We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
The Origin of Others
Amid the constant reminders throughout 2017 of the need to reckon collectively with racism as a system embedded within the American social, political, economic, and cultural landscape, two important collections emerged offering reflective tools for this work. Acclaimed author and national correspondent for The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy draws together several previously published articles each prefaced with an introduction from the author describing the standpoint through which he wrote each piece. Though readers will be familiar with much of this work – such as the widely influential “The Case for Reparations” and the recent “My President Was Black” – combined in this format, his writing reads like new. Nobel Prize winner and literary icon Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others also represents a collection of previously voiced words, in this case a series of lectures on “the literature of belonging” presented at Harvard in 2016. Morrison reaches back through her own catalog of novels and those of other writers, illuminating the many ways cultural expression through story and memory can break down or perpetuate the evolving but powerful boundaries we draw between ourselves and Others. In turn, safety, security, control, and freedom operate as privileges we hoard out of fear, rather than basic human rights to which all are worthy.
Morrison is no doubt among the most important literary voices in American history, and Coates, while newer to the writing scene, is revered as an emerging public intellectual. And yet in reading their work it is clear they are less interested in such labels and more concerned with pressing issues of our day: racism, white supremacy, Otherness, and their relationship to power. They want to know at the deepest levels of knowledge, pushing beyond the available discourses around race and its centrality to the American story. This pursuit—a refusal to settle—is at the heart of these two collections, which are quite distinct in style and purpose yet so very connected. While both texts share common themes, Coates and Morrison approach these themes through their own, unique postures—a journalist and novelist, respectively—while not losing sight of the ways our standpoints, experiences, and stories always and everywhere inform how we think and what we do.
Coates describes his book as a “loose memoir” in its weaving together of personal reflection with his always-sharp style of keen journalistic investigation. The first half of the book represents the early years digging out of his struggling writer status, where financial realities compete with Coates’s unwavering intent to write, what he describes as a subversive path in a culture rooted in historical efforts to squelch knowledge building among people of color, as knowledge is indeed power (with the capacity to also dismantle power). Beginning with a critique of Bill Cosby’s black cultural conservatism, Coates challenges Cosby’s contribution to an individualistic and pathological explanation of the problems plaguing African American communities while acknowledging the social and political complexities in this perspective. The articles that follow cover Coates’s obsession with Civil War history, an exploration into the nuanced figure of Malcolm X, and two early pieces on First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama, written before Coates gained direct access to the First Family. But these are more than treatises on major events and figures in African American history. Drawn together, the reader recognizes Coates’s efforts toward decentering whiteness and centering blackness in the American story. It is a powerful claim on behalf of the history, culture, and community rooted in perseverance and preservation while absent of shame, despite immense violence inflicted upon it over centuries.
The remainder of the book moves the reader through Coates’s trilogy of Atlantic cover stories. It begins with “The Case for Reparations,” which explores the history of race-based policies and practices that systematically (and intentionally) excluded black families from land and property ownership and, by extension, the ability to build wealth across generations, a pattern so taken for granted within white families that it is explained not as white privilege or built upon the exploitation of black bodies but as the result of hard work. When originally published, the piece gained significant attention, no doubt for Coates’s ability to expose the myth of the colorblind American Dream with such straightforward prose. His two subsequent cover stories reflect the confidence Coates gains as his audience grows, his writing expands beyond The Atlantic (most notably with his second book, Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award within the time period these compiled articles were developed), and his work receives the validation it deserves. “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” delves into the policy solutions left out of the infamous Moynihan report resulting in the early roots of Cosby-style “pathologies” rhetoric. In “My President was Black,” Coates explores the significance of the Obama presidency and the resurgence of white fear and fragility that grew alongside it. Each introductory reflection, marking one of the “eight years in power” over which these articles were researched, written, and originally published, touches on the evolution of Coates’s personal and professional identity, acknowledging his successes and failures not just as a writer but also as a young man growing up in Baltimore, a Howard University student-turned-dropout, son of a leader in the Black Panther party, hip hop aficionado, a partner and husband, father, and African American man who is at once prophetic and curious, strong and vulnerable, assertive and humble.
