Looking back at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral, James Baldwin wrote: “One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans—and for their sakes, after all—a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves.”
One might assume, seeing his language out of context, that Baldwin was taking stock of his despair in a nation that responded to Dr. King’s work with murder. But Baldwin was writing of the time before King’s death, and “the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive.”
Forty years after King was assassinated, America elected its first black president. Obama ran, often quite literally, under a banner of hope. In the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that launched him to the national stage, he spoke of hope 11 times — including the phrase “the audacity of hope” that he would use as the title of his bestselling book two years later. In his 2008 election night victory speech, a version of the word “hope” appeared seven times. Whereas Baldwin wrote of what one might expect from Americans, Obama used the word only three times in the two speeches, twice to say that Americans “don’t expect government to solve all their problems.” Baldwin was “compelled to demand.” In neither speech does Obama use the word “demand.”
This is not a critique of Obama, who sought different things than Baldwin, and used his language in masterly ways to accomplish things that no other person, including Baldwin, ever could. But we are entering the 10th year since Obama was elected, and these are not hopeful times. Baldwin’s harsh assessment, republished last week in Esquire, feels more relevant right now than many of the #MLKDay2018 celebrations taking place across America today. And while it is undeniably good that corporations will earnestly tweet about “the arc of history,” we are still in search of solutions to the problems that King, Baldwin and Obama set out to solve in their own ways.
The gap between where we are and where we expected to be 10 years ago is, at least in part, revealed in this space between hope and expect. Obama was a figure of hope — hope that could endure but not overcome much of the resistance he faced. He repeatedly implored Americans to reach for the generosity, clarity and nobility that Baldwin wrote of, but rarely issued firm demands that we must transcend our past.
If this seems fuzzy, let me recommend a guidebook: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power.
Eight Years is structured around Coates’ work from The Atlantic during the Obama presidency, one essay for each year, syncopated with reflections on the writing of each piece. The articles cover topics ranging from Bill Cosby and Michelle Obama to neighborhood redlining, the Civil War, reparations, and the logic of Trump’s rise. Coates’ own journey begins with him unemployed, taking a seminar on work in a state office in Harlem, and closes in the Obama White House. Despite that trajectory, Coates subtitles the book An American Tragedy, and he is unsentimental about the limited powers of optimism and uplift as a response to centuries of oppression, brutality, terrorism and disenfranchisement. “If there really is hope out there,” he writes in the lead-in to his essay on Obama’s eighth year, “I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of being proven right.”
This is an uncomfortable conversation. Obama’s supporters, and I count myself among them, are inclined to measure his successes — and he had many of them — against the spiteful, unified obstruction he encountered. His patient, measured approach was the only strategy against a scorched earth opposition. Coates makes this point for Obama, detailing how the president sparked outrage even with the tender (and obvious) assertion that if he had a son, the boy would look like the recently murdered Trayvon Martin. Obama mostly steered clear of further provocations. Even in the days after Trump’s election, he was frequently quoted as saying that “history doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and zags and sometimes goes forward, sometimes moves back, sideways.” Obama’s calm temperament is no doubt one of the reasons he was able to reach the Oval Office and advance the prospects of future generations, but the fact remains that some of those generations will lose opportunities, and lives, in the zigs and zags.
This raises another uncomfortable point: Those who are comforted by these assurances, who are patient with Obama’s patience, are those who have the luxury of measuring progress on a historical scale — in other words, white Americans like me. For us, Coates’ book is essential. Because we cannot intuit the experience of black life in American, because our touchstones of that daily struggle have been given the gloss of political slogans and hashtags, because electing a black man does not, by a long shot, erase the things we wish it would erase, and because we have yet to demand of ourselves — for our own sakes, after all — what it will take to do that, we need the concentrated dose Coates provides.
Nine days after Donald Trump was elected president, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Sons, described America as being like an old house: “old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done… Whatever you’re ignoring is only going to get worse. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it.”
Or as Coates put it, with less hope and more expectation, in “The Case for Reparations” from Obama’s sixth year in office, “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
As of the first two weeks of 2018 — now 50 years since Dr. King was killed — those sins are still very much certain: An elected official in Kansas said that black people respond badly to marijuana because of their genetics. The Trump administration decreed that more than 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. must return to a country that has been ranked as the world’s most dangerous. Joe Arpaio, who ran what he called “concentration camps” for undocumented immigrants, announced that he will now run for the U.S. Senate. This all happened before the president referred to African immigrants as coming from “shithole countries.” If we needed any additional reminders, it is one year, almost to the day, that Donald Trump picked a fight with Congressman John Lewis on Twitter.
If we are to be the country we hope for, we must expect better than this.