Readers of Coates’ earlier book, Between the World and Me, will want to check this out (unless you are a regular reader of The Atlantic). Organized around the eight years of the Obama administration, each year features one of his articles from The Atlantic, with introductory notes from a current perspective. The central message will be familiar to readers of Between the World and Me: that white racism is effectively the original sin of this country, founded in the dispossession and annihilation of Native Americans and the enslavement, terrorization and oppression of African Americans. America is thus fundamentally flawed, with a tragic fate, barring the unlikely turn by society as a whole to confront and heal that racism.
The first year article is “This Is How We Lost to the White Man,” an extended and critical focus on Bill Cosby’s conservative attack on contemporary African American culture. It predates the final unravelling of Cosby as a result of multiple credible accusations of sexual assault, culminating in his conviction and imprisonment. Coates’ “Notes from the First Year” acknowledge his earlier failure to look seriously at those accusations. The main burden of the chapter is to accuse Cosby of blaming the victim.
The second article, American Girl,” is an extended and sympathetic portrait of Michelle Obama.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has become perhaps our age’s preeminent black public intellectual, able to speak not only to African Americans but importantly to whites as well, to get across hard truths that even liberal whites don’t like to confront.
The third article, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” is a short piece that emphasizes how the normal historical narrative of that war tends to elide the issue of slavery and to portray a giant misunderstanding among brothers. But Coates emphasizes, both in the article and in his prefatory “Notes on the Third Year,” that this country has been built from its earliest colonial beginnings on the suppression of blacks, and that it continues to be the case, as witnessed by the controversy over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the outrage that Obama would characterize police behavior in that case as “stupid.”
Fourth, “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives on in Barack Obama” is perhaps most notable for the “Notes on the Fourth Year,” where Coates reflects critically on his own piece.
“Fear of a Black President,” the fifth essay, shows Coates steadily homing in on his most basic analysis of white America.
“The Case for Reparations” is perhaps the best known of the chapters, a tour-de-force of historical argument that makes the case that the centuries of grievous injury to African Americans, over and above injuries to poor whites or the white working class, or women, can only be addressed by a systematic commitment of the American state and the American society to transcend the centuries of racism and oppression. Reparations are needed, in short, to make African Americans whole, and to make America whole.
“The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” explores the emphatically racist motivations behind the move in recent decades toward policies designed to imprison more prisoners and to treat them more savagely, with a specific, systematic bias against African Americans. The chapter covers much of the same ground as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, but emphasizes the effect of mass incarceration on the black family.
The final chapter, “My President Was Black,” is the best of the lot in Coates’ opinion; he’s probably right. It’s an eloquent blend of criticism and sympathy. For someone who actually give Obama a hard time on many occasions, this summary evaluation is eloquent and moving (299): “I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history.”
The book concludes with an epilogue on Donald Trump, “the first white president,” in the sense that of all the white presidents before him, he was the first to be absolutely open about his racism, thereby confirming the essence of Coates’ thesis about America.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has become perhaps our age’s preeminent black public intellectual, able to speak not only to African Americans but importantly to whites as well, to get across hard truths that even liberal whites don’t like to confront. He makes it hard to deny that we are, in our deepest national soul, North and South, constituted from the multigenerational, multifaceted oppression of black Africans, as well as despoliation and slaughter of the original natives of this land. Redemption will not come easy.