Kevin Coffee is the editor of The Attempt at Reason at The Public Intellectual. A writer living in Los Angeles, he works as an adjunct professor of speech in the Language Arts Division at West Los Angeles College.
Submissions: Send works to email@example.com. Include a statement affirming that you are the sole author and owner of the work and understand that there is no remuneration for publication.
HERE BE DRAGONS Kevin Coffee
Race, like dragons at the edge of the world, might be the invention of the human mind, but invention doesn’t make race, or dragons, any less real. Dragons once served to warn merchant sailors, military seamen, or profligate adventurers of the dangers of the unknown. Whether created out of whole cloth or some synthesis of observation and invention, dragons served a real, even if limiting, purpose. Such is the case for the concept (or construct, depending) of Whiteness. That’s why when S.E. Cupp, the host of HLN’s “Unfiltered,” quips “Whiteness…that sounds like something made up,” she strikes a discordant tone to the ear of anyone who lives under the presumptions of Whiteness. Ms. Cupp’s patent dismissal of Whiteness as a “thing” misses the point that even the imagined can serve a real function.
Still, even the most jaundiced ear might excuse Ms. Cupp’s judgment. Whiteness is a concept very rarely discussed outside of cloistered, academic journals and conference rooms. After all, according to researcher and educational scholar Angelina Castagno in her article Multicultural Education and the Protection of Whiteness, “Whiteness refers to the structural arrangements and ideologies of racial dominance within the United States.”
No wonder so many people claim to be confused regarding Whiteness. Perhaps this is why our adroit television host thought it “something made-up.” However, to say that Whiteness is a “made-up” concept is nothing less than an attempt to deny its existence, and to dismiss it by means of scorn or outright ridicule. Dismiss it if you will (remember the dragons), but Whiteness nonetheless exists. Whiteness exists because it serves a function. To rid ourselves of the concept is to rid ourselves of the very foundation upon which we have almost literally built our nation and quite literally built our national identity. By not speaking of Whiteness, we don’t make it go away. What it does allow is for Whiteness to operate silently and invisibly—at least for Whites. Whiteness for Non-Whites is loud, visible, and ubiquitous.
What stands most distinctly and most disturbingly about Whiteness is the innocence (call it purity, if you like) of its visage. Whiteness is never adulterated. Whiteness is innocent, innocent in its presence, innocent in action. Whiteness’ innocence is not naïve or inexperienced. It’s innocence stems from its fixation on singularity: one land, one blood, one God. Any plurality is rendered to the margins of Whiteness, as background, extras, or final season add-ons.
With this aspect of innocence, Whiteness exempts itself from the messiness of history, or for that matter, the messiness of the present.
Relations, both present and historic, with non-Whites are unadulterated, unfettered by confusion, or conflict, or contradiction. Working relationships are honest and professional. Personal relationships are true and forthright. Our untainted characterization of Whiteness is conceived in the tenuous assertion that Whiteness is the exclusive pallium of whites alone. It can’t be. Whiteness is also constructed in the minds and on the faces of those who are not white. For these minds and these faces, this construction of Whiteness is born from a quintessential American experience where, like money, the possession of Whiteness is curative. Moreover, it is also a conception of Whiteness that has to be escaped. This Whiteness makes corporeal our nation’s sins. In this Whiteness, innocence succumbs to guilt, singularity becomes diversity, and order turns into affirmative action. This is Whiteness, too. It is a construction to which we all must respond.
And we have.
Writer James Baldwin on several occasions and in several places asked, “Why was the nigger created?” Put less nakedly, one might ask why was Blackness created? Like the nigger and Whiteness, it doesn’t matter whether Blackness actually exists in the world. It is a “thing.” Blackness exists because we believe such a “thing” exists, and in this instance, our belief is sufficient for its existence.
Blackness is a necessary requirement not of, but for, Whiteness. They are conjugates and behave accordingly. As conjugates, Blackness and Whiteness operate jointly; they exist together not as a just pair but as a unity. They might operate as opposites, or inverses, or converses to one another. In the alternative, they might operate in some complicated, complex or chaotic fashion. Though a great deal of ink has been spilled on the subject, who knows. What can be discerned is that they act together, in concert. When James Baldwin spoke of the slave and the master being bound by the same chain, he understood that both are tied to the same reality. And that by freeing one, you have freed both. Further, and maybe more importantly, by eliminating one, we, in turn, eliminate both.
