Our story is a tragedy

I don’t ever want to lose sight of how short my time is here. And I don’t ever want to forget that resistance must be its own reward, since resistance, at least within the life span of the resistors, almost always fails. I don’t ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even in the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me. After all, I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny. And if tragedy is to be proven wrong, if there really is hope out there, I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of it being proven right. No one—not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods—is coming to save us. The worst really is possible. My aim is to never be caught, as the rappers say, acting like it can’t happen. And my ambition is to write both in defiance of tragedy and in blindness of its possibility, to keep screaming into the waves—just as my ancestors did.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. An American Tragedy, 2017.

Ta-Nehisi Coates / James Baldwin

SOMETHING ELSE WAS HAPPENING in the background—I had met Barack Obama. I was still holding on to my general admiration of the man, but I had also written several blog posts criticizing him, for his insistence on “color-blind policy” and for his tendency to hector black people on their alleged shortcomings. Obama would regularly invite journalists who disagreed with him to the White House to spar. From time to time, I found myself among the summoned—usually after I’d written something critical. In the first of these, I was intimidated and left thinking I’d failed to do my job. The second time I was responding to the embarrassment of the first. I thought of my days back in Baltimore, back on the block, insisting that “I ain’t no punk.” Before I left for D.C. for that second trip to the White House, Kenyatta looked at me and said, “What would Baldwin do?” Hmmm. I suspect something more elegant than what I did. I arrived to the meeting late. I was wearing jeans. I’d gotten rained on along the way. I argued, at length, with the president about health care and vulnerable people in Mississippi. I wasn’t lying, but the debate was also performative. I was trying to prove to myself that I would not be cowed or seduced by power. It was ridiculous. But it was also an exchange with the first black president in the history of the most powerful nation in the world.

I walked from the White House to Union Station to take the train home. I called my editor, Chris Jackson. I talked about the meeting—“Yo you shoulda seen it, Chris. I was the only other nigga in the room and fools was looking at us like, ‘These niggers are fighting!!!!’ ” But I found myself again talking about Baldwin and the beauty of what he’d done in The Fire Next Time. I talked about how I’d read the book in one sitting and the challenge I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion, meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years. I told him we were in an extraordinary moment—the era of a black president and Black Lives Matter—much like Baldwin had written amid the fight for desegregation. Here he offered this admonition—“The road is littered with knockoffs of The Fire Next Time.” But he still encouraged me to try.

To invoke the name James Baldwin, these days, is to invoke the name of both a prophet and a God. More than his actual work, Baldwin, himself, has been beatified. That is why young writers descend on his long-abandoned house, like pilgrims into the Holy Land. That is why they have founded an entire genre of essay to document the hajj. The beatification is understandable. Baldwin owes his prominence as much to his image as to his words. And we don’t simply have the beauty of his words, we have the force of his presence. I am not immune—Baldwin the Legend was the ancestor Kenyatta sought to summon up when she asked, “What would Baldwin do?”

But all the magic I wanted was on the page. And when I looked closely, when I began to study, I did not even see magic, so much as a machinery so elegant, so wondrous, so imaginative as to seem supernatural. I am talking to young writers now. Your heroes are not mystics nor sorcerers but humans practiced at the work of typing and revising, and often agonized by it. I know this because I have chased before. I chased the work of Nas. I chased the work of E. L. Doctorow. I chased the work of Black Thought. From Dust Tracks on a Road to Jonah’s Gourd Vine, I chased the work of Zora Neale Hurston. From “The Colonel” to “The Museum of Stones,” I chased the work of Carolyn Forché. I chased them all, in the hope that somewhere in the underlined sentences, in the dog-eared pages, in the conversations with other writers, who too were chasing, I would find my own work, and that work would fill someone out there with the same magic, which is not magic, that had filled me that day, sitting in Founders Library, in awe of James Baldwin.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. An American Tragedy, 2017.

Two ways of thinking about things

I have often wondered how I missed the coming tragedy. It is not so much that I should have predicted that Americans would elect Donald Trump. It’s just that I shouldn’t have put it past us. It was tough to keep track of the currents of politics and pageantry swirling at once. All my life I had seen myself, and my people, backed into a corner. Had I been wrong? Watching the crowds at county fairs cheer for Michelle Obama, or flipping through the enchanting photo spreads of this glamorous incoming administration, it was easy to believe that I had been. It was hard to not reassess yourself at, say, the sight of John Patterson, the man who’d “outniggered” George Wallace to become governor of Alabama in 1959, endorsing Obama. It was hard to not feel that you had been wrong about your country when the very men who’d tangled with Patterson and Wallace seemed to believe that something had changed too. “We seem to be evolving,” former SNCC leader Bob Moses told a reporter. “The country is trying to reach for the best part of itself.” And it was more than symbolic. Obama’s victory meant not just a black president but also that Democrats, the party supported by most black people, enjoyed majorities in Congress. Prominent intellectuals were predicting that modern conservatism—a movement steeped in white resentment—was at its end and that a demographic wave of Asians, Latinos, and blacks would sink the Republican Party.

That was one way of thinking about things. Here was another. “Son,” my father said of Obama, “you know the country got to be messed up for them folks to give him the job.” The economy was on the brink. The blood of untold numbers of Iraqis was on our hands. Katrina had shamed the society. From this other angle, post-racialism and good feeling were taken up not so much out of elevation in consciousness but out of desperation. It all makes so much sense now. The pageantry, the math, the magazines, the essays heralded an end to the old country with all its divisions. We forgot that there were those who loved that old country as it was, who did not lament the divisions but drew power from them.

And so we saw postcards with watermelons on the White House lawn. We saw simian caricatures of the First Family, the invocation of a “food-stamp president” and his anticolonial, Islamist agenda. These were the fetishes that gathered the tribe of white supremacy, that rallied them to the age-old banner, and if there was one mistake, one reason why I did not see the coming tragedy, why I did not account for its possibilities, it was because I had not yet truly considered that banner’s fearsome power.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. An American Tragedy, 2017.

You must never look away from this

I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.

There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, 2015.