We Were Eight Years In Power

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hardcover, 2017




New York : One World, [2017]


A portrait of the historic Barack Obama era features essays originally published in "The Atlantic," including "Fear of a Black President" and "The Case for Reparations," as well as new essays revisiting each year of the Obama administration.""We were eight years in power" was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. In this sweeping collection of new and selected essays, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America's "first white president." But the story of these present-day eight years is not just about presidential politics. This book also examines the new voices, ideas, and movements for justice that emerged over this period--and the effects of the persistent shadow of our nation's old and unreconciled history. Coates powerfully examines the events of the Obama era from his intimate and revealing perspective--the point of view of a young writer who begins the journey in an unemployment office in Harlem and ends it in the Oval Office, interviewing a president. We Were Eight Years in Power features Coates's iconic essays first published in The Atlantic, including "Fear of a Black President," "The Case for Reparations," and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," along with eight fresh essays that revisit each year of the Obama administration through Coates's own experiences, observations, and intellectual development, capped by a bracingly original assessment of the election that fully illuminated the tragedy of the Obama era."--Dust jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member EBT1002
"I don't ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even in the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me. After all, I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny. And if tragedy is to be proven wrong, if there really is hope out there, I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of it being proven right. No one -- not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods -- is coming to save us. The worst really is possible. My aim is to never be caught, as the rappers say, acting like it can't happen. And my ambition is to write both in defiance of tragedy and in blindness of its possibility, to keep screaming into the waves -- just as my ancestors did."

Thus ends Coates' "Notes on the Eighth Year," the pre-essay for the eighth essay in this amazing collection of essays written over the course of Barack Obama's time in the White House and all published in The Atlantic. That eighth essay, "My President Was Black," is one of my three favorites in the collection. The other two are "The Case for Reparations" from the sixth year and "The First White President" which is actually the epilogue but was also published in The Atlantic after the election of 2016.

The entire collection is breathtaking and my copy is now littered with little post-it flags. Coates provides a pre-essay for each of the published essays. In these, he provides context from his own life at the time of the writing, articulates some of the intent of the essay, and critiques his relative success in light of that context and intent. This approach to the collection works. It provides a taste of memoir to accompany the more academically oriented pieces and enables us to witness Coates' development as an essayist -- or at least his perception of his own development. In the same pre-essay quoted above, he notes that he struggled with balancing his preference for feature writing with the relative ease of essay writing. Indeed, his greatest talent lies in the feature. This requires access to the subject of the writing and Coates never underestimates the gift provided to him by Barack Obama's willingness to sit down with him, to discuss and argue and share his inner thoughts with him. In feature writing, Coates' narrative voice is crystal clear and compelling. His more academic essays (e.g., "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration") are simply excellent and persuasive; his features can make the reader cry.

This collection of essays is not an unfiltered approbation of Barack Obama. Even while Obama was still in office, Coates criticized some of his policy decisions as well as his "respectability politics." Coates fully understands the reasons Obama walked some of the lines he walked but refuses to endorse rhetoric that negates the systemic forces underlying the statistics. Coates is also interested in something larger: the historical and political dynamics that both enabled the election of the first Black president and, from Coates' perspective, ensured the subsequent election of the brashest, most overtly hateful, and least qualified White president ever. His analysis is compelling.

Reading essays is presumably always an exercise in learning. Reading this collection was, for me, transformative. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
This is a collection of Coates' essays published in the Atlantic magazine. There is one from each year during the eight years that president Barack Obama was in power. Many are award-winning. All are eye-opening.

When Coates was a child, he suffered a beating at the hands of gang members. In that moment he had the realization that “Down there on the ground, my head literally being kicked in I understood: No one, not my father, not the cops, and certainly not anyone's God, was coming to save me. The world was brutal... " p. 109

Bill Moyers interview: "Coates says he wrote his book for Prince Jones, a close friend from college who was mistaken for a criminal and killed by police when he was 25 years old. Jones died, Coates says, because 'at the heart of our country is the notion that we are okay with the presumption that black people… somehow have a predisposition toward criminality.'

