Lifting the Atlantic’s October issue off the magazine rack, I guessed that “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, wasn’t about George Washington. Coates, African-American writer and provocateur, argues that Donald Trump is the “first white president,” a practitioner of “white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” In pressing his case that white racism is fundamental to Trump’s victory, he downplays, indeed objects to, the role of class, non-voters, stupidity, unemployment, and animosity toward Hillary Clinton. His argument may be shortsighted, but it is also instructive.
Between the World and Me, Coates’s last book, was written in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and the deaths of other black men at the hands of police. In part a memoir of growing up amid the violence of Baltimore, it was a warning to his adolescent son of the threat the nation posed to his black body. The book was painful to read for both his indictment of racism and his roiling anger. Was it only racism that stoked this cri de coeur, or was it his father’s punishments (“either I can beat him, or the police”), or even, as a recent Guardian article speculated, an atheism that left him without hope?
Eight Years in Power, a collection of his Atlantic articles, traces Coates’s move from angry provocateur to public intellectual. The shift came with “The Case for Reparations,” in which he called for recompense to African Americans for slavery and its after-effects. The essay brought notoriety as well as recognition. Strangers stopped to question, to talk, to praise. On the subway “a middle-aged white man began gesturing toward me. I took off my headphones. He lauded the article.” To Coates’s amazement, people were wrestling with his ideas. The trajectory from the angry young man to the reflective essayist in this collection shows him writing his way out of the Baltimore cul-de-sac.