fifth essay in the book, “Fear of a Black President,” is where Coates first deploys and elaborates on his understanding of white supremacy. “For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.”

Coates identifies institutional racism and explores the “wages of whiteness” throughout, but he doesn’t identify a mechanism for their creation or maintenance until “The Case for Reparations,” a piece that debuted in 2014 with the force of a comet and still carries a tremendous impact as a piece of writing, reporting, and argumentation. It’s here that Coates fully fleshes out his view of racism as plunder, a system of expropriation along with an ideology meant to justify it. It’s here that he ties that plunder to the maintenance of white American democracy—“two features that are not contradictory but complementary”—and the creation of its middle class in the first half of the 20th century. And it’s here that he spins out the material consequences of being plundered and the psychological impact of being the plunderer. “The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper,” he writes, “America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.”

The remaining essays in the volume are essentially elaborative. “The Case for Reparations” is the centerpiece, and works like “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” explore some other element of American racism in ways that build off of the arguments deployed in “Reparations.” Still, even that is revealing in how it shows a Coates who has zeroed in on his target with almost ruthless efficiency.

This volume serves to address other criticisms. The charge that Coates is a pessimist, all but disengaged from politics, is belied by his keen interest in compensatory justice, even if he’s doubtful of its ultimate success. The charge that Coates is writing primarily for guilty white liberals becomes laughable on its face: If Coates is writing for anyone besides himself, it is for other black people, a fact you can glean from his subjects and preoccupations, from a profile of Michelle Obama that looks closely at black Chicago to an analysis of Malcolm X that takes seriously what he meant for black America writ large.

We Were Eight Years in Power is more than a “loose memoir”; it’s Coates giving himself a deep read, and inviting us to join him in this look at his intellectual journey. And by showcasing a range of essays—some his strongest work, others deeply flawed—he asks his readers to consider him as a writer, nothing more and nothing less.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. One World.

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