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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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.
work, on Obama , and his own feelings,, including his work on reparations.
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.
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.
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.
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.