The Years After the Eight Years: What Lies Ahead?

The Years After the Eight Years: What Lies Ahead?

Today we conclude our roundtable on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power with a post by Greg Downs. Downs is this roundtable’s guest editor and an associate editor at the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is a professor of history at University of California–Davis.

Previous installments of the roundtable are available here, herehere, and here. Thank you so much for following along with us as we explore how Coates’s work relates to our study of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

In December 2008, while walking in midtown Manhattan, I passed a young man wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m already disillusioned.” Around me, several people on the sidewalk went silent, in a kind of wonder and also of respect. Not all that long afterwards, at the Warsaw Ballroom in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the aging punk band The Dead Milkmen stopped playing to berate the crowd for expecting Obama to be anything other than an imperialist, capitalist tool. Already, back in late November, Adolph Reed Jr. had brought a few cheers and some catcalls when he warned a crowd at the CUNY Graduate Center not to be taken in by the charms of a neoliberal.

It is easy now to forget how pervasive this skepticism was. At the AHA in New York in January 2009, I had lunch with the late, greatly missed, Stephanie Camp. Inauguration was still weeks away, and already she was fed up with the disillusionment. Why couldn’t there be a time to celebrate, she asked, before our critical, even cynical, lenses overtook us? It was easy in early 2009, as the Obama administration named a cohort of Wall Street luminaries, to think that the hope and change he promised had already evaporated into neoliberal technocracy.

That feeling now seems quaint. The Tea Party summer of 2010, mid-term losses for the Democrats, congressional obstruction, the strange inability of President Obama to translate his general popularity into Democratic successes in 2012 and 2014 congressional races, the 2016 presidential race, and, finally, the shocking first months of the Trump Administration all made Obama’s first months in office seem lovely in retrospect. Obama’s unceasing rationality, calmness, deep-spirited decency, and—let us also admit it—relative powerlessness have made him a less ambiguous figure than he had seemed to many of us upon his election.

One way to write in 2017 is with a kind of wonder that such decency was so poorly rewarded, with a false but almost inevitable nostalgia for a moment of hope in 2008 that in fact may not have existed. And also perhaps in a general amnesia about Obama’s actual policy decisions in those heady days, in forgetfulness that a bail out of homeowners, not the banks that foreclosed on them, or the passage of a comprehensive or at least comprehensible health plan might not have led the administration toward precisely the same grief.

Perhaps no work demands so convincingly that we wrestle with the history of the present built into our histories of the past as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power. Its significance is reflected in the seriousness that each of the participants in our forum has brought to quite distinct questions. In many ways Ta-Nehisi Coates writes from this history of the present: shrouding his disillusionment of 2008 and 2009 in nostalgia that is at once empirically unconvincing and yet emotionally true. Part of what seems to animate Coates’ book is a desire to tell his younger self to smarten up, to save other younger selves from being taken in by hope. In this it resembles perhaps nothing so much as noir. Seeming innocence is revealed over and over again to be corruption. Wise up, kids.

The Muster essays on Eight Years help begin historians’ necessary reckoning with the book. In adept, distinct ways, Brandon Byrd, Kelly Houston Jones, and Scott Hancock ask big questions: How should we reconcile broad political narratives with personal feelings of despair, or human lives that seem to plug on without much regard to political maneuverings in capital cities? Are we so sure, as Brandon Byrd asks, about the leap Coates (and many of us) make from the “me” into the “we” when we talk about the centrality of politics to the way we live and understand our lives? How might historians of the deep or recent past deal with subjects like Frankie Goole who seem at times to discount the impact of politics altogether? Historians, like journalists, can greatly overestimate how much attention other people pay to politics.

Kelly Houston Jones takes us inside the intimate aspects of these subjects’ lives by asking us to ponder the spaces that Coates describes. How does our understanding of political orders and ideologies change as we examine particular places and spaces—Chicago’s South Shore homes and West Side apartment buildings, Natchez slave neighborhoods, southeastern slave cabins? What does the changing terrain of struggle tell us about the continuities and disruptures of that struggle?