"When Jones was killed in 2000, there were no cameras. No one saw it. It was 'as though nothing happened,' Coates says. 'As though Prince Jones’s life did not matter at all.' Now that more people are documenting injustices with their cellphones and we are seeing the evidence on TV and on the Internet, he says America is beginning to understand the extent of the racism that black people face every day.

“ 'I’m a black man in America,' Coates says. 'I can’t secure the safety of my son. I can’t go home at night and tell him, ‘It’s ok, you definitely will not end up like Prince Jones.’ I just don’t have that right. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is to say, ‘You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it.'

This was an amazing book by an insightful author. As a white person in a very white, very Republican area of the country, I found it to be quite eye-opening. I think of myself as a middle of the road liberal. This book helped me to see just how white my bubble is.

I read about red-lined areas of cities where it is impossible to obtain loans to buy houses since insurance companies won't underwrite them.

I learned about the wealth gap – if you compare any two white and black families with similar incomes, you'll find that the black family has less in the way of savings and 'accumulated wealth' from centuries of discriminatory laws.

I learned that laws could appear to not discriminate, but do. When Social Security was enacted farm workers and domestic help were not covered, leaving up to 80% of blacks not covered. Such discriminatory laws are still being written. For example, Obama Care the expansion of Medicaid was left to states to choose. The states that chose not to do so, just happen to be the a majority of the south's former slave owning states and the disenfranchised were again the poor blacks.

And I finally understand the case for black reparations. As Coates has said, if you stop beating a man, that is good. But the man has suffered irreparable damages from the years of beatings. Is it possible for the US to do reparations? Does it have the will to do it? I am extremely doubtful that it will occur, but I am thankful for now understanding the case behind it.

Definitely recommended. 5 stars.
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LibraryThing member kidzdoc
This is an excellent compilation of the best articles from The Atlantic Magazine written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the leading black journalists and public intellectuals, whose previous book "Between the World and Me" won the National Book Award for Non-fiction in 2015. These hard hitting and insightful articles were written during the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency, and include an analysis of the conservatism of Bill Cosby; an examination of Michelle Obama during her first years as First Lady of the United States; a review of Manning Marable's award winning but controversial biography of Malcolm X; the most compelling case for reparations that I have ever read; the devastating effect that mass incarceration has had on the African American community; and a critical analysis of the Obama presidency. It closes with an epilogue about Donald Trump, who Coates describes as "the first white president", and the virulent racism and hatred of Obama that led to his "victory" in the 2016 presidential election. Coates's growth as a writer is evident in these articles, as his analytic ability and the sharpness of his pen increase with each subsequent article. This is essential reading for woke folks, and for anyone interested in how we arrived at this sordid and dark place in American history.… (more)
LibraryThing member jess_reads
WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER revisits the best of Coates's writing in The Atlantic from the past 8 years - one for every year of Barack Obama's presidency - in the context of today. Coates doesn't mince words; we are living in a racist, imperfect time and there's no guarantee America will see that end in any of our lifetimes. President Obama's election couldn't change it, and now the country has embraced shameless, boldfaced racist rhetoric in direct response to his administration, rather than pretending it doesn't exist. The truth is that America as we know it could not exist without systemic racism built into our laws, into the very founding of the country itself. We have to acknowledge this past in order to start any reasonable discussion of racism today.

This is not a hopeful book. There are no answers within the pages. But if there was ever essential reading, this is a fine place to start.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
Coates provides some of the most powerful commentary on the Obama years that captures how race impact the presidency and how the black community was impacted by Obama both symbolically and practically. I appreciate Coates's analysis of Obama - he often doesn't praise the former president, often he disagrees outright, and he always digs into the deeper layers of Obama's background and politics. I also enjoyed the notes added to each essay in this volume, explaining some of the background of each piece, learning about the author's approach to writing, and the interesting tidbits that didn't make it into the pieces officially published in the Atlantic.… (more)
LibraryThing member deusvitae
TNC's reflections and meditations on life during the Obama presidency along with his compelling longform articles from The Atlantic during this period.