Rarely does a reader gain such a personal glimpse into the story behind a story, which is one of the many gifts of Coates’s book and what sets this volume apart as much more than a greatest hits compilation. The opening reflections partly represent Coates’s wish to incorporate memoir into his journalistic process, but they also serve as an invitation into his own journey through President Obama’s rise to power, his presidency, and its end amid the impending shadow Coates sees with the coming Trump administration. Though credit for the line “We were eight years in power” is owed to South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller’s lament for the demise of Reconstruction era progress, it suits this book as both title and metaphor. The Obama era, with all its expectations of finally realizing the hope and change African Americans have fought for throughout centuries, ultimately ended with a stark reminder that the looming presence of white supremacy remains foundational to our nation’s past, present, and perhaps future.
Toni Morrison also draws readers into the story behind a story in The Origin of Others, offering a glimpse into her writing process for some of her most acclaimed and important novels. The resulting collection of talks turned essays reads like a blend of short story, poetry, and memoir with tinges of history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. It is a small but remarkably rich text that deserves multiple readings. Each essay addresses an element of Otherness, beginning with a critical assessment of efforts (such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to diminish, sanitize, and romanticize the dehumanization and violence of slavery. Effectively exposing the centrality of whiteness in such stories, Morrison continues in the essays that follow to tease apart constructs like race, color, and blackness intersecting her points on the economic, political, and social power embedded in these constructs with an analysis of concepts like stranger and Other.
Throughout the collection of essays, we encounter myriad examples of Morrison’s innovative and artistic style of deconstruction, but the discussion on her approach to writing Paradise in “Configurations of Blackness” best exemplifies the sharp brilliance in her technique. In the novel about an all-black town in Oklahoma, Morrison reverses the notion of blackness as impure, as the townspeople seek to maintain a pure, homogenous, black community not to be tainted by Others. Describing how she “played with these confused and confusing concepts of blackness” (67), she writes, “I was eager to simultaneously de-fang and theatricalize race, signaling, I hoped, how moveable and hopelessly meaningless the construct was” (66). It is a story of belonging and boundaries but from an angle not typical in literature or, more broadly, American culture. In comparing her method of writing Paradise to examples following dominant, conventional approaches (which posit whiteness as normative), Morrison uncovers the myths on which white people rely to maintain their comfortable, taken-for-granted feelings of ownership and belonging in our society.
While these two books, on the surface, offer tremendous opportunities to examine critically the culture in which we live and how it is shaped by the dominant powers of whiteness, the central question that emerges in reading both books is one of belonging. What does it look like to belong in American society and culture? We all wish – or perhaps inherently need – to belong, and yet as these two writers effectively show, our quest for belonging may come with oppressive consequences. As Morrison and Coates both expound, questions of Otherness are inherently linked to belonging, aligning with our socially constructed boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. In the essay “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” Morrison recounts her own experience of Othering a stranger near her home and critically examines this experience with an honest vulnerability. She writes, “The danger of sympathizing with the stranger is the possibility of becoming a stranger. To lose one’s racialized rank is to lose one’s own valued and enshrined difference” (30). It is a statement that forces us all to situate ourselves in the wider context of division and recognize that maintaining hierarchies of difference is as much about fearing the Other as it is about fearing for our own security. Indeed, Coates’s book is a path through this realization, tracing the ways societal inclusion or exclusion of key African American figures – celebrities, politicians, intellectuals, and activists – illuminates our understanding of blackness but also – and perhaps more so – exposes whiteness as the common denominator across systems of power and privilege in American society.
Morrison does not engage a discussion on faith or religion in The Origin of Others, while Coates, in “Notes from the Fifth Year,” invites the reader into early life experiences that shaped his atheism. Yet from a faith perspective, there is something deeply spiritual in the way these two writers weave together the past and present, even if a spiritual link is unintended. Scholars of religion have long recognized the significance of memory as a practice and symbol in faith traditions, bonding communities across generations through shared tradition, story, experience, and struggle. For these two authors, acknowledging the significance of memory involves reframing and reclaiming history through the lenses and lived experiences of African Americans. This theme is woven throughout both books, but is most noticeable with Morrison’s historical look at Margaret Garner, the slave woman who killed her own child lest she be sold into the horrors of slavery. Morrison recounts her journey into this tragic story, which served as the inspiration for her novel Beloved, exploring the blurred boundaries between “the understandable versus the savage act of child murder” (82). In “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?,” Coates similarly reframes and reclaims an historical memory through the lens of black lived experience, challenging sanitized, race-neutral narratives of the war. He writes,
The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. (73)
In both instances, the authors illuminate the subjectivity of seemingly neutral terms like murder, tragedy, war, division, and loss, forcing the reader to see from another angle how history is written through the lens of whiteness.