Perhaps more troubling to our disjunctive and disjointed thinking about Blackness and Whiteness is that any discussion of one is also a discussion of the other. Functionally, as conjugates, there is no conversation of one without talking about the other. For instance, what really disturbs us about protest movements like Black Lives Matter and NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem is that in truth we are having a discussion whose subject is not police misconduct, but the nature of Whiteness, while, more importantly, giving voice and substance to Blackness. What our literature and analysis eschew is the abiding relationship between Whiteness and Blackness. The two justify and construct one another. To rid ourselves of one, by implication, we rid ourselves of both, at which point our house of cards crumbles, leaving only chaos and the nagging question: What are we?
And, like the edge of ancient maps, here be dragons.
Asking again: What are we? The current American predilection is to say that we are post-racial (read Blackness is irrelevant, unimportant, or just plain non-existent). Whiteness, Blackness’ unspoken consort, is supposed to remain intact. But this is a difficult countenance to maintain. There is no point without the counterpoint. What becomes of Blackness without Whiteness? What is Whiteness without Blackness as its counterpoint? One possible answer to both is incompleteness. Moreover, these questions lie at the heart of what was once deemed “The Negro Problem.”
As W.E.B. DuBois conceived it over a century ago, “The Negro Problem” was how to reconcile being both a “Negro” and an American. James Baldwin articulated the same problem some 60 years after DuBois as “the necessity of the white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to live with himself.” What both men, each in his own way, each in his own language, are reaching for is a way to either reconcile the Blackness/Whiteness conjugate or eliminate it altogether.
The necessity to rid ourselves of, or reconcile ourselves to, Blackness comes from the irksome awareness that Blackness is not restricted to black people. Blackness is not just the offspring of black people or of all non-white people. It is the progeny of white people as well. Blackness is born of the white imagination. Constructed from its fear of the “other” and from the highest aspirations of itself. Of course, black people nurtured and suckled Blackness, influencing it as it grew, inculcating it with a set of values, culture, and being. Nevertheless, as the concept of Whiteness shaped the destiny and identity of white people, so, too, do the hopes and fears of whites also shape Blackness and shape all of us who propel ourselves into the darkness by calling ourselves Americans.
Stepping into the breach of our understanding of the conjugate relationship between Blackness and Whiteness is an obscure state Senator from Illinois who became the 44th President of these United States. Born of a white mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father, the rise of Barack Hussein Obama II, an improbable name for an improbable president, spelled the end of our long national nightmare with race (read as Blackness). It would not be through economic expansions, job growth, foreign or domestic policy that would raise us from some national, psychic malaise. No, it would be Obama himself. Many sought to point out during the general election of 2008 that “Obama has no big ideas.” Big ideas might have been beside the point in 2008. In 2008, Obama is the big idea.
Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States made some (too few or too many, depending on which side of the ideological fence you stand) trumpet the arrival of a post-racial America. An outstanding example is MSNBC’s Morning Joe’s roundtable featuring the sometimes irascible, conservative Joe Scarborough and his perspicacious co-host Mika Brzezinski speculating openly about America’s post-racial (read post-Blackness) era in 2008. And why not?
The lines of race are blurring every day. The numbers of interracial/biracial/multiracial people are increasing with every immigrant, every interracial coupling, and almost every DNA test provided by Ancestory.com. When one of the stars of Duck Dynasty, a reality show ostensibly about Whiteness, and his wife adopt a biracial child, the demarcation lines of Whiteness and Blackness blur. People today are mixing in a manner not previously seen. In many ways, in 2008, listening to liberals or conservatives discuss a post-racial America one could only wonder whether they are speaking to the end of “The Negro Problem.” Is the “negro,” in any of her or his iterations, gone? Did Obama’s election spell the end of Blackness? The question of Whiteness remained muted. Enter into this racial cliffhanger another of America’s native sons, a son whose name is Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays written over the course of the eight-year Obama Presidency. It’s Coates’ first book following his debut bestseller Between the World and Me. It doesn’t take much reading to recognize Coates’ intellectual prowess. It is both subtle and overpowering, deceptive and straightforward. Coates exhibits what is required of the public intellectual: a capacity to synthesize copious amounts of literature and use it as the grist and grounds for his own thoughts.
The book itself is structured by shorter, introductory essays (Coates calls them blog posts) titled “Note from the year…,” year one through eight. These shorter posts capture “why [Coates] was writing and where [Coates] was in [his] life at the time.” These essays act as extended internal musings that are given proper grammatical form and often provide the most insightful reading in the book. After these posts, the reader finds a major, topical essay corresponding to a given year in the Obama presidency. The major essays either directly or tangentially refer to President Obama or the sociology derived from him being in office. Coates has a name for the Obama Presidency. That name is “Good Negro Government.” Here Coates is not trying to be ironic with the use of the term “Negro.” “Good Negro Government” is a term from reconstruction, one that is central and not to the major themes in the book. Instead he’s using the term “Negro” to initiate our recall, to give us a historical framework.
