Ta-Nehisi Coates, the most prominent black American writer of our moment, opens his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, with a quote from Jay-Z, one of the most overrated rappers in history. Jay-Z rapped in the 1996 track "Dead Presidents II": "We don't just shine, we illuminate the whole show." I have no idea why this line is at all interesting or worthy of being repeated. Maybe Coates wants to look like he is down or something—I do not know. But Jay-Z is no hero of mine.
So we have a bad start to a book that is actually brilliant. It contains nine essays, eight of which cover the eight years that Barack Obama was at the center of our global civilization. With the exception of the last essay, each is introduced with notes that are personal in tone and describe where Coates was in his career at the point of the essay's conception and composition. (Coates is reading as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures on November 5 at Benaroya Hall.)
The first collection of notes, before a fascinating essay on Bill Cosby, explains how Coates in 2007, the year before Obama was elected, was broke, unemployed, and on the dole. He had no idea what the future of his profession might bring. He had a few ideas in his head and not much else. The essay on Bill Cosby, however, inaugurated his relationship with the Atlantic, the publication that would make him famous. The first notes also contain this pivotal claim: Coates's rise from the unemployment office to international celebrity owes much to Barack Obama's success. When he became the first black president, the writing market opened for Coates and other black writers. And so this book is in one sense a letter of thanks to Obama for—to use the words of Milk Dee—"knowing the time."
The book, however, has a clear mission. It wants to understand two things that took Coates by surprise: One, the arrival of the first black president (Obama) and, two, the arrival of "the first white president" (Trump), the subject of the book's last essay. How did Coates fail to see or predict either of these events? The first surprise revealed he was too pessimistic, the second that he was not pessimistic enough. How was this possible?
The explanation, which is the book's narrative motor, is found in the myth of progress. It goes like this: Obama ran for president when the country was in deep shit. The economy crashed, people were scared, and white Republicans were offering no real solutions. America turned to the black man in an act not of enlightenment but of desperation. This desperation has an echo in the dub of US history. During the Civil War, Coates argues, blacks were enlisted by the North only when it was clear that the war was becoming longer and more deadly than expected. After the war, progress appeared in the form of Reconstruction, but it took only a few years for the society to revert to its white-supremacist ways. This, Coates thinks, is what happened with Obama. Not long after the danger was defused and the economy stabilized, society reverted to business as usual.
So there was no progress, just the illusion of it.