Review by Edna Bonhomme
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free
In 1967, Nina Simone performed “I wish I knew How it Would Feel to be Free,” which was popularized during the Civil Rights movement. The song resonates with those who have felt the omnipotent pressures of being shackled and silenced by society. The ballad echoes with those who yearned for freedom and envisioned soaring through the sky — yet it renders freedom as a fleeting and impossible dream. That aura unfurls in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy. For Coates, racism’s salience weaves throughout his text, opining a Manichean perspective on trauma in Black America. Yet, Coates’ pessimism does not emerge from vacuity but it emanates from his experience of growing up Black in America — on the edges of a Civil Rights movement and at the locus of poverty.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was raised in a segregated, mostly Black neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland — the location of the popularly known TV series, The Wire. As of 2015, 17% of Black people in Baltimore were living in concentrated poverty compared to 2% of white people living in Baltimore. Black poverty is not random but it is by design — mostly part of the aftermath of systematic anti-Black discrimination in education, housing, and labor. For the formative years of his life, Coates moved through a world where Black poverty was visible and destructive. Yet, this was on the heels of Black resistance and the erasure of legal segregation, popularly known as Jim Crow. His father, William Paul Coates, was a member of the Black Panther Party, a Marxist revolutionary group that added a material nature to the Black power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. The augmentation of Black poverty and the implosion of Black radical struggle are factors that explain Coates’s worldview — and they surface throughout We Were Eights Years in Power.
Unbeknownst to Coates, his book sparked a dynamic debate in the United States about racism, class, and resistance. The most polemical critique arose from the acclaimed Harvard University Professor Cornel West who characterized Coates as part of a “neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fight back invisible.” Although West’s tone and mannerism were strident, leaving Coates to abandon Twitter, West is (rightly) concerned about the gaps in Coates’ book for not directly taking on capitalism, patriarchy, and homophobia. The Marxist historian Robin D.G. Kelley provided a sober rejoinder to the Coates-West debate by pointing to the long tradition of Black American scholars, with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois serving as the archetype of the liberal-radical divide. As Naomi Klein and Opal Tomati have noted, books cannot address all of our concerns but they can provide the space to understand parallels between racism in the United States and the tentacles of American imperialism abroad.
That debate concerning We Were Eight Years in Power is sparking deeper questions about black liberation and internationalism and it is providing the space for people to inquire about “sources of resistance” not just in the United States but also on a global scale. Political debates can provide the space to heighten strategy and tactics and a major critique, among the left, concerning We Were Eight Years in Power is that the pessimistic framework within the text elides the mass struggle by oppressed people around the world. The text falls short but not for the reasons that West describes, but rather, for its insularity. How do we reckon with Black intellectual thought that overshadows the voices of the oppressed and the contributions freedom fighters? What does it mean to write about the state of Black politics and Black self-determination in the current moment?
Eight Years in Power
We Were Eight Years in Power is a diachronic history of race relations in the United States told through framework of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ development as a writer. The eight chapters in the book glide through the Civil War period, the Civil Rights movement, and the Barack Obama administration. Not only does Coates provides snapshots of Black enslavement, mass incarceration and racial segregation, he tries to explain where his starting point was and how white supremacy is the political legacy of the United States.
We Were Eight Years in Power shows the limits of a Black nationalist framework and what an internationalist one can offer in expanding our horizon for justice. While Coates is notable for having criticized liberal politics at the height of Barack Obama’s presidency, this led him to radical demands, principally that for reparations. Coates lack of a thorough class analysis has to do with two monsters of class erasure: the attacks of US government on the leftist struggles and the failure of the left to grow with newly radical people.
There are gestures to radical politics but they fall short in describing the opposition to Black struggle. When Coates argues, “…there is the actual enslavement and all that has followed from it, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to mass incarceration,” he is invoking the work of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  In the footnotes, Coates praises her contributions but affirms that mass incarceration is “appropriate only if you already believe that certain people weren’t really fit for freedom in the first place.” This affirmation rests on an ideological perspective on discrimination — not one built on the capital and profit that emerges from slavery and mass incarceration. At the same, he acknowledges that reading Michelle Alexander’s work shifted his consciousness because it provided the foundation and language to understand the sociological and economic conditions for racism.
Coates departure from the immaterial realms of hatred towards the material impact of racism is most grounded in his chapter “The Case for Reparations.” It is here that he turns away from liberalism and make direct links between anti-Black discrimination and capital. He writes:
“Since the country’s wealth was distributed along the lines of race and because black families were cordoned off, resources accrued and compounded for whites while relative poverty accrued for blacks. And so it was not simply that black people were more likely to be poor but that black people — of all classes were more likely to live in poor neighborhoods.”
It is at this moment that he articulates his political development from a person who opposed reparations into someone who advocated for it. He provides ethnographic accounts that vividly show how African American families went from being slaves to sharecroppers to indebted. By advocating for reparations, he wants to elide white guilt and replace it with redistribution of wealth — something that could extend to the working class as a whole. The aforementioned quote matters because it shows — contrary to West’s critique — that Coates is slowly developing an analysis about the relationship between race and class and that he is doing so through a rigorous case study. Even further, it shows that a shift in political consciousness is possible when the texts, voices, and lives of the Black working class are made palpable.
