Anti-racism protests have swept the globe, and the response has been unlike anything we’ve seen before. Many of the quarantined residents of the United States have taken the opportunity to reflect on the history and present realities of racism in our country. It’s too early to know where this will take us, but a critical mass of white Americans are in a moment of reckoning.
The issues are deep and complex, but one small way people have approached the moment is by reading books focused on racism. So, I thought I would do my small part by sharing books which can help us all to understand racism just a little more. Two weeks ago I wrote about The Cross and The Lynching Tree by Dr. James Cone. Today, I chose We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Coates has devoted much of his creative work to the topic of racism in the United States, so reading anything by him would be a great start. He has many thought-provoking articles in The Atlantic (only some of which are featured in We Were Eight Years In Power) and his 2015 book Between the World and Me is what launched Coates into the notoriety he holds today, but We Were Eight Years In Power brings something special to this moment.
If there is one unifying focus throughout We Were Eight Years In Power it is to understand and reflect upon the 8 years of Obama’s presidency, but there is more to this book. Coates does not stop at the surface. Truly understanding those 8 years of American history requires diving into the larger context of Michelle, Barack, and the worlds they operated in – leaving the reader with a better understanding of who we are as a country and the interwoven cultural and historical forces that are still at play today.
The basic structure of the book is simple. Beyond the intro and epilogue, there are 8 sections – representing each of Obama’s 8 years as president. Then, for each year Coates includes an original essay titled “Notes From the _th Year” followed by a selected essay Coates published in The Atlantic that same year. So, even if you don’t have the opportunity to buy this book, I’ve included links to all of his previously published essays in The Atlantic that also make their way into We Were Eight Years In Power.
When I bought this book, I was expecting a cerebral, distanced, look at the United States and the policies of Obama. To be sure, the book does give some of that, but We Were Eight Years In Power is as much about Coates’s own personal and professional development during the age of Obama as it is on his intellectual insight and critique.
One part that I loved (and did not expect) is Coates’s focus on his own creative development throughout each of the 8 years. Coates speaks openly about the influence of Hip-Hop on his writing and his struggle to bring the “music” in his head onto the page is touched on throughout. In addition, Coates regularly explores his struggle to find his place in the larger Black American literary tradition. At the outset, he sees himself connected to previous writers who “screamed into the waves” – defiantly writing truth in a racist America, but never achieving popularity or changing many minds because of that commitment to truth. However, Obama’s election opened up a wide range of unseen opportunities for black writers and Coates becomes incredibly popular.
Coates’s intellectual observations are the primary reason why I recommend reading it, but these moments of personal narrative give the book its heart. Furthermore, connecting each section through this chronological arc provides an opportunity to reflect on Coates’s ideological growth.
From the start, Coates is inherently skeptical of the relatively conservative Obama, but without being “converted” over to some pro-Obama camp, Coates comes out of this book seeming to appreciate Barack for his strengths and weaknesses at a nuanced level.
To understand this book, however, it’s worth remembering that it was published in the fall of 2017. Many of the messages in this book are inseparable from the national psyche surrounding Trump’s election and early presidency. Everyone was trying to understand “How?!”
There was (and still is) a cottage industry designated to help us “understand Trump”. To give you one example, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? was published only 1 month before We Were Eight Years In Power. In many ways, We Were Eight Years In Power is also an “understand Trump” book, but Coates responded with one glaring critique to all the other writers and pundits: Before anything else, Trump’s political career began – and continues to be – a racist response to the first black president.
To quote Coates’s final essay, “The First White President”,
It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man – no matter how fallen – can be president.”“The First White President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
The tagline of Coates’s Atlantic article reads, “The foundation of Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.” The two of them are far more connected than we often admit, and understanding their relationship is a first step in understanding our country and our legacy.
In a post-Charolette, post-George Floyd United States we may finally be turning around to understanding the importance of racism to Trump, but Coates’s message to remember racism is needed more than ever.
In summary, We Were Eight Years in Power is thoughtful, deep, incredibly personal, and it embodies the “how the hell did this happen?” energies of the early Trump years, but it also challenges us to think historically about racism and approach aspects of Black culture and history such as Malcolm X, the Obamas, and the South Side of Chicago in ways that most white Americans don’t sufficiently understand.
