Published October 2017 by Diversified Publishing
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
“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, haunting 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. We Were Eight Years in Power is a vital account of modern America, from one of the definitive voices of this historic moment.
I'll bet you thought you knew what that title referred to, before you read the summary, didn't you? I did, too. We are only partially right. The title is actually taken from a quote by South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller in 1895:
"We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the dear and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the rode to prosperity."It was Miller's plea to the "fair-minded people of South Carolina to preserve the citizenship rights of African Americans." It didn't work. The white men who had recently fought so hard to preserve slavery were not ready yet to acknowledge the "actual record of Negro government;" that success undermined white supremacy and had to be crushed.
We Were Eight Years In Power is a series of essays, written during the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency, along with a new essay used to introduce each of the previous essays. In the new essays, Coates examines how his own opinions have changed, explains what he was trying to say in those original essays, and sheds even more light on the subjects he covers. It is clear that Coates is a man who is tireless in his desire to learn but willing to admit that his opinions may change and that there are grays areas.
This book is a tough read for a white person. It made me uncomfortable. It sometimes made me defensive. It absolutely opened my eyes and made me rethink things I had taken as truth, from Booker T. Washington to Ken Burns' documentary about the Civil War and revered historian Shelby Foote, from W. E. B. Dubois to Malcolm X, from the reasons black Americans were happy to see a black man elected president to ways that Obama failed them (although Coates does not blame Obama for all of those failures).
I have my copy of this book through Netgalley which means that it will expire in a couple of weeks. It's a book I will likely buy a copy of, a book that I feel I will need to pick up again to reread essays, to continue to think about the things Coates has said. At one point Coates talks about people asking him to be the voice of black people now and how he is not comfortable with some of the things they ask of him. I'm not sure I'm ready to accept him as the only voice of black Americans. But he is certainly an important one, a writer who will have me looking to learn more.