These hints of trauma and strength were also overshadowed from what Haitian American acclaimed writer Roxane Gay described as “a glaring absence of reckoning with the intersection of race and gender.” This begs the question, how did Black women contribute and change the world? How does history writing take a feminist perspective? As the historian Robyn V. Spencerwrites, “History is not fiction but the mechanisms that silence Black women’s intellectual production even while seeming to herald their numerical presence is present in each realm.” The narrative that Coates offers presents Black women’s suffering and their occasional resistance but not their intellectual production. It is not enough to bring Black women in because they are missing, but it is necessary because they import a particular virtuosity stemming from their insights.
In “Notes from the Fifth Year,” Coates places his ideology to the legacy of Black women who resisted slavery and Jim Crow segregation. One ancestor was Celia, a Black enslaved woman who was hung for murdering her white slave owner. Another forebear was the African American journalist and organizer, Ida B. Wells, who led anti-lynching and anti-rape campaigns. While these women endured, they are positioned in isolation, as if they operated on their own. The text falls short of including the Black women who played a significant role in broad-based movements such as: the Haymarket rebellion, Socialist Party, trade unions, and the free Scottsboro movement. It warrants pointing to their contributions because they were not separate from progressive change but they were integral to the liberation process in the United States, yet their version of freedom, their truth, and their loves are overwhelming omitted.
Coates presents a story about Black America to the exclusion of the African diaspora in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The Americas rest on the ghosts of indigenous groups that were murdered by Europeans and on the blood of African slaves who toiled the land. These are perilous histories that have mutated into a living nightmare that continue to haunt Black people from Brazil to Puerto Rico.
Politics and political imagination needs the space and time for people to reflect on their vision of the world, which are present in visionaries like Claudia Jones, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon. Like Coates, these Black Caribbean scholars were descendants of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Unlike Coates, they were grounded in in an internationalist Black radical tradition rather than a parochial Black Nationalist tradition. Black intellectual thought and radicalism is a work in progress insofar that the political moment can inspire people to collectively organize for their liberation and to dream for other futures.
The move towards internationalism emerges in Coates when he speaks of Malcolm X’s political shift. He writes, “As Malcolm traveled to Africa and the Middle East, as he debated at Oxford and Harvard, he encountered a torrent of new ideas, new ways of thinking that batted him back and forth.” What one gathers is that internationalism — something that Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party flirted with — allowed the space for radicals to move beyond borders imposed upon them and to imagine the dynamics of social struggle. The Black Panther Party, of which Coates’ father was a member, was a group that reached international lines and was a symbol of resistance amongst Algerians during the postcolonial moment and Maori who resisted white settler colonialism in New Zealdn. Given Coates’ direct link to the Black Panther Party, it is no coincidence that he was integral to the reemergence and popularization of the Marvel Black Panther comic, and subsequently the film. The Black Panther motion picture has generated a host of commentary by intersectional theorists, leftists, and postcolonial scholars. While the film does not fully appeal to the radical tenure of the comics — as Professor Christopher Lebron notes — it has opened a set of questions about the legacy of the Black Panther Party, Afrofuturism, and the limits of isolationist policies. Coates made Black Panther in its current cultural iteration possible, but it should not end there.
From Afropessimism and Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism and Black Internationalism
In We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates is less concerned about moments of resistance and possibility and more about how a hegemonic white America imposes its hate on Black Americans. The goal of the Left is to give social movements a historical materialist framework that captures the real lessons from freedom fighters around the world, rather than providing broad and superficial strokes that pit class and race against each other. The Black Marxist C.L.R. James astutely described the power of the Haitian Revolution and liberation in The Black Jacobins,
The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement. Why and how this happened is the theme of this book.
History writing is a ceaseless activity that accumulates the tragedies with the moments of liberation, yet the insurrection of Black slaves in San Domingue altered the course of chattel slavery in the Americas and offered liberation to other Latin American countries. Delving into resistance allows the space for society to collectively recognize past crimes, acknowledge the contributions of non-elites, and honor the gains that were made. In doing so we begin to find hope for resistance from what society would consider the unlikeliest sources, be it Black slaves who freed themselves, Claudia Jones, Ella Baker, or Angela Davis.
The notion of liberation was pioneered by the Combahee River Collective whose contributions the American Left is returning to. What made them exceptional was that they were marginal subjects (Black working class lesbian women) who not only recognized the material conditions of their situation but they acknowledged that collective action through political education and organization were necessary precursors for the entirety of the working class. Yet, even further, they offer a corrective to feminist and antiracist struggles by suggesting, as titled in their new book How We Get Free, the necessary conditions for building resistance from below.
If we want to do justice to an obscured history and provide concrete solutions so that we may be free, that means finding those volcanic eruptions of struggle from below — not just on US soil but on an international scale. Borders sully international resistance — and capitalism’s ability to conquer and divide has metasized oppression especially among refugees, transgender people, and those living under war. Much can be learned from Afrofuturism and the possibilities that it offers — its proponents invite us to imagine a world where Black people are able to dream and create a world that through the arts, sciences, and beyond. When Afrofuturism is put into practice it gives hope. If we take Afrofuturism and internationalism seriously and make it a part of Black radical politics that means envisaging a world where we not only demonstrate how society is molded but how everyone can be free.
This review was first published on Medium Website.