You should read it if you get the chance.
A Break Down of Each Section
Coates begins his book with an intro essay titled, “Regarding Good Negro Government”, setting the stage for the parallel observation of Obama’s presidency and Trump with post-Civil War Reconstruction and the emergence of “Southern Redemption” that followed.
After the Civil War, many majority black and multi-racial coalitions took power in the South and made significant progress in leading their states forward from the devastation of war. But however good those black and multi-racial governments may have been, they eventually fell to white supremacy. The success of black and multiracial coalitions spits in the face of white supremacy and its dominant assumptions. To paraphrase Coates, “the only thing that scared people more than bad negro government was good negro government”.
In this way, “Regarding Good Negro Government” sets the stage for We Were Eight Years In Power and is key to Coates’s understanding of both Obama and Trump. However, in addition to providing the rich historical parallel, the introduction prepares us to spend much of the book looking back throughout American history.
The 1st Year
After Coates’s “Notes From the 1st Year” he chooses to include his Atlantic article, “‘This is How We Lost to the White Man’: The Audacity fo Bill Cosby’s Black Conservatism”.
At first glance, this first selection seems far off from the Obama’s or Reconstruction, but this dive into Cosby takes us into a very important conservative cultural dynamic which proves key to Coates’s later analysis of Obama. Believe it or not, set next to the other essays in this book, “This Is How We Lost to the White Man” can help the reader to understand figures like Malcolm X and larger aspects of the black cultural environment in which Obama has come out of.
Ultimately, Coates sees a lot of positive attributes in Malcolm and eventually Obama, but If you can’t tell by the word “Audacity”, Coates frequently finds himself on the other side of arguments with such “Black Conservatism” and he doesn’t hold back in this first essay.
The 2nd Year
After Coates’s “Notes From the 2nd Year,” he includes a bio he wrote for Michelle Obama during the early stages of the first presidential campaign, “American Girl”. However, this essay lays the groundwork for another important lens Coates uses to understand Barack, the South Side of Chicago.
Although this essay looks particularly at Michelle’s roots in the South Side, the traditions and uniqueness of this community play another key role in Coates’s understanding of Barack’s rise to the presidency and he references the South Side throughout the book. To Coates, Obama’s rise to become “the first black president” was as much about the South Side community he rooted himself in as it was about his own personal achievement and unique multi-racial background.
The first black congressmen elected in the twentieth century were South Siders Oscar De Priest and his successor Arthur Mitchell. For years, they were the only black congressmen.
The only two serious African American presidential campaigns – those of Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama – came out of the South Side.
Indeed, Barack Obama, Louis Farrakhan, and Jesse Jackson all lived or worked within a ten-minute drive of each other.American Girl, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
The 3rd Year
After “Notes From The 3rd Year,” Coates selects “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War” for that year’s essay. In addition to taking a deep and serious look at our history and shining more light on the context of reconstruction, this one is emotionally POWERFUL.
I grew up in a world that may have considered the confederacy “bad,” but shied away from the grand Tolkien-esque narratives of “Good vs. Evil” that we ascribe to WWII. Coates delivers that narrative in “Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War” and it stirred my soul.
The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that would avoid what professional historians now know to be true:
that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stropped them.“Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
But despite the “Good vs. Evil” sentiments, Coates doesn’t shy away from criticizing the North as well.
… For the blameless North, it throws up the failed legacy of appeasement of slaveholders, the craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people, and the unwillingness, in the Reconstruction years, to finish what the war started.“Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
By the end of this essay, Coates paints a picture of the American Civil War that mirrors popular perceptions of the American Revolutionary War, and he includes quotes by Frederick Douglas to give it that weight of importance.
It was a great thing to achieve American independence when we numbered three millions. But it was a greater thing to save this country from dismemberment and ruin when it numbered thirty millions.Frederick Douglas
In our contemporary context, this essay contributes a lot to the conversation on confederate flags and statues, but it also offers a historical perspective on the current protests and the more violent aspects that have attracted headlines.
