It has taken me months to work through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We were eight years in power: An American tragedy. The book is a collection of essays by Coates, written during the Barrack Obama presidency, along with new introductions that allow for his more recent reflections. Some essays, like “The Case for Reparations”, have been insightful and challenging. Others, like the one I am in now titled “My President was Black” cause me to close the book every few pages as I process the goodness and the flaws of our previous president. The final chapter will be about the current president, so I anticipate more sighs and deep breaths as I get to the end.
With Ash Wednesday just a few hours away, I am getting to the end of the book and to the end of a presidency that was redefining for the United States. Some thought President Obama would result, or did result, in a post-racial America. Some thought it was a sign of the End Times as this supposed anti-Christ has taken over. And some thought it was a good and just sign that leadership can be defined by internal rather than visual qualities. And of course there were many other opinions along the spectrum between hope and hatred.
In the shadow of Ash Wednesday, and beyond it Easter, I think about the magnified version this spectrum taking place around the crucifixion in 33 A.D. and the church in 2018. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. The death of Christ changed everything, but not in the way that his followers or his enemies expected. Today the church has the ability to change things as well, but so often we fall short of what others expect of us (which can be a positive or a negative depending on your expectations).
Through reading Coates’ work, I’ve journeyed with him through a roller coaster of hope, confusion, regret, and sometimes painful acceptance as he traveled through eight years, twice. It was one of the introductions that provided the critical quote for me: “And my ambition is to write both in defiance of tragedy and in blindness of its possibility, to keep screaming into the waves-just as my ancestors did” (2017, p. 290). What I viewed as realism, my lovely optimistic friend Megan described as “defiant hope.” I think she got it right.
We can and should be defiantly hopeful that the flawed persons and systems of our world can be overcome. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.