With the Trump era firmly established, many Afro-American intellectuals are confronting the undercurrents of racism and white supremacy in American society. Some look with nostalgia already to Obama´s eight years in power. The title of Ta Nehisi Coates new book «We were eight years in power: An American Tragedy» seems to reflects this. Yet even under Obama there were many episodes exposing the prevalence of racism in the US, not least the Black Lives Matter movement´s activism against police brutality and murders. All the time Afro-Americans were heavily in majority in US prisons. Moreover, a recent study showed that racism when hiring new employees have remained fairly constant the last 40 years in the US. Some 30 % of employers admit they would shun a job applicant with an ethnic minority sounding name.
So what may this nostalgia for the Obamian past amount to? In Nehisi Coate´s version it is something different. His new book is a collection of essays the author published in US magazine The Atlantic during the Obama years. In between are newer essays shedding light on the older ones. Since his second 2015 success book «Between the world and me» Coates has acquired literary fame in the US, being endorsed by the likes of Toni Morrison and other Afro-American writers. Coates himself had a father who was active in the Black Panther movement of the late 1960s. This is a legacy he carries on. His new book «We were eight years in power: An American tragedy» has an ironising title.
For Coates takes a radical political view, confronting «Whiteness» as an ideology. Borrowing from the political scientist Gramsci´s theories on hegemonic power in ideologies, Coates identify «Whiteness» as a belief system underpinning much of social life in America. Those who believe in it use the concept as a kind of compass in their lives to feel included among a group. The other side of the coin is exclusion and negative stereotypes about blacks, hispanics, native peoples and so forth.
However, Coates has also received criticism for being too little engaged in current activism like the Black Lives Matter movement. Prominent literary figure Dr. Cornel West has critised the comparisons between Coates and the late James Baldwin. On Facebook he wrote that James Baldwin should not be compared to Coates as «Baldwin´s painful self-examination led to collective action and a focus on social movements». Others have critizised him for being male centred, focusing only on black masculinity in the USA of today.
Thus, Coates is somewhat distant and snobbish for some. Coates for his part is constantly underlining his wedging between higher education and the streets, his youth orentation towards both hip hop music and serious litterature. This duality also shows up in his current involvement in a comic book series on the Black Panthers. Others would object the blending is merely post modern pretentiousness. A seemingly open minded and inclusive outlook that covers an infantile lack of seriousness. Yet his literary fame seem to drive him onwards and his new book is already selling out fast. Also, if Coates is not truly rendering the reality of Black America in 2017, maybe someone else soon will.
- Jørgen Flatabø