For realists, the true story of the Civil War illuminates the problem of ostensibly sober-minded compromise with powerful, and intractable, evil.
For radicals, the wave of white terrorism that followed the war offers lessons on the price of revolutionary change.
White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.“Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
The 4th Year
After “Notes From The 4th Year,” Coates chooses “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives on In Barack Obama” as that year’s essay. It is easy to reduce Malcolm into a caricature in perpetual debate with another caricature of MLK, but there is more under the surface.
I’ve studied Malcolm X before, but “The Legacy of Malcolm X” may still be the essay I learned the most from in We Were Eight Years In Power. It helped me to build a bigger picture of Malcolm, Obama, black conservatism, and even the concept of black excellence.
Coates’s view of Barack still has another 4 years to develop, but this essay is a crucial “starting point” to that understanding. Coates will never ignore the policy failures that he saw in Obama, but the biggest success Coates saw in the first family was their accomplishment for black excellence and culture.
The 5th Year
After “Notes From The 5th Year” Coates chooses “Fear of a Black President”, and the spirit of this essay can be found in one quote:
(The Obama-era) A time marked by a revolution that must never announce itself, by a democracy that must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped by it.
Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.“Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
Here is where I think Coates’s critiques of Obama’s conservatism and policy first become most nuanced. To a liberal looking back, it is easy to point at moments when Obama shied away from using his bully pulpit to address racism. However, It seems that on every occasion Obama said something to remind us of his blackness, all hell broke loose – and attention turned away from his policy agenda.
During one such controversy, Obama said this to Coates,
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed… but nobody’s been paying much attention to health care”“Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
The truth is, Obama did a lot to try and hide his blackness because of the “problems” it would create for his work. I’ve talked in another post about Obama’s affinity toward the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and this is a place where it really shines through.
To give you a sense of Niebuhr, here is a quote of Obama referring to his work in a New York Times Article.
“I take away… the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.
I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”“Obama, Gospel and Verse“, Opinion Piece by David Brooks, The New York Times
Obama strived for that perfect balance between naïve idealism and bitter realism, and this tight rope was extended to how he addressed race as president.
Obama fully understood the restraints of racism in the United States. Yet, within those restraints, Obama was most concerned with affecting as much practical change as was possible; he chose to make sacrifices. At times, Obama avoided race in hopes of holding together a winning political coalition in a majority white country.
But to Coates, this tightrope walk of avoiding blackness finally sees its glaring limitations at the levels of the presidency. Obama may have been the best at it, but that tactic was never enough.
Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed.
This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.“Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
The 6th Year
The 6th year is an important year. This year marks the moment when things begin coming together for Coates and his art. In earlier years, he blogs and reads to challenge himself and master his craft, and up until this point, Coates critiques the execution of each selected essay. He was always in the process of better translating the music in his head to words on a page, but his 6th year essay, “A Case for Reparations” marks the first moment he feels he did it right.
“A Case for Reparations” is a powerful essay. I read it a few years ago as part of a poli-sci class and it’s changed my thinking ever since. If you get the chance, definitely read it at The Atlantic. But for now, I’d like to take this section to focus on the important personal dynamics that Coates explores in Year 6.
Creatively, all the pieces come together when he writes “A Case for Reparations”, and the article accelerates his career to what it is now. In addition, his newfound popularity puts Coates’s career on Obama’s radar like never before – setting up a new stage in their relationship.
Coates had always publicly disagreed with Obama, but now, Coates was notable enough that Obama (the former law professor that he was) began inviting Coates to the Oval Office for private face-to-face debates. In many ways, “The Case for Reparations” is a response to the politics of evasion and Obama’s tightrope tactics laid out in “Fear of a Black President”. So, it makes sense that Obama felt a need to challenge him.
The 7th Year
After “Notes from the 7th Year” Coates includes “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. Of all the essays in We Were Eight Years In Power, this one may be the most relevant to the ongoing dialogue regarding policing and criminal justice reform. As the title would suggest, this essay is laser-focused on the impact of our “carceral state” and the war on drugs. However, this essay can also serve as the basis for a well deserve liberal response toward the importance of families.