In some ways the essays work as memory, as our recall seems to go back only as far as the most previous iPhone iteration. As such, his essays operate both as political and personal history. In the first essay in the book Notes from the First Year, Coates brings together his own personal and professional shortcomings (he was a broke writer who, by his own admission, clearly had no future), Barack Obama’s initial bid for the presidency, and, for good measure, Bill Cosby. This is rich, albeit recalcitrant, material from which to craft an essay. This kind of richness is found throughout the essays in the book.
Coates says of the pieces, “[M]ore than I wanted to write something original and new, I wanted to write something that black people would recognize as original and old, something both classical and radical.”
One could say Coates has achieved some of these aspirations. Coates is “radical” insofar as he has changed the sound track. The background music to Coates’ essays is, in large measure, 90’s Hip Hop. Public Enemy, Jay-Z, and Naz are the background music for Coates’ intellectual expression and reportage. Though the music might be different, the lyrics for the pieces remain the same. The arguments presented in all the signature essays are tried-and-true with some slight variation. A seasoned reader of such material will find him- or herself right at home with the essays. For a new generation seeking to get its sea legs vis-à-vis the canon concerning race, Coates’ essays are a primer equal to the task.
His essays, originally published in The Atlantic, include: “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” a personal narrative layered over Bill Cosby’s excoriation of so-called black social pathology; “American Girl,” a rumination on his profile of Michelle Obama; “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War,” an interesting analysis of the relationship black Americans have with the Civil War; “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” this generation’s exegesis of the slain Civil rights leader; “Fear of a Black President,” one bookend essay examining the social and racial implications of Barack Obama’s election; “The Case for Reparations,” a prosecution of the case for reparations, or at least why the idea shouldn’t be dismissed as malicious nonsense; “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a codicil cosigning Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; and “My President was Black,” the other bookend essay, which is a second-term reflection on Barack Obama's life, Presidency, and impact on the perceptions of race in our republic.
The ideas contained within these essays are substantial. For example, when reflecting on what the Obama administration meant and what a Trump administration portends, Coates writes: And I also knew that [Obama] who could not countenance such a thing in his America had been responsible for the only time in my life when I felt…proud of my country and I knew that it was [Obama’s] very lack of countenance, incredible faith, his improbable trust in his countrymen, that had made that feeling possible.
Perhaps speaking for a plurality of black Americans and himself, Coates articulates as pride a sense of belonging. He affirms what should be self-evident. He belongs to the United States, meaning Coates, and those like him, are no longer the objects of diversity, inclusion or tolerance discussions, but are actual full citizens of the republic who cannot be told to return from whence they came. Additionally, when Coates discusses the double incarceration endured by those burdened with a criminal record, as such “tends to injure employment prospects,” our sense of justice is called into question. As is the question of privilege and the limitations of political power when Coates contends that President Obama, and by the transitive property of Blackness every other black person seeking to enter the house of “mainstream” values, “could not betray any sign of rage towards his white opposition.” Nor can we deny, or come to terms with, the following claim made by Coates in his essay concerning America’s civil war.
White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and in the racial love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.
He should have added some of those whites were guilty of no crime—and there’s the rub.
Coates brings to the fore significant truths worthy of our attention. His essays contain scores of insights that, though not novel, still resonate deeply within us. Yet, in other ways that are equally significant, the essays operate as standard victimology. And victimology is not simply a question of the aggrieved and their transgressor—though it is that, too. It is more about the structure of victimology, the strict disjunction and separateness between the two parties. You are either victim or victimizer, with us or against us. There is no third (fourth or fifth) way, and there is most certainly no overlap.
Coates, at least in this collection, seems to be cool with that—"that” being writing within the context of victimology. And this is unfortunate for both the reader and for Coates. In We were Eight Years in Power, Coates clearly demonstrates he has the intellectual and literary chops to take on the difficult issues of the day, not limited to, but certainly to include, race.
However, too often Coates’ essays shrug off complication and complexity for the simplicity and, therefore, the certainty and comfort found in keeping separate the victim from the victimizer, keeping Whiteness from Blackness. Coates’ reductive position does not allow for a more comprehensive view of the phenomena he seeks to examine. Coates can call the theme of his essays an examination of “Good Negro Government,” or an assay of white supremacy. It doesn’t matter; he’s talking about race, past and present.
The separating of Blackness and Whiteness or victim from victimizer places us in an innocent/guilty dichotomy, limiting the scope of his vision and the reader’s. In the total, the book’s essays present us an expository landscape that is sadly incomplete.
Coates’ lack of completeness reveals itself from the very beginning. Here is a passage from his introductory missive: "The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency—that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle—assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries.
