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A painful read wrapped in irresistible charms

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, "We Were Eight Years in Power," focuses on the complexity of the maxim every immigrant and minority has had ground into him or her: You have to be twice as good as white people to get a fair shot in this country. By Coates' reckoning, it's a false promise.

"The argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government" -- which Coates earlier explains is the notion that if blacks are "polite, educated, and virtuous, then all the fruits of America will be open to them" -- "often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat."

The rest of the book presents a strong, maybe even water-tight, case that this is true. It's a painful read wrapped in irresistible charms.

"We Were Eight Years in Power" is a trip back through Coates' essays for The Atlantic, with the benefit of hindsight, and ends up being far more than the sum of its previously published parts. With the author now in the full bloom of his role as America's top public intellectual on race matters, he shares how rocky the road to such heights really was.

In the first chapter, we learn that the author had "felt like a failure all of my life -- stumbling out of middle school, kicked out of high school, dropping out of college. I had learned to tread in this always troubled water."

As he describes his decision to write a blog and how it evolved from a place to gather "loose threads that would sometimes come to nothing and other times become the basis for grander artistic pursuits" to a paying gig for The Atlantic, we see Coates transform from answering questions for his own edification to writing so readers will question everything they thought they already knew.

To my delight, Chicago looms large in many of the essays, each of which is representative of a particular year from the Obama administration.

From the love notes to Chicago's storied middle- and upper-class black neighborhoods (Coates explains how Michelle Obama's comfortable upbringing in a well-functioning black community can cause racial identity to recede in importance on a day-to-day basis) to the inclusion of Timuel Black, Chicago's premier civil rights historian (and national treasure, in my opinion), Coates tells the success story of many of the blacks who arrived in The Windy City after the Great Migration.

But he drives home the ugliness, too. For instance, he explains in detail how Chicago's black homeowners were preyed upon by unscrupulous flippers who sold properties "on contract," cheating countless of the most vulnerable residents out of their homes, savings, dignity and, worst of all, their belief in the attainability of the American Dream.

It's all tough to reckon with, and not just because it recounts some of our nation's worst sins toward blacks. This is a book that requires empathy for the author's own pain, because without it, one can start to wonder whether Coates' grim view of America and whiteness itself doesn't start to look a bit like the very stereotyping and discrimination that he feels keep blacks down.

Still, despite his inability to empathize with Barack Obama -- who grew up trusting, loving and being loved by whites -- Coates admits: "It is, I think, the very chaos of America that allowed me to prosper. I could come to New York and declare myself a writer, and while a degree from Harvard might have helped, it was not essential. The chaos of America, and perhaps more aptly the chaos of New York, made it seem that anything could happen. Often that meant the worst. But sometimes it meant the best. I suspect, though I do not know, that the lack of both ceilings and safety nets is how we got a black president. I suspect it is how, at least for these eight years, I came to thrive."

The epilogue to this collection of scholarly and heart-wrenching works is featured in the October issue of The Atlantic as "The First White President," but the book includes an extended ending.

To blunt some of the ample pessimism and hopelessness evident in Coates' writing, he closes with a sort of wish that hints at a belief in its attainability: "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."

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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