TNC derives the title from the experience of black Americans in the South during Reconstruction, one of whom spoke of being in power eight years before Reconstruction collapsed and white supremacy was re-established. He has a series of reflections on each year of the Obama presidency, providing his first person narration of the arc of his own career and life as it aligned with national events. After the reflection comes one of the articles: on Bill Cosby, on Michelle Obama, on Obama as a black president, his case for reparations, the black family in the age of mass incarceration, and his interviews with Obama toward the end of his tenure, and others.

In the epilogue TNC attempts most fully and forcefully to come to terms with the election of Trump; he makes a powerful case, however inconvenient to modern sensibilities on both sides of the aisle, that white supremacy is the evidence-based explanation for both Trump's candidacy and victory.

TNC writes in his usual no-holds-barred yet personal style. A compelling book which will no doubt inform the national dialogue, at least to some extent, about what happened in 2008-2016 and the way forward.

**--galley received as part of early review program.
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LibraryThing member adaorhell
Less horrific nihilism and just-kill-yourself feeling than “The World” - and dare i say a bit more nuance. Ta is not a man I think i would ever want to sit next to at a party - his books always make me want to jump off a bridge lest a cop kill me first - but i will continue to faithfully buy them and read them and lend them to my friends.… (more)
LibraryThing member Well-ReadNeck
I am a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates and have recommended Between the World and Me countless times. This collection contains 16 pieces of his political commentary that correspond to each year of the Obama presidency (2 each). While I appreciate his work and insight, I found this a bit hard to follow, I constantly needed to remind myself about the year in which he was writing and there were moments that his reflections on the pieces he wrote reflecting on what was going on became just too meta for me. Recommended primarily for audiences of Coates' work and for those interested in political essays.

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
We Were Eight Years in Power collects eight of Coates's essays originally published in The Atlantic--one from each year of Barack Obama's presidency--as well as an introduction, a reflection on each essay written for the collection, and an epilogue, written after the 2016 election. The essays are all about race, and a few of them are also about the Obamas specifically. This collection is required reading for any American who wants to understand where we are as a country and work to get to some reckoning with why. I found the pieces about the Civil War, reparations, mass incarceration, and the ascent of our 45th president particularly compelling and convicting. This is a hard read but a desperately necessary one. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Collection of Coates’ essays over the past few years, with some introductory notes. He’s a great writer and everyone should read his article on reparations (and the intro note here is especially interesting, given what he says about the lack of nobility in being a victim, the inapplicability of moral desert in claims for reparations for wrongs done to a group, and his own lack of knowledge about the Israeli/Palestinian situation, to which he made comparisons in the initial essay). His basic message: “To be black in America was to be plundered. To be white was to benefit from, and at times directly execute, this plunder.” In some ways, his most powerful insight is that what white people fear most isn’t black criminality, but “black respectability, Good Negro Government,” because it might actually empower black people; this prospect is what triggers backlash, so no amount of individual uprightness will overcome white supremacy. Good Negro Government was what Trump has set out to erase, far too successfully. Obama’s ultimate failure to anticipate just how racist so many whites could be, Coates argues, stemmed from his bone-deep acceptance of a narrative of white benficience and innocence unavailable to most African-Americans. “The first white people he ever knew, the ones who raised him, were decent in a way that very few black people of that era experienced.” As Coates points out, at the time his parents had him, in large parts of the country, the sex that produced Obama wasn’t just illegal, it would have put his father in mortal danger.

Coates also has an essay about Bill Cosby’s conservatism—he says in the intro that ignoring the rape allegations was the biggest failing—discussing how the diagnosis of the failed black family has persisted for over a hundred years, even as today’s conservatives appeal to a fabled glorious past. The essay about the black family in the age of mass incarceration makes clear that the plunder is viciously ongoing—just for example, as the sanctions for having a criminal record increase along with the likelihood of criminal encounters for young African-Americans, the rate of successful completion of parole has fallen by half in recent years. As he points out in that essay, “the world of the black middle class is—because of policy—significantly poorer [than that of the white middle class]. Thus to wonder about the difference in outcomes … is really to wonder about the difference in weight between humans living on the Earth and humans living on the moon.”

