Book review: We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest, garnering buzz for being among the year’s best, was a very hard book to read, but why wouldn’t it be? History is ugly and current events surely aren’t much better to look at.
The book is structured chronologically by eight essays, one previously published every year of the Obama presidency at The Atlantic, where Coates blogged. Each older piece is introduced by a new memoir-based essay, in which Coates explains his thinking behind the work and where he was in life, what he was experiencing, when he wrote it.
Coates went from unemployment to being one of the most praised authors and essayists in America, with a unique ability to distill the ugliest sides of the country’s racism and racist history into richly written, eloquent arguments for progress, political action, study of reparations, and most importantly, demand for understanding and acknowledgment that the deck is unevenly stacked. I recommend reading Tales of Two Americas for an outline on various perspectives on American inequality, then reading this for the fullest, most detailed portrait of what black America has faced and continues to grapple with.
The chaos of America, and perhaps more aptly the chaos of New York, made it seem that anything could happen. often that meant the worst. But sometimes it meant the best.
He likens this to his own success as a respected and lauded writer, a mighty voice on racial and civic topics, as well as to how we finally elected our first black president. His analyses of what it meant to have Obama, but it ushered in such a dark outcome in the next election, are phenomenal.
Just a few examples that struck me:
“Rush Limbaugh, bard of white decline, called Obama’s presidency a time when “the white kids now get beat up, with the black kids cheering.” Contrast that to days after Trump’s election, when kids in a school cafeteria chanted “Build that wall.” Rush Limbaugh, bard of white decline, is such a dangerous bloviating windbag.
“One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans (believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president.” I feel ashamed that I never realized this figure was so high. Now the primary goon responsible for birther idiocy is president. Coates’ writings on birtherism are incredibly enlightening.
“[Obama’s] comments after the killing of Trayvon Martin – ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’ – helped make that tragedy a rallying point for people who did not care about Martin’s killer as much as they cared about finding ways to oppose the president.”
In some of the new pieces, he reflects on what the original essay’s publication meant to him. The one regarding his famous “The Case for Reparations”, detailing how it felt to suddenly gain widespread recognition and how that changed so much, was particularly excellent.
I had come to love the invisibility of writing – the safe distance between my face and the work. The distance was closing. And to complicate matters more there was something else – a civic part of me, which was heartened to see the reparations argument make its way to people who’d never seriously considered it before.
Others describe lessons learned from the topics written, and how time sometimes led him to develop different viewpoints or advance previously held ones. This intellectual introspection is fascinating. Or his regrets, like how his profile of Bill Cosby’s controversial activism in the African-American community omitted mention of sexual assault, despite Coates’ knowledge of it before the dam burst.
We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.
The book’s title comes from this speech by Thomas E. Miller, South Carolina Congressman and one of five African-Americans elected to Congress during Reconstruction. This connection to history and African-American position within government and social structure is one of Coates’ shining strong points. His writing is honest, often journalistic, always backed by statistics and powerful anecdotes.
These are already well-known pieces: one is a profile of Michelle Obama that’s as much a profile of Chicago’s South Side, where she grew up. There’s a piece analyzing Malcolm X and his impact on black history; one on the massively disproportionate incarceration of black Americans; predatory lending practices and redlining that have made it impossible for African-Americans to have equality in housing, economic stability, and wealth accumulation; and repeated looks at race in politics – how so much of white America feared and resented black leadership, and how that fear translated into eventual overwhelming support of a candidate promising white supremacy.
In an essay about differences in black and white perspectives of the Civil War, he writes, “Now the lies of the Civil War and the lies of these post-racial years began to resonate with each other, and I could now see history, awful and undead, reaching out from the grave. America had a biography, and in that biography, the shackling of black people – slaves and free – featured prominently. I could not yet draw literal connections, though that would come. But what I sensed was a country trying to skip out on a bill, trying to stave off a terrible accounting.”
It rings of Martin Luther King, Jr and the check. It also reminded me of Eula Bliss’ essay on a debt that’s not being repaid in Tales of Two Americas. He addresses the issue of imbalance again in “The Case for Reparations”:
Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.
I can’t stress enough how important this book is. There have been a million titles, especially this past year, many I’ve covered here, addressing topics of the current troubling states of politics and race relations in America. But this one’s different.
I hesitate to criticize it at all – because I think despite what I personally disliked, overall importance outweighs my drawbacks. But this is bound to be one of the most lauded nonfiction books of the year so I don’t think my little bit of negativity matters much.
And (hypocritically), negativity is what I didn’t like here. Coates is sharply critical of certain figures, none of whom (Obama, Biden, Sanders) are perfect by far – I’m not arguing that – only that the emphasized examples of their speeches or actions were frustrating. If these are among the best, I feel worse about the possibility that there exist good people who are going to help us get back on track once that bewigged and spray-tanned hose beast is out of office.
I know he’s trying to show that even the good guys need to work harder, be bolder, to call them out to force them towards further progression, but I think there are bigger, guiltier fish to fry.
I think his dissatisfaction about some of Obama’s choices especially was harsh, although in cases like that of the response to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest and Shirley Sherrod’s unjust firing, I get it. But on other issues, as Obama himself is quoted explaining in an interview here, he can’t change everything himself, much as he might like to. He wished people understood that about the presidency. He still had to preside over some bad things and bad policy without being able to executive-order it away.
This frustrated me, but as I said, I’m trying to understand better by reading his work, and this was a difficult, painful, terrible read in that I learned many more awful things that white people have been responsible for than I already knew, and I thought that was a lot. Plus, ultimately, Coates’ support of the Obamas is intelligent, considered and deserving – all the things the Obamas themselves are.
The book closes with “My President Was Black”, thoughts on Trump’s election and how he sees it less the rumblings of a frustrated, forgotten demographic and more the result of anger over having lived under a black president with the swirling conspiracy theories of those eight years.
Every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist, just as every white person in the Jim Crow South was not a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.
This book should be required reading, especially for young minds beginning to understand something about the nation’s politics, inequalities, and privileges. It’s impossible not to be affected by these pieces, to feel the living history in them, and believe that progress has to be made, that we can’t allow our current administration to drag the country back to the past.
I know that there are black boys and black girls out there lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America, some of them treading and some of them drowning, never feeling and never forgetting. The most precious thing I had then is the most precious thing I have now – my own curiosity. That is the thing I knew, even in the classroom, they could not take from me. That is the thing that buoyed me and eventually plucked me from the sea.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
published October 3, 2017 by One World