Most of all, these essays wrestle, especially in Scott Hancock’s piece, with the question of narrative as we describe a “good” “historic day” that was also an “illusory day.” Should the country’s story be captured by its alleged aspirations, what Hancock characterizes as President Obama’s “faith” in the “long-term trends of the United States?” Or should it be a narrative of “legal change” that nevertheless continuously serves “the dominant white interests.” By examining both legal history and Critical Race Theory, Hancock asks us to consider what a future history of the country might look like if told through the lens of plunder. If historians rethink their own emphasis on ideological and legal pluralism and instead center “the singular original intent, voice, and methodology of white supremacy,” how will we recount the time of the Civil War Era, or American history more broadly? Playing his own beginning of “it was a good day” off of Ice Cube’s 1992 “It Was a Good Day,” Hancock asks us to imagine a future United States in which the government-issued “guns pointed at Ice Cube, as he walked into his home at the end of his day” might be pointed not just, as they already are, at Black Americans, but also at historians “for speaking our mind.”

Hancock’s essay asks us to reflect upon our contemporary moment and our justified disillusionment. Taking the liberty of extending (I hope fairly) the questions he asks, we might ponder: Should we write to extinguish the naïvete that allegedly blinded us in 2008? Should we arm our future selves, and our readers, to expect the worst no matter how pleasant any momentary horizon? Or were we actually not quite as naïve as we seem in retrospect? Maybe the kids were alright?

Whatever Coates’s book teaches us, we cannot shrink from two closely related lessons: His popularity suggests a great cultural appetite for deep skepticism, even cynicism. This thirst will not disappear upon contact with historians’ methods. It grows from fundamental doubts about the future of the country and of the democratic form and even of the species. We ourselves are hardly immune to those doubts. Nor should we be.

Coates’s sure-footed treatment of important historical eras and his, by my lights, sometimes attenuated way of connecting them might lead us to gnaw with beaverly industry at his weak points until they give. This, I think, would be a mistake. For the great challenge that Coates poses for us is not his interpretation of any given moment but his (correct) insistence that narrative matters and cannot be subsumed into craft. The stories we tell create the interpretations we consciously and unconsciously reach for. Many of us, including me, may be writing in a state of tension between our narratives and the interpretations we claim. Look at the way a particular story of 2017 leads Coates, and many of us, to need to tell a nostalgic story about 2008 and 2009 that is not always literally true even as it serves a crucial purpose. What can we learn from the way Coates’ narrative, and for many of us our own, create a demand for a re-interpretation or re-creation of our own recent pasts?

Having begun this essay with one of the dearly departed, I will end with another person who won’t be able to tell me what he thinks about this book. My friend Tony Kaye, a former editor of JCWE, used to say that historians remained terrified, even decades later, by Hayden White. White threatened our ability to write in cheerful ignorance of the choices we were making, of the interpretative moves embedded in our seemingly unchosen choice of genre.

Coates’s embrace of stasis—of a cynicism constantly rewarded—challenges our complacency about narratives and interpretation. By taking his choice of narrative (and Hancock’s suggestions of alternatives) seriously, we might ponder the genres of tragedy (in the way Coates describes it and the rather different way that David Blight used it in American Oracle), or the much-invoked but now rarely practiced irony, or horror (the genre that may quietly define much contemporary historical writing), or (the rarely acknowledged but often practiced) romance, or comedy, or even fantasy.

In selecting and shaping the stories we tell about the Civil War era, we are making interpretive choices, both when we acknowledge it and when we don’t. Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power reminds us of the range of available options. Some may be tempted to follow him. Others may be moved to steer readers away from Coates’s choices and toward other, by their lights, more meaningful genres. Few, I suspect, will be able to (or will want to) write exactly as we did before Eight Years, exactly as we did before the eight years it so eloquently and bleakly portrays.

Greg Downs

Greg Downs is a Professor of History at UC Davis and an Associate Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era. He is the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (UNC Press, 2011) and After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard, 2015) and (with Kate Masur) co-editor of The World the Civil War Made and co-author of the National Park Service National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction.

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