In the wake of the “great” scandal of Coates v. West, I made the decision to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book We Were Eight Years in Power. I had, as I’ve mentioned, read Between the World and Me, a book that makes me feel weird for reasons I have yet to understand. The agita the two eminent intellectuals was fueled by the poignant albeit ill-advised comments of Jelani Cobb and a slew of thinkpieces either condemning West for his “envy” or making weird, seemingly unfitting historical analogies between Black men of yore vying for the single spot assigned by left-leaning public to Black men intellectuals. I must say that I found it difficult to silence the rhetoric about Coates when reading Eight Years, and I cannot say that I finished the text without my own reading being colored by some external ideology. Let this be a warning for what I am about to say.
I am not going to be another Black academic who takes to their self-established soapbox in order to decry Coates’ liberalism or his unchecked androcentrism or his reliance on a policy-based approach towards what are (to humanists, blindly) obviously cultural issues. All of my opinions on the matter can be and likely have been said elsewhere, and I am not thoroughly familiar with Coates’ work enough to make any sort of compelling argument. What I found interesting in Eight Years were the ‘blog posts’ sandwiched in between archived articles which Coates had published for the Atlantic throughout the presidency of Barack Obama. These posts ground the book in (the present of) 2017, despite the articles themselves remaining bound to their specific years. One of these blog posts, “Notes from the Seventh Year,” outlines the production of Between the World and Me, the text which catapulted Coates into renown. In this essay, Coates outlines having reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in the midst of what had been a year riddled by issues of police brutality against Black people, in spite of the seeming promise which Barack Obama’s presidency was believed to represent for American race relations. Coates’ admiration of Baldwin is not unique; Baldwin is, in my opinion, one of the most elegant and eloquent writers of the English language, and the premier American essayist of the 20th century. That Coates would see himself in Baldwin’s legendary status is also not something we can pin to his “self-aggrandizing ego;” I am unaware of anyone who has read The Fire Next Time or Giovanni’s Room or Notes of a Native Son and did not, after finishing the short books, at least in some way aspire to the clarity and centeredness which only the likes of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde have possessed in the history of African-American literature.
What is disturbing about “Notes from the Seventh Year” is the fact that Coates does not mention his son, Samori, in an essay written about Between the World And Me, a book he wrote for his child.
At first glance, this may not seem a big deal at all. Yet, it matters because it informs us about Between the World and Me as a text, and the relationship between Coates and the alleged stardom to which he conflictedly aspires. The Fire Next Time is made up of two essays: “My Dungeon Shook” and “Down at the Cross.” Of these two essays, the first takes the specific form of a letter, addressed to Baldwin’s nephew James. The letter, it seems, may have well been written for his nephew, even if it was published in the 1962 edition of the Progressive. The essay is perhaps Baldwin at his most frustrated and saddened, for the entire text is charged with a kind of fear which cannot be named. It is emotion and energy which somehow, yields to language without disfiguring the word or being otherwise disfigured by it. Again, my interest is not to say that Between the World and Me is an inferior text, and that we should all stick to Baldwin, even if my academic friends are more prone to agree. Yet, what is important about the two books is the genuineness of vulnerability, and the ways that pathos can be manipulated for other means.
Between the World and Me is written to Samori Coates, Ta-Nehisi’s teenage son. The essay is structured around Samori’s racial “coming-of-age,” if we can call it such a thing, and the ways that Coates watches his son get disillusioned by the racist American state in ways which mirror his own personal disenchantment. The book, if it accomplished anything, is deeply visceral in ways which Coates ascribes to The Fire Next Time. This is fine; we must all pay homage to those who influence and shape our voices. Yet, when reading Between the World and Me, it becomes apparent that the book is not written to Samori. The book is overly explanatory at points which do not make sense, and while Baldwin avoids this in The Fire Next Time by refraining from mentioning information which the non-addressed reader cannot access, Coates adds this information in an attempt to humanize the book, at the expense of the addressed, the centerpiece of the text. This is likely because Coates, as he writes in Eight Years, felt compelled to tap into Baldwin’s genius in ways which made sense to him, and which he outlines elsewhere in the text; through close reading, deconstruction and analysis. Like a song on RapGenius, Coates dissects The Fire Next Time in order to see how it ticks, to isolate its essential spirit and thus know the source of its power. The outcome is a text which is without its own spirit; a letter whose addressee is an a/illusion.
In a way, Coates prostitutes his son’s disenchantment in order to speak to a larger American public. He struggles throughout Eight Years with the sudden acquisition of his fame and the propensity for the White liberal establishment to “claim him” as their race champion. He refuses to consider himself a Black intellectual not because of the apparent stuffiness of these types, but because he secretly wants this kind of icon status and acknowledgement in spite of the image he has crafted for himself, like Baldwin, of just an “honest man and a good writer.” To grab at fame is not odious if you are aware of your ambitions, but much of Eight Years seems to be a kind of saving-face and self-reconciliation; the text is a spell which attempts to prolong a fast-fading self-inflicted enchantment. Between the World and Me is so powerful because it seems to give us privileged access to the lives of two Black men vying for their existence in a world which would like nothing more than to destroy them, and the relationship between these two men, their shared suffering and agony, their cultural disillusionment, is what gives the book its power. Yet, Samori is rarely mentioned in Eight Years, particularly the chapter about the book written to him. His absence is significant, primarily because for him to seemingly disappear from Coates’ mind reveals the fact that he was perhaps never there to begin with. I don’t think Coates lied about the events in the book, about Samori’s anxiety over his sudden Awakening, but it seems to me, from reading Eight Years that much of the power which Coates imbues in the text is embellished. The essayist, attempting to possess another’s power, loses his own in the process.
Where is Samori Coates in We Were Eight Years in Power? The question may seem trivial and the motive petty, but my reading of these texts, and knowledge of James Baldwin has led me to question the significance of Between the World and Me’s most powerful rhetorical device. I do not like the idea of taking down other Black people, especially fellow Black writers, but I find the idea of a father using his son’s racial disenchantment to bring him fame and recognition just as odious and violent as the exploitative abuse which the White world enacts on the Black. Perhaps we can blame all of this on writerly clumsiness; maybe he forgot to mention Samori. The text does, for one, mention Coates’ wife Kenyatta more than Between the World and Me did, referring to her, in character, as “your mother.” And, as my therapist told me when I was ranting about this essay (my idea of pre-writing), maybe Coates, fearing for the sudden cultural awareness of his son, a vulnerable adolescent, did not mention him in Eight Years in order to protect him, although I find this idea, quite honestly, unconvincing. Nevertheless, this lacuna doesn’t reveal something essential about Coates as a writer, but it does tell us what kind of person he really is. Whether this matters to you, whether it colors your reading of the work of the most eminent Black essayist of our time, is, perhaps, up to you.
Photo: Jonathan Green, “Bonding with Child”