Over the weekend, I spent some time reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. By “spent some time,” I mean I read the whole book. I first heard of Coates when his essay “The Case for Reparations” was published at The Atlantic. This was back in June of 2014 or so. Later, I got around to reading his book, Between the World and Me, which was very illuminating.
I say that in the sense of gaining perspective on a worldview that not only isn’t my own, but couldn’t possibly be my own. I grew up in the middle class suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee, where I and all my friends were white. Coates grew up in Baltimore, Maryland where I would imagine, he and all his friends were black. I’m a Christian. Coates is an atheist. I’m registered as a Republican (but don’t always vote that way) and a conservative one at that. Coates is a Democrat, and a liberal one at that.
In his first book, you are able to get a sense of what it’s like to see the world through his eyes. In this newest book, you have a kind of memoir of his life and thinking during the Obama presidency. All of the chapters were previously published at The Atlantic, and represent Coates’ selection of an article from each year of the Obama presidency that are his personal favorites. Each essay has an introduction that gives context for what he was thinking and experiencing around the time of writing. Since the article are previously published, you can actually read them all online (though if you’re like me, you might prefer an actual book in hand):
- This is How We Lost to The White Man
- American Girl
- Why Do So Few Black 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
The book concludes with an epilogue, which is his more recent essay, “The First White President,” which came out about the same time as the book did. It rounds out the collection nicely and like the introductions to each chapter, gives perspective on the book as a whole.
First off, if you’re a white Republican, you should probably read this book. You will mostly likely come away from it like I did, less than convinced of some of the arguments. But, your perspective will be better enriched for having to grapple with Coates’ research and writing. I was encouraged to read more on some the topics he engages, and it changed my perspective on aspects of the Obama presidency. Were time travel to the past theoretically possible, I probably still wouldn’t vote for Obama. But, I would have villainized him less.
Second, I was struck by how Coates atheism comes to the fore in his introductions and how it informs his thinking. As an example, here is the opening paragraph of his “Notes from the Fifth Year”:
There was a time when I believed in an arc of cosmic justice, that good acts were rewarded and bad deeds were punished, if not in my lifetime, then in the by-and-by. I acquired this belief in cosmic justice at the vague point in childhood when I began to cultivate, however rudely, a sense of right and wrong. Tragedy is an unnatural fit on me. My affinity angles toward bedtime stories, fairy tales, and preposterous romance. I would like to believe in God. I simply can’t. The reasons are physical. When I was nine, some kid beat me up for amusement, and when I came home crying to my father, his answer—Fight that boy or fight me—was godless, because it told me that there was no justice in the world, save the justice we dish out with our own hands. When I was twelve, six boys jumped off the number 28 bus headed to Mondawmin Mall, threw me to the ground, and stomped on my head. But what struck me most that afternoon was not those boys but the godless, heathen adults walking by. Down there on the ground, my head literally being kicked in, I understood: No one, not my father, not the cops, and certainly not anyone’s God, was coming to save. The world was brutal—and to eschew that brutality, to indulge all your boyish softness was to advertise yourself as prey. The message was clear, even if I has trouble accepting it: Might really did make right, and he who swung first swung best, and if swinging was not enough, you stabbed, you shot, you did anything to make this whole heathen world understand that you were not the one (109-110).
Further on, he concludes,
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 (110-111).
To me, the American tragedy is that public life, discourse, and experience has only confirmed for Coates that atheism is the correct path. In the absence of a truly evangelical political philosophy (one that is shaped for the public good by the truth of the gospel), this is the option that seems most viable to Coates. And, to be fair, if there isn’t such a thing as evangelical political philosophy possible, Nietzsche will have to do. By that I mean that if the central truth of Christianity isn’t true, and doesn’t have bearing on public life, then Nietzsche’s will to power is the way to go (and that is what Coates is articulating at the end of the first excerpt I quoted).
In essence then, I think Coates’ book is worth reading, not only because he is a great writer, but because he needs well thought out engagement from Christians who can think theologically and politically at the same time. People like Russell Moore for instance. But also people like you and me, who are willing to enter into his perspective for a weekend of reading. People, like me, who are very white, but want to see the world through different ethnic eyes in order to understand and empathize more fully with the damage that slavery and racism (as administered by people of my color) was wrought.
Given the political climate at the moment, and what a day like today represents, I’d add a book like this to your reading list. You’ll get the most mileage out of it if you read his other book first, and read this one in light of that one. The American tragedy that is the legacy of racism doesn’t have to be the final word. But, it likely will unless people committed to seeing the truth of the gospel invade all areas of society don’t speak up.