Justice  /  Book Review

The Afro-Pessimist Temptation

An examination of the tragic echoes of Reconstruction-era politics following Obama's presidency.
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The Du Bois–Washington controversy described basic oppositions—North/South, urban/rural—that defined black America at the time. Identifying what Arnold Rampersad has called “an essential dualism in the black American soul,” Du Bois also explored the concept of “double-consciousness”:

One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.

The conflict between national and racial identity has had political expression—integrationist/separatist—as well as psychological meaning: good black/bad black, masked black self/real black self. “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” Funkadelic sang in 1970, by which time the authentic black was always assumed to be militant: there is a Malcolm X in every black person, the saying went.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says that he came to understand as a grown-up the limits of anger, but he is in a fed-up, secessionist mood by the end of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. His collection of eight essays on politics and black history written during Obama’s two terms of office, introduced with some new reflections, portrays his post-election disillusionment as a return to his senses. Coates wonders how he could have missed the signs of Trump’s coming: “His ideology is white supremacy in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power.” He strongly disagrees with those who say that racism is too simple an explanation for Trump’s victory. He was not put in office by “an inscrutable” white working class; he had the support of the white upper classes to which belong the very “pundits” who play down racism as an explanation.

The title We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates tells us, is taken from a speech that a South Carolina congressman made in 1895 when Reconstruction in the state was terminated by a white supremacist takeover. Du Bois noted at the time that what white South Carolina feared more than “bad Negro government” was “good Negro government.” Coates finds a parallel in Trump’s succeeding Obama, whose presidency was “a monument to moderation.” Obama’s victories were not racism’s defeat. He trusted white America and underestimated the opposition’s resolve to destroy him. Coates sees Obama as a caretaker, not a revolutionary, and even that was too much for white America. He writes from the perspective that that “end-of-history moment” when Obama was first elected “proved to be wrong.”