A Review of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
(New York: One World, 2017), 400 pages.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic during the two terms of President Barack Obama. The work includes eight essays-one selection from each year of the Obama Administration-that grapple with race, identity, America's history of racist public policies, and the symbolic and practical nature of America's first black president. The work culminates in an epilogue that builds on the collection to explain how Barack Obama's presidency resulted in the election of Donald Trump.
Coates precedes each essay with an autobiographical musing on the context in which it was written. These precursors serve to tie the essays together in addition to a more powerful purpose: they allow the reader to recall their own experience with Obama's presidency. The reader is likely to empathize with Coates' feelings of astonishment and excitement following the election of Obama, as well as the despair he felt following the 2016 election. This does not make the substantial content that follows easier to read, but it does make the already compelling content even more potent. The reader thus has as much of a stake in the content as in the future of America.
Coates argues that focusing on rising-tide policies and twice-as-good rhetoric to advance African Americans' place in society strengthens white supremacy and results in policies that inefficiently address race. In introducing this argument, as well as the origin of the book's title, Coates refers to a speech given by black reconstruction-era legislator Thomas Miller, in which he described how after eight years of rebuilding South Carolina along the lines of equality, power was seized by those seeking to restore white supremacy. Coates equates Miller's experience with Obama's, writing that "Good Negro Government-personal and political-augments the very white supremacy that it seeks to combat because it requires denying that racism and white supremacy are in fact relevant forces in American life." (1) Coates contends that the election of President Trump following Obama may be explained by this notion and that fear of black respectability gave President Trump's symbols of racism the power they needed to succeed.
The first and fourth essays focus on an idea stemming from black conservatism: that black males are at fault...