We Were Eight Years in Power is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s modern book of lamentations — of a nation’s hope in tatters and change stifled by bigotry emboldened ... Coates maps his own career path from unknown blogger to revered journalist invited by Obama 'into the Oval Office to bear witness to history.' His professional ascension, including his National Book Award-winning bestseller, Between the World and Me, coincided with Obama’s presidency, and this was not a coincidence. Too many people who should have known better declared Obama’s election as the Big Bang of a post-racial America, and Coates’s probing essays about race, politics, and history became necessary ballast for this nation’s gravity-defying moment ... After spending much of this essential book looking backward, Coates stares squarely at our chaotic present in his most recent essay, 'The First White President.' It’s a scorching takedown of Trump, his calamitous presidency, and his open embrace of racism, something in which he was well versed long before he moved into the White House.
These essays are a cross section of Coates’ work that, read with the distance of time, reveal the shifts in his thinking, even as they cover familiar concerns and questions. They also show a broadening of his perspective ... This volume serves to address other criticisms. The charge that Coates is a pessimist, all but disengaged from politics, is belied by his keen interest in compensatory justice, even if he’s doubtful of its ultimate success. The charge that Coates is writing primarily for guilty white liberals becomes laughable on its face: If Coates is writing for anyone besides himself, it is for other black people, a fact you can glean from his subjects and preoccupations ... We Were Eight Years in Power is more than a 'loose memoir'; it’s Coates giving himself a deep read, and inviting us to join him in this look at his intellectual journey. And by showcasing a range of essays—some his strongest work, others deeply flawed—he asks his readers to consider him as a writer, nothing more and nothing less.
With some quarters seeing the 2008 election less as a promise than as a threat, Obama’s achievement proves to be both a milestone and a millstone. The same might be said of Coates’s ascension as an important critic, if not the important critic, of our time … Eight Years could have settled for being the obligatory miscellany that too often follows a writer’s masterpiece; instead, the book provides a master class on the essay form. Structured as a call and response between eight of his most significant articles and briefer, more personal essays arranged by year, Coates gives us something between a mixtape and a Künstlerroman, demonstrating how he came to dominate the nonfiction genre … It is the record of his struggle as a writer that is of great interest here. As in Baldwin, the struggle of the writing dovetails with the struggle of the race. This becomes clearest in his 2014 essay ‘The Case for Reparations,’ which became Coates’s calling card, and rightly so.
The essays gathered in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, demand that we see the black-American experience as not incidental but central to the founding stories that makes America possible ... Coates’s writing is consistently nuanced and precise, always limited to what the writer can pull out of his own story, out of another’s, out of the archives, or out of a database ...provide a too-rare peek into the processes of a first-rate mind conversing with itself and of a man writing his way to greatness ... This book will not provide all of us with resolutions to the United States’s woes. But it is one essential modern work for a complete understanding of the American democratic process, because it is central to American storytelling.
Coates is very good at detailing how systems operate, as he proves in his strongest essays, 'The Case for Reparations' and 'The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.' But he’s also proven his disinterest in offering improvements, upgrades or plans for debugging the machinations that produce injustice, structural racism and inequality...I think that Coates’ work explains that the onus for change falls on those who perpetuate, benefit from and shield white supremacy ... As the best critics do, Coates draws us into conversation, into argument, rather than closing off discourse with canned proclamations or static resolutions ... by the end of We Were Eight Years in Power we can hear the Jim Crow South echoing loudly in the Trump administration’s calls for reform, purge and moral order. Here, Coates’ deft historical sampling might also offer us ingredients for crafting our collective rejection of white supremacy.
This theme — Coates’s awakening to the elemental nature of racism and white supremacy to the American project — emerges over the course of the eight pieces collected in We Were Eight Years in Power, one from each year of the Obama presidency ...linked together by introductory essays that add autobiographical context; we follow the parallel tracks of Coates’s rapid rise from the unemployment line to the heights of American letters and his simultaneous and profound loss of hope ...is about Coates finding his voice, refining the oracular style that would explode across the cultural firmament around the midpoint of Obama’s presidency.
