Coates's ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ is profound and essential

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 6:29pm

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The term “We were eight years in power” signifies immediate connotations. Historically, it refers to the eight years of Reconstruction that occurred before white supremacy firmly reasserted itself in the South. In his new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” Ta-Nehisi Coates adapts it as a way of examining the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The framework within which “We Were Eight Years in Power” operates is a series of eight essays in chronological order, all originally published in The Atlantic, tracing recent American history through Obama’s initial campaign to the ultimate election of Donald Trump. The question one starts the book with is, How did we get here? What led to Trump’s presidency? The sense is that the 2016 election will be the ultimate “climax” of the book, so to speak, that Trump’s victory is the “American tragedy” to which the title is referring.

This both is and isn’t true. All in all, the focus of the book is surprisingly independent of the topic of Trump. For the majority of it, the 2016 election comes into play only tangentially. The true “American tragedy” that takes shape over the course of the book doesn’t take the form of one man; rather, one gets the sense that it is really our country’s whole history that has been, and continues to be, the tragedy.

A big part of this is due to the historical depth and extraordinary span of the book. The focus of many parts reaches back to the Civil War and even beyond, to the founding of this country itself.  His analysis of various aspects of race bring in well-known figures like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, but also — equally often, if not more so — names that might be less commonplace in households and history books, like Margaret Garner and Ida B. Wells. Every single subject he comes across, Coates treats with dignity, respect and complexity. The book’s approach seems to be that there is no story not worth telling.

The result is a book that feels rich, natural and wholly comprehensive. Every article is extremely well researched, and yet Coates’s eloquence leaves the reader with the impression that he knew it all to begin with. These facts and stories were just at his fingertips, and because we are reading his work, they are at ours. He effectively makes things as easy as he can for the reader, at least in terms of comprehension.

This is particularly impressive because the subject matter itself is in no way easy. In “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Coates establishes a pattern of explaining an argument as fully and fairly as possible, then challenging it at every turn in order to see whether or not it holds up to scrutiny. He does this through a wide array of lenses and topics, including the black conservatism of Bill Cosby, the American-ness of Michelle Obama, the firing of Shirley Sherrod, the Civil War, the Contract Buyers League, hip hop, the murder of Trayvon Martin and so much more. The web that Coates spends the book spinning is not only historically far-reaching; it also digs deep into the fabric of American culture, entertainment and class.

Coates strings the essays together with a brief “notes” section preceding each essay: “Notes from the First Year,” “Notes from the Second Year,” etc. What these notes highlight is a common thread throughout the entire book, which is that we are not only watching the progression of America; we are also witnessing, through these essays, the growth of Coates himself as a person and as a writer. He returns multiple times to his own political and literary evolution, from his childhood in Baltimore to his marriage to his beginnings as a writer. He uses the notes to explain the context for the essays, and once in a while to own up to their shortcomings: the small amount of attention given to, for instance, Cosby’s sexual assault allegations in “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” or Beryl Satter’s help providing background for “The Case for Reparations.” As a result, these notes are a large part of what lends Coates’ writing, on the whole, such a deep sense of credibility and honesty.

Some of the essays are already more well-known than others — “The Case for Reparations,” for instance, and “Fear of a Black President.” But even these are well worth revisiting within the context that Coates sets up in the book. When all of these essays are combined with Coates’s added notes, they form a complete, and profoundly articulated, image of Obama’s presidency and the layered context surrounding it. “We Were Eight Years in Power” is essential reading for anyone seeking to better understand the integral place of race within America, from one of the most eloquent masters of essay-form writing today.

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"We Were Eight Year in Power"

Ta Nehisi Coates

Oneworld Publications

October 3