It’s far too often that the influence of healthy and unhealthy families becomes a talking point exclusively touted by conservative voices blaming the black community for their own problems. However, Coates takes a dive into the roll history and government policy actually play in the destruction of black families, causing a negative ripple effect to cripple those communities.
The 8th Year
Finally, Coates finishes the Obama-era with “Notes From the 8th Year” and his essay “My President Was Black”. After eight years of criticizing and seeking to understand Barack Obama, Coates comes out with an appreciative view of the man. Coates never throws on rose-colored glasses and “converts” over to Obama’s world view or politics, but (with Trump’s election looming) Coates takes the time to appreciate just how important Obama was to him and to the country.
Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols.
The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.“My President Was Black”, Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
To top it off, this is the first chapter Coates really dives into the heart of Obama’s biography. Of all the essays, “My President Was Black” taught me the most about Obama’s life and upbringing. It was a heck of a way to close things out.
Epilogue, “The First White President”
Then, you have the epilogue: “The First White President”. Apparently it upset some people when he first published it… I loved it.
At the surface level, “The First White President” zeros in on the unavoidably racist core of Trump as a backlash movement in response to Obama. However, the essay also pushes us to understand often ignored aspects of racism in our country.
Much of the conversation around Trump’s victory focuses on “the white working class” and “elites” ignoring the “common folks” living in the rust belt. But Trump won white people across the board, and other members of the “working class” didn’t turn to him in a similar fashion.
… any empirical evaluation of the relationship between Trump and the white working class would reveal that one adjective in that phrase was doing more work than the other…
Indeed, the plurality of all voters making under $100,000 and the majority making under $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate.
So when Packer (a previously mentioned essayist) laments the fact that “Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people – not white ones, anyway,” he commits a kind of category error.
The real problem is that Democrats aren’t the party of white people – working or otherwise.
White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.“The First White President”, Ta Nehisi Coates (published in The Atlantic)
It’s More Than Content Though, Coates’s Writing is Beautiful.
Simply put, his writing is magnetic.
If there is one thing I love most about reading We Were Eight Years In Power, it comes back to something Coates said about the writing of James Baldwin. During Coates’s “Notes On The 7th Year,” he talks about rereading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
To Coates, Baldwin’s writing had a beauty to it that worked on multiple layers. Baldwin could pull from detailed memoir, provide stunning analysis, and even pull the reader into concrete reportage.
Coates openly decided Baldwin’s blend of style would be his creative north star as he wrote Between the World and Me, but that same style also permeates throughout We Were Eight Years In Power. This is what sucked me in as I read We Were Eight Years In Power.
For the most part, this is where Coates’s “Notes From The _th Year” essays shine. I’m always a big fan of heady essays on politics and history, but Coates’s elements of memoir give the book its soul. Even the heady essays feel personal when they’re woven together with memoir.
Of the three “types” of writing, I’ll admit I’m biased toward the “Stunning Analysis”. I’m the type of guy who likes to read with the primary purpose of learning. For these reasons alone, We Were Eight Years In Power blew me away.
“Stunning Analysis” and “Detailed Memoir” are easy to appreciate, but “Reportage” also plays a crucial role in Coates’s tapestry of words. At the heart of all the big intellectual claims, Coates supports his analysis with specific, concrete, examples of it playing out in individual people’s lives.
Each of these styles (memoir, reportage, and analysis) would be great on their own, or even better place neatly one after the other, but Coates goes beyond this. If Coates hadn’t pointed out these three “styles” in Baldwin’s writing I never would have known to apply them to his. We Were Eight Years In Power wove each element so seamlessly that distinctions blurred and I was left in awe.
Moving Forward and Diving Deeper
It goes without saying that I think y’all should give this book a read, but if you’re looking for something more immediate (or if books aren’t totally your style), I’ve also included a great 34min interview of Coates diving deeper into some themes from We Were Eight Years In Power. Enjoy!
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into other formative books on American Racism, I’ve written similar posts on Dr. James Cone’s ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’ and James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’. In addition, I recommend you check out a Medium article I wrote on Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989).