One of the book’s most persistent, recurrent themes, a shuttle that flies through the loom, is that black progress is always met with a violent backlash — the modern apotheosis of which was the election of Donald J. Trump. Most of these pieces force a reckoning with ideas that people, mainly whites, avoid contemplating or reject or insist (sometimes rightly) are more complicated: That American democracy was predicated on an enslaved class of Africans; that most white Americans still can’t tolerate the idea of equality; that acknowledging the many legacies of slavery is too much to ask of most whites, because it would disrupt our conception of our country and ourselves ... As indispensable as his voice is, he might well have been crowned 'America’s best writer on race,' as one newspaper put it, prematurely. Simply reading and name-checking him came to feel sufficient for some white readers, preventing them from consuming other African-American voices with different points of view and different readings of history. But taking in Coates’s essays from start to finish is still a bracing thing, like drinking a triple scotch, neat ... It is to Coates’s credit that by the time you’re done reading We Were Eight Years in Power, you also see what he does — namely, that far too many whites are overlooking what is so plainly staring them in the face, and that America couldn’t have a black president without boomeranging back to its ugliest self.
Together, these introspections are the inside story of a writer at work, with all the fears, insecurities, influences, insights and blind spots that the craft demands. There are two books here, really. Coates’s Atlantic essays betray a growing disillusionment with America and with the possibilities of the Obama presidency; his more personal digressions show how the age of the first black president propelled Coates’s career to unexpected heights, making him one of the most sought-after and overanalyzed interpreters of the era — the kind of fame, Coates realizes, that brings a severe risk of believing your own hype. ... I would have continued reading Coates during a Hillary Clinton administration, hoping in particular that he’d finally write the great Civil War history already scattered throughout his work. Yet reading him now feels more urgent, with the bar set higher. Early in this book, Coates writes that having the Obamas in the White House 'opened a market' for him. Trump opens one, too.
As I read his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, I kept racking my brain, trying to figure out who was the ‘we’ who was in power for eight years. I had read enough Coates to know he didn’t believe Barack Obama’s presidency meant black power, notwithstanding the essay he wrote likening Barack Obama to Malcolm X. And it was hard to imagine his ‘we’ referred to Democrats or liberals … While Toni Morrison’s speculative tongue-in-cheek assertion that Bill Clinton was the first black president was an engaging shock to the racial imagination, Coates’ riff on that, that Trump is the first white president, lets history off the hook … The book is like an album of standards, or better yet a series of remixes.
The title, and Coates’ decision to lead the book with an obscure quote, reminds us of three things we should know: Racial progress always incites backlash, history repeats itself and Coates is a man of compelling ideas. His thinking is sourced by a commendable depth of knowledge, and his depth of knowledge results from tireless research and prodigious reading … Here, we see how he labored in his writing to draw on all his ‘influences — poetry, hip-hop, history, memoir, reportage — [to] produce something original and beautiful.’ We watch, essay by essay, as he progresses from a captivating writer to a canonical one. What results from his ethic, his art, his perspective on its creation, and the personal reflections included here, constitute a master class for writers, artists and scholars.
As he charts social changes, Coates also offers a fascinating look at his own transformation as a black man and a writer. Before each essay, Coates provides context in light of recent political developments and concludes with an epilogue on the post-Obama era, noting that the Obama presidency aligned with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, 'America’s preeminent existential crisis.' Coates’ always sharp commentary is particularly insightful as each day brings a new upset to the cultural and political landscape laid during the term of the nation’s first black president.
His conclusions are disquieting, his writing passionate, his tenor often angry: 'white supremacy,' he argues, 'was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.' He considers 'The Case for Reparations' to be 'the best piece in this volume to my mind,' but surely 'My President is Black,' his assessment of Obama and crude, boorish Trump, is a close contender. Coates considers bigotry to be the deciding factor in Trump’s appeal. 'It is almost as if the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted Trump personally,' and he unleashed violent resentment among his supporters. Although Coates subtitles the book 'An American Tragedy,' he allows a ray of hope for 'a resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil.' Emotionally charged, deftly crafted, and urgently relevant essays.
With hindsight, Coates examines the roots of his ideas and moments of personal history that relay the influence of hip-hop, the books he read, and the blog he maintained on his writing. Though the essays are about a particular period, Coates's themes reflect broader social and political phenomena. It's this timeless timeliness—reminiscent of the work of George Orwell and James Baldwin—that makes Coates worth reading again and again.