By Kate Clinton
The past eleven months have been an attempted white-out of the policies and programs of our first black President. There's freshly mined coal in the nation's stocking. No peace on earth. Forget donning the gay apparel. The endless Muzak track at the D.C. mall is Ta-rump pum pum Trump. It's a White Supremacist Christmas.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (One World) by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an answer to the meta-question of the year, "What happened?" The TF is understood. The book is a chronological collection of eight essays published in The Atlantic magazine during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Coates's topics include the case for reparations, Michelle Obama's roots in Chicago's South Side, the Civil War, the legacy of Malcolm X, the black family in the age of incarceration, and the fear of a black President.
Each chapter is preceded by an essay reflecting Coates's development in those eight years, his self-critiques of his own writing, his mistrust of becoming the "go-to writer on race," his self-doubt, his struggle to write the unwritten story of race in America. In the epilogue, "The First White President," he writes, "Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist.... But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one."
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books) by the historian Ibram X. Kendi shows the folly of thinking that eight years of a black President would usher in a postracial world. For Kendi, a racist idea is "any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way." It is a challenging page turner.
Kendi examines the racist ideas rationalizing slave-trading in the fifteenth century, through the colonial era, the Reconstruction, to the war on drugs, and tough on crime era. He organizes his massive research into the construction of white supremacy around the lives and works of Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis.
And, because you'll need it after Coates and Kendi, I can't recommend enough the audiobook of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, read by the author, Trevor Noah. It's a great stocking staffer.
Kate the last Clinton standing is a humorist.
By Ruth Conniff
"I went abroad for the same reason everyone else does: to learn how to live," Suzy Hansen writes at the end of her extraordinary book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Hansen, who describes herself as an ambitious, provincial young writer who went to New York City to make it big, moved to Istanbul shortly after September 11, 2001, in the grip of a personal crisis.
"My crisis, like many other Americans', was about my American identity," she writes.
In Istanbul, where she still lives, Hansen learned Turkish, reported on the Middle East for The New York Times Magazine, and embarked on a years-long exploration of what it means to be an American.
The guiding spirit on Hansen's journey is James Baldwin, whom she first encountered as an undergraduate, in the library stacks at the University of Pennsylvania. Baldwin left her gobsmacked with his description of the "terrible innocence" of white people in the United States.
Later, Baldwin's assertion that he felt more free as a gay, black man in 1960s Istanbul than he could ever feel in New York challenged and worried Hansen, propelling her on her path to Turkey, and ultimately launching this deeply thoughtful book.
Hansen tries to understand why America is a country where, as Albert Camus observed, "everything is done to prove that life isn't tragic."
"Because the Americans had never looked their tragic history in the face, they could delude themselves into believing that their own comparable superiority might create a better world," she writes.
Reading this book in Mexico, I understood why Hansen takes so personally the sunny ignorance with which Americans view the rest of the world. She captures the shock of realizing that you are one of the world's rich kids, and that your feelings of boundless possibility, happiness, and freedom exist because your country has aggressively and systematically crushed the possibilities, happiness, and freedom of others.
Much of the dark history of American foreign policy that Hansen uncovers--the propping up of dictators, betrayals of pro-democracy movements that looked to the United States for support, the training of foreign armies and secret police in torture techniques--will not come as a surprise to longtime readers of The Progressive. But Hansen goes deeper, provocatively connecting geopolitics to a culture that shapes us and blinds us.
Donald Trump, the prototypical Ugly American, has made Hansen's book particularly timely this year. But, she writes, "From abroad, when I used to hear President Obama say that America is the greatest country on earth... I felt like I did as a child, not wanting to admit to my parents I knew there was no Santa Claus."
This is a beautiful, angry, sad piece of writing that every American should read as we try to live in a world that has long known things about us that we are only now coming to understand.
Ruth Conniff is living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico, this year as The Progressive's editor-at-large.
By Jules Gibbs
Contemporary poetry has become necessarily political--the poetry of witness and the poetry of protest. It is a space where the most crucial, urgent issues of our day play out. We are in a very...