Coates is ambivalent about his writing’s appeal to white audiences like me, and he’s not hopeful, but he’s always worth reading.
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LibraryThing member maryzee
Excellent book, terrible reader.
LibraryThing member LinzFG
A wonderful read. If you're looking for an answer to 'how did we get here?' in the age of Trump, this is the book you're looking for.
LibraryThing member annbury
much better than Between the world and me, this book of essays includes some of his best
work, on Obama , and his own feelings,, including his work on reparations.
LibraryThing member m.belljackson
It's not great foreshadowing when you don't agree at all with the opening premise
that the author uses to draw readers in: "This story began, as all writing must, in failure."

I was hoping, if not for humor, at least some irony.

Given the overall positive LT reception for Eight Years, my concentration will be on improvements.
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LibraryThing member lostinalibrary
We Were Eight Years in Power collects eight essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, one for each year that Barack Obama was in power. The essays were originally printed in The Atlantic and each is introduced by Coates' later reflections on how he feels about the issues since the election of Trump. The title itself was taken from the words ofThomas Miller, a Black man elected to the South Carolina House during Reconstruction, another period when it seemed Black people could succeed in US society only to have this early experiment in integration quickly snatched away by racism. The essays cover many topics including slavery, Jim Crow, the effects of gentrification and mass incarceration on the Black population, and the Black Conservatism of Bill Cosby. They are all well-written, well-documented, insightful, informative, and clear and they pack a real punch.

I was first granted access to this book back in 2017 from Netgalley and the publishers. At the time, although I read it immediately, no matter how many times I tried I couldn't seem to write a review and eventually gave up. However, in this era of Trump and the rise of white nationalism throughout the west including in Canada, I decided to read it again This is the kind of book that should be read by anyone who cares how we got to this sorry pass and where we may be heading in the future and I recommend it highly.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Essays aren't really my thing, and political essays are definitely not, so this wasn't the best choice for me.

We Were Eight Years in Power is collection of essays Coates wrote, one from each year of the Obama presidency, a time which paralleled Coates's own rise from novice columnist to acclaimed and authoritative author. Not every essay in this collection is political, but many of them are. Coates is a tremendous writer regardless of the topic he tackles, but he best holds my attention when the subject is more societal or historical.

As a complete collection, We Were Eight Years in Power is a bit too wandering and repetitive. This is like an album which purports to be a collection of the artists “most loved songs,” but leaves out some of the true “greatest hits.” A thoughtful collection overall, but one best suited for lovers of government.
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LibraryThing member Smokler
Yes, these pieces have all been published before. Yes, if you read The Atlantic (or twitter) very little here is new except Ta-Nehisi Coates's introductions to each essay. And yet the overall effect of recognizing that America has both built racism into its foundation and in fact nothing may be more American than calling it to account for that is an idea that has changed me fundamentally. Sadly, tragically but for the better. I owe this book and Ta-Nehisi Coates a boundless doubt of gratitude for that wisdom.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sara_Cat
This book was hard for me to personally get through. In part because of the topic and in part because each essay is very dense - though this is not a bad thing. But, it did mean I needed to stop somewhat frequently to give my brain time to digest what I had read. Though, since there were also points and specifics within the book that I had not heard about before there are undoubtedly parts of the book that I did not fully absorb with a single reading.

I think the format of the book really helped me to read through to the end because there were clear places I could pause to think. I also liked that he added notes before each essay where he in part reflected on what he had written in the past. Seeing this self reflection and acknowledgement of things that, after time has passed, he sees could be improved, shows a writer who will surely continue to improve.

I definitely want to read more of his work, especially things published after this book, but probably things published before as well.
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LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
This is a powerful and timely book. The last three essays are the best and most worth reading. "The First White President" is crucial in its grounding of Trump's election in racism and white supremacy.
LibraryThing member KimMeyer
Coates at his best. This collection of previously published essays with additional context comments for this book showcases his ability to integrate his own viewpoints, clearly defining the direction of his work, with a wide ranging overview of the issues and the people involved. This collection is largely about the presidency of Obama, but it's really about race and power, from the educational system to mass incarceration. (I read this way after publication, bur received an advance copy from #netgalley)… (more)



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