His assertion is correct. However, it only views Whiteness from one direction—from non-white (black) to white. In observing it this way, Coates only accounts for one view of Whiteness, that of victimizer. Concurrently, he constructs a singular view of Blackness, that of victim. Neither of these is wholly false. And there is certainly an argument for calling a spade a spade—no racial epithet intended. But neither is entirely true.
According to Cornell University’s Roper Center for Public Opinion and Research, 43% of whites voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 39% voted for him four years later. What of these whites? Are they too trying to keep the peons out of the castle? What analysis of race and Whiteness/ Blackness accounts for them?
Granted: No account of the human condition can be fully rendered, least of all in a single book. That doesn’t, however, mean we shouldn’t take on the challenge. Bromides from past decades retreaded for a new generation shouldn’t be the standard even for a cohort weaned on sampling and re-mixes. Nor should they be the comfort food of an older generation content with arguments of a previous era. Coates’ embrace of an incomplete analysis might have been a forgivable conceit had it been offset by attempts to more fully examine Whiteness, Blackness, white supremacy, the implications of eight years of a President who embodies blackness, or even the ramifications of Coates’ own rise to prominence as a writer. Yet an underdeveloped analysis is a feature throughout the book. In some cases, Coates’ incompleteness is a function of him not following the implications of his own thinking. In the essay Notes from the Seventh Year, Coates doesn’t entertain either the complexity or complication of his own journey through Blackness and Whiteness after a question-and-answer session with President Obama: "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 like the only other nigga in the room and fools was looking at us like, ‘These niggers are fighting!!!'"
Whatever one’s position is regarding the use of the word “nigger” in any of its forms—“er” versus “a”—Coates’ use of the terms bespeaks, at the very least, his own complicated relationship with Blackness and Whiteness. Instead of exploring this complication, indeed his complication, Coates turns instead to a reflection of his reading of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time—an essay that did push the boundaries of our perceptions of self. “I imagined crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion, meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years,” writes Coates. In Notes from the Seventh Year, he stood at the precipice of such an essay. Instead of engaging in a struggle with the unknown, Coates retreats to familiar territory, to perceptions and arguments we all know and are comfortable with.
That said, in the end, Coates does make an honest attempt to convey where he believes we are as a nation with respect to race. Condensing the multi-faceted concept of race, along with its Whiteness/Blackness conjugate, is a reductionist vision that constructs caricature rather than attempting actual depiction. Though he might rightly argue caricature is what’s there. In the epilogue to the book, Coates writes:
[S]ystematic bigotry is still central to our politics, that the country is susceptible to that bigotry, that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos...
More sympathetically he writes:
Every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist, just as every white person in the Jim Crow south was not a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.
Is he wrong? Is this nothing but reductionist thinking at best, or narrow-minded bigotry at its worst? If chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation in the South, red-lining most other places, current discrimination, mass incarceration, violent police misconduct against black and brown bodies, the election of Donald Trump (and no doubt Charlottesville) are his evidence, we must pause to wonder. Yet only if we ignore those many thousands of “salt-of-the-earth” Americans who march with Black Lives Matter, Heather Heyer who died in Charlottesville, or the many daily acts of kindness, large and small, that MSNBC, FOX and CNN commentators do not deliberate can we fully embrace Coates’ vision.
“The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions,” so said James Baldwin, our current literary Godot. Using the essays contained within We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Coates seeks to threaten the power of the “white world” (read white supremacy) by refusing again and again the white world’s definitions. Coates is satisfied not to supply us with any new definitions either—he doesn’t even try. The book’s fragmentary vision generates a social landscape that is as barren as it is familiar. Yet, hope spring eternal—well, maybe.
In the beginning of his essay Notes from the Sixth Year, Coates writes, “In all of American life, there is a bias toward the happy ending, towards the notion that human resilience and intellect will be a match for any problem.” He goes on to say, “[T]he writers I loved, whom I sought to emulate, were mostly unconcerned with ‘hope.’ But moreover—what if there was no hope at all?” We cannot be certain that hopelessness is what Coates wants us to leave with. Hope notwithstanding, he does leave us chilly with the terrifying perception that nothing is coming to save us, not completion, not God, not justice. The book leaves us between a large rock and a very hard place where there is just us—all of us. And here too be dragons.
 As an aside, I too thought, communicatively, Black Lives Matter might have been heard more receptively as “Black Lives Matter Too.” But upon further reflection, rhetorically, “Black Lives Matter Too” is a maintenance of the innocence of Whiteness and, potentially, the debasement of Blackness as it keeps blacks in a secondary position, exhorting “me too” while raising their hand in the back of the room. “All Lives Matter” is simple moral tautology which maintains the status quo, with the implicit recognition that there are firsts among equals (some lives matter more).