The closing essays of each book address a future with uncertain hope, with the authors reminding readers that historical patterns of social, political, and economic exclusion—particularly around race—remain constant even as these patterns and practices evolve. Morrison weaves globalization into her explorations of Otherness and belonging, noting how expanded national boundaries lead to expanded notions of insider and outsider. She writes in “The Foreigner’s Home,” “The spectacle of mass movement draws attention inevitably to the borders, the porous places, the vulnerable points where the concept of home is seen as being menaced by foreigners” (94). With this closing reflection, Morrison reminds her audience that people, in seeking their own security and belonging, will always find a way to draw lines between themselves and Others, creating new Others when necessary. Coates, who pushes back on suggestions that he must offer readers hope, includes as his book’s epilogue “The First White President,” an analysis of the role whiteness played in the political rise and eventual election of Donald Trump as President Obama’s successor. It is a fitting conclusion to a book tracing Coates’s path from optimism and excitement around the meaning of the first black president toward harsh realization and resignation that, given all he has witnessed and learned about the firm grasp of whiteness on the American story, any posture rooted in hope only takes one so far. Yet while some readers may find the lack of hopeful solutions a deficit in these two works, instead they should be read as reminders that the problems plaguing our society cannot be carried by those pushed to the margins but instead will require an arduous process of unlearning among us all, and especially those who take belonging in American society and culture for granted.
Regardless if two writers are in actual conversation with each other, all writing contributes to a larger conversation. And regardless if Coates and Morrison engaged in actual collaborative work in the process of crafting these two collections, there are hints that these two powerful voices view their independent contributions to critical and reflective work on race as a communal effort. As Coates describes in his “Notes from the Seventh Year,” when he was in process of publishing Between the World and Me, Toni Morrison’s solo and singular endorsement on the back cover was, in his words “the only one I wanted” (221). Morrison’s words began with the statement, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” As he discloses his wish to pursue writing on the scale of Baldwin’s brilliance in We Were Eight Years in Power, there is no doubt such a comparison from a voice as influential as Morrison’s serves as both astounding affirmation and overwhelming responsibility. For The Origin of Others, it is Coates’s turn to offer a framing of Morrison’s work in the Foreword to the collection. He contextualizes the essays, naming the impossibility of reading this book without noticing how it speaks into our current political realities, most noticeably the election of President Trump and the continuing streaks of violence toward black men in our criminal justice system.
While offering collegial endorsements is commonplace in the writing world, there is something important about the way these authors subtly but still significantly reference each other’s contributions to a wider conversation on race in America. In both collections, Morrison and Coates critically examine the ways we operate within a myth of scarcity, naively thinking that by sharing power, opportunity, schools, jobs, money, land, neighborhoods, voting rights, and choices with those whom these basic rights have been denied, we may find ourselves without enough. We establish Others – especially along racial lines – to establish our own place in this myth of scarcity and as justification for our hoarding of all things that bring freedom, choice, security, and control. They argue their points and support each other’s points not as universal experts, though, but through the artistry of their respective crafts, Morrison as a novelist and Coates as a journalist. Indeed, they each veer outside these boundaries, but overall the reader is left recognizing how supporting diverse perspectives and approaches leads to richer conversation, knowledge, action, and transformation. Morrison and Coates, whether intentionally or unintentionally, show what it means to share space and voice rather than compete for it. Coates closes his book with an important point along these lines: “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” (367). Let us all glean an important lesson from these remarkable collections from two of the most important voices of our time and collectively work toward a society in which belonging does not have to come with exclusion, oppression, and Othering, and instead celebrates the beauty of difference.