We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a keeper. It is almost a reference book because it is so full of data, except for the writing style which teaches us but is never pedantic. Coates speaks to us all, black and white. He lets us into his mind and into his heart. Perhaps he doesn’t sound like Harvard because he did not go to Harvard, in fact he always informs his readers that he did not finish college; and perhaps that is why he makes a fairly comprehensive black American history book anything but tedious and bookish. He does not mince words. He does not free white folks from their grievous guilt. He makes an excellent case for the paying of reparations. He does not believe African Americans should be treated as victims, but he does believe that persistent white supremacy has placed them in economic ghettos.
I read this book out of jealousy because Coates won a McArthur Genius Grant which I covet. And I read the book because Coates’ first book Between the World and Me was so clearly written and emotionally impactful and because it rang so true. I recommend both books to everyone because both are about the place where our democracy is stuck; it is about what tarnishes our dreams of equality. We cannot pretend to believe in our founding documents until we get over our fears about the possible revenge of those we once enslaved, and until we accept once and for all that pigmentation is only pigmentation and not a mark of flawed genetics.
Perhaps these issues are so dominating right now because we are striving to reach a new level and some powerful (and prune-y) old prejudices are deliberately trying to hold us back. White supremacy has been an undercurrent in America for all our days and even at the beginning it should have been at odds with the way our documents were written, except that slavery was also a part of our nation since its inception. Although that may not have been as tough a dichotomy in the 18th century, we know that it troubled some of our forefathers. We know that even then democracy was about compromises. Today, however, we know that if we don’t get past our racist beliefs that white folks are somehow better than people of color, we will not be able to hold on to democratic governance at all.
Coates’ writing is so quotable that I found my highlighting getting totally out of hand. This is a book of chapters, each representing one year of the Obama presidency, but it is also a book of essays, some written before the Obama years, some after. This is a book you can tackle one chapter at a time. It looks as if it took me a long time to read, but I set it aside to read Ron Chernow’s Grant. The appearance of these two books on my reading list at the same time proved serendipitous. Chernow’s Grant has a very detailed section on the horrors blacks faced at the hands of Southerners who has once owned slaves and who feared and hated the idea that they lost the Civil War. The governments of the Southern states did not want to protect African Americans and the federal government tried but they also wanted to reunite the North and South and so federal leaders were not as tough on Southern terrorism as they should have been. These two books pair well. Since We Were Eight Years in Power has natural divisions each section can be read separately. The book also coheres as a whole so don’t make the gaps in time too long.
Year One begins with Bill Cosby and completely avoids any discussion about his abuses of women. Bill Cosby spoke some “truths” that struck nerves in the black community. Conservative black folks thought his arguments had merit, but more activist black folks felt that blaming black folks for forces they had little control over is wrong-headed and will not lift people up. “[T]he crisis of absentee fathers, the rise of black-on-black crime, and the spread of hip hop all led Cosby to believe that, after the achievements of the 1960’s, the black community was committing suicide.” (The Pound Cake Speech) But, Coates continues, “Black conservatives have been dipping into this well of lost black honor since the turn of the 20th century.” And “Part of what drives Cosby’s activism, and reinforces his message, is the rage that lives in all African Americans, a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred.”
Year Two begins at the Aspen Ideas Festival in the summer of 2008. “That summer Barack Obama closed out the Democratic primary and closed in on history.” “It is not so much that I logically reasoned out that Obama would author a post-racist age. But it now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of America’s history, might well be banished in my lifetime.” “And if we had misjudged America’s support for a black man running to occupy the White House, perhaps we had misjudged the nature of my country.” Coates was hired by The Atlantic to write about Michelle Obama. “The fact of Barack Obama, of Michelle Obama, changed our lives. Their very existence opened a market. I felt that I had changed, but the world was changing around me.” His article American Girl is included in this section. He describes a luxurious steak dinner enjoyed with Kenyatta (his love) after he receives a fellowship in California. “We drove to a fancy steak house and ordered every course from aperitif to digestif, and we did this in that magical time when we were still barbarians, still hood, still savage and proud to be savage.”
Year Three “I have often wondered how I missed the coming tragedy. It is not so much that I should have predicted that Americans would elect Donald Trump. It’s just that I shouldn’t have put it past us.” “And so we saw postcards with watermelons on the White House lawn. We saw simian caricatures of the First Family. The invocation of a “food stamp president” and his anticolonial Islamist agenda. Those were the fetishes that gathered the tribe of white supremacy.”
Year Four “Any fair consideration of the depth and width of enslavement tempts insanity.” “To consider all this, to empathize on any human level with the lynched and the raped, and then to watch all the beneficiaries just going on with their heedless lives, could fill you with the most awful rage.” All I know is that even now, with outrages compiling daily, with the suicidal wish of whiteness on full display, with the impulse to burn down the country if the country can’t dream itself white, I am hoping that I am somehow unnecessarily bleak.” Coates’ essay on Malcolm X follows this introduction.
Year 5 “There was a time when I believed in the arc of cosmic justice, that good acts were rewarded and bad deeds punished, if not in my lifetime, then in the by-and-by.”
The essay in this section has the title Fear of a Black President.
Year 6 Even liberals believed “something in black culture had gone wrong” but Coates does not accept that argument. He talks here about housing discrimination in America and the ways in which it trapped African Americans who could not, even if they improved through degrees and employment, find a way to leave their neighborhood and that this geographical immobility limited their economic success. In this section he tackles the emotional topic of reparations. The “year” ends with this observation, “But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominately black neighborhoods.”
Year 7 “By the 7th year I felt like I’d figured something out, “The Case for Reparations” was, for me, the settling of an internal argument, the final unraveling of an existential mystery. The American story, which was my story, was not a tale of triumph, but a majestic tragedy.” “Something else had happened in the background. I had met Barack Obama.” His intro here is followed by The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. A paper Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote early in his career figures prominently in this section and shows the way the government came to believe that tough love in prison was the way to fix something that has not, to this day been fixed. In fact new problems, bigger problems followed these policies. Yet we adhere to incarceration as a cure to this day. “The emergence of the carceral state has had far-reaching consequences for the economic viability of black families.” He calls prisons “the gray wastes”. He blames both Democrats and Republicans.
Year 8 “ He can’t win. This is what the president of the United States told me when we first spoke about Donald Trump.” “No one – not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods – is coming to save us.” This essay in Year 8 is entitled “My President is Black”.
If you think these few quotes and quick summaries will suffice to provide an experience of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates you would be wrong. There is so much more.