Cover image for We were eight years in power : an American tragedy
Title:
We were eight years in power : an American tragedy
ISBN:
9780399590566
Physical Description:
xvii, 367 pages ; 25 cm
Contents:
Notes from the first year : this is how we lost to the white man -- Notes from the second year : American girl -- Notes from the third year : why do so few blacks study the Civil War? -- Notes from the fourth year : the legacy of Malcolm X -- Notes from the fifth year : fear of a black president -- Notes from the sixth year : the case for reparations -- Notes from the seventh year : the black family in the age of mass incarceration -- Notes from the eighth year : my president was black -- Epilogue.
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Summary:
"'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 examine 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 Coasste'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' own experiences, obsservations, and intellectual development, capped by a bracingly original assessment of the election that fully illuminated the tragedy of the Obama era"--Jacket.
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Summary

Summary

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * In these "urgently relevant essays,"* the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me "reflects on race, Barack Obama's presidency and its jarring aftermath"*--including the election of Donald Trump.

"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.

* Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Praise for We Were Eight Years in Power

"Essential . . . Coates's probing essays about race, politics, and history became necessary ballast for this nation's gravity-defying moment." -- The Boston Globe

"Coates's always sharp commentary is particularly insightful as each day brings a new upset to the cultural and political landscape laid during the term of the nation's first black president. . . . Coates is a crucial voice in the public discussion of race and equality, and readers will be eager for his take on where we stand now and why." -- Booklist (starred review)


Author Notes

Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 30, 1975. He attended Howard University. He is a correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me, which won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 2015 and the 2016 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He was included on Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

National Book Award-winner Coates (Between the World and Me) collects eight essays originally published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, marking roughly the early optimism of Barack Obama's presidency and the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The selection includes blockbusters like "The Case for Reparations" and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," which helped to establish Coates as one of the leading writers on race in America, as well as lesser-known pieces such as his profile of Bill Cosby (written in late 2008, before the reemergence of rape allegations against Cosby) and a piece on Michelle Obama before she became first lady. The essays are prefaced with new introductions that trace the articles from conception to publication and beyond. With hindsight, Coates examines the roots of his ideas ("Had I been wrong?" he writes, questioning his initial optimism about the Obama Administration) and moments of personal history that relay the influence of hip-hop, the books he read, and the blog he maintained on his writing. Though the essays are about a particular period, Coates's themes reflect broader social and political phenomena. It's this timeless timeliness--reminiscent of the work of George Orwell and James Baldwin--that makes Coates worth reading again and again. (Oct.) This review has been corrected; an earlier version said he won the Pulitzer Prize, for which he was nominated; in fact he won the National Book Award. © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* However stunned the nation was to see a Donald Trump presidency follow that of Barack Obama, MacArthur fellow Coates (Between the World and Me, 2015) sees historical parallels that make the severe swing seem more predictable. The Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, with its influx of black legislators and progressive ideals, was followed by a severe backlash comparable to the modern political scene. Coates' collection of his essays from the past decade examine the recurrence of certain themes in the black community, the need for uplift and self-reliance, the debate between liberals and conservatives about the right approach to racism, and the virulent reaction in some quarters to any signs of racial progress. In essays on Bill Cosby, Barack and Michelle Obama, Donald Trump, and others, Coates examines historical patterns. As he charts social changes, Coates also offers a fascinating look at his own transformation as a black man and a writer. Before each essay, Coates provides context in light of recent political developments and concludes with an epilogue on the post-Obama era, noting that the Obama presidency aligned with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, America's preeminent existential crisis. Coates' always sharp commentary is particularly insightful as each day brings a new upset to the cultural and political landscape laid during the term of the nation's first black president. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: National Book Award-winning Coates is a crucial voice in the public discussion of race and equality, and readers will be eager for his take on where we stand now and why.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2017 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (One World, $28.) After his best-selling "Between the World and Me," Coates could have cashed in with a standard miscellany. Instead, this master class in the essay charts his ascension as perhaps the important critic of our time. REVOLUTION SONG: A Story of American Freedom, by Russell Shorto. (Norton, $28.95.) George Washington is the hub of Shorto's book, which artfully weaves together the stories of six individuals from the Revolutionary period to give a sense of how far-reaching a phenomenon the War of Independence was. SCHLESINGER: The Imperial Historian, by Richard Aldous. (Norton, $25.95.) Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. has found in Aldous an agreeably judicious biographer who gracefully balances an appreciation for his subject's talents as a writer of narratives and speeches with an acknowledgment of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide. SMILE, by Roddy Doyle. (Viking, $25.) Doyle's 11th novel is the closest thing he's written to a psychological thriller: The protagonist's life goes off track after a stranger from his past shows up, reminding him of their Catholic school days amid signs of a deeper darkness the narrator refuses to confront. THE IMPOSSIBLE PRESIDENCY: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office, by Jeremi Suri. (Basic, $32.) A historian traces the changing role of the presidency from Washington onward, arguing that as the job has become increasingly complex it now involves more than a single person can handle. SCALIA SPEAKS: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived, by Antonin Scalia. Edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan. (Crown Forum, $30.) This collection of speeches and writing by the famously argumentative Supreme Court justice, who died in February 2016, offers a clear picture of his originalist interpretation of the Constitution. THE THREE LIVES OF JAMES MADISON: Genius, Partisan, President, by Noah Feldman. (Random House, $35.) America's fourth president shifted his political orientation at least three times in his life. Feldman marks the changes in his nuanced portrait of the founding father. THESE POSSIBLE LIVES, by Fleur Jaeggy. Translated by Minna Zallmann Proctor. (New Directions, paper, $12.95.) A Swiss-Italian writer presents short impressionistic takes on Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and the French Symbolist Marcel Schwob. FRIENDS DIVIDED: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, by Gordon S. Wood. (Penguin Press, $35.) Wood traces the long, fraught ties between the second and third presidents, and sides almost reluctantly with Jefferson in their philosophical smack-down. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web: nytimes.com/books


Kirkus Review

Biting cultural and political analysis from the award-winning journalist.Coates (Between the World and Me, 2015, etc.), a MacArthur Fellow and winner of the National Book Award and Kirkus Prize, reflects on race, Barack Obama's presidency and its jarring aftermath, and his own evolution as a writer in eight stunningly incisive essays, most of which were published in the Atlantic, where he is national correspondent. He contextualizes each piece with candid personal revelations, making the volume a melding of memoir and critique. The opening essay focuses on Bill Cosby's famous effort to shake black men "out of the torpor that has left so many of themundereducated, over-incarcerated, and underrepresented in the ranks of active fathers." Cosby's black conservatism, writes the author, reflected "a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred." Obama's ascent, though, felt like "the wind shifting," and it coincided with Coates' visibility as a writer. After writing a profile of Michelle Obama ("American Girl"), he started a blog that came to the Atlantic's attention and soon joined the magazine. After "Fear of a Black President" won a National Magazine Award in 2012, Coates was sought out as a public intellectual for his insights about race. His conclusions are disquieting, his writing passionate, his tenor often angry: "white supremacy," he argues, "was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child's lifetime, or perhaps ever." He considers "The Case for Reparations" to be "the best piece in this volume to my mind," but surely "My President is Black," his assessment of Obama ("he walked on ice and never fell") and crude, boorish Trump, is a close contender. Coates considers bigotry to be the deciding factor in Trump's appeal. "It is almost as if the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted Trump personally," and he unleashed violent resentment among his supporters. Although Coates subtitles the book "An American Tragedy," he allows a ray of hope for "a resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil." Emotionally charged, deftly crafted, and urgently relevant essays. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

Whether eliciting vigorous nodding or contentious head-shaking, Coates will make readers think deeply. Eight previously published essays-all in The Atlantic, where Coates is national correspondent-are compiled here with contextual (even apocryphal) introductions. While the eight years align with President Obama's terms, the title originates from the Reconstruction-era regret over severed racial progress; history repeats as Coates confronts and exposes-through a complex, sharpened racial lens-failure (including his own), white supremacy, "white innocence," reparations, incarceration, and, yes, Obama and his legacy. Coates's epilog proves especially chilling. Unfortunately, narrator Beresford Bennett's inappropriately exaggerated accents and his repeatedly affected pauses ("in three decades," for example, becomes "in, three, decades") are distracting annoyances best avoided. VERDICT Opportunities for such essential intellectual engagement are rare; despite the less-than-ideal aural presentation, libraries should consider providing all formats to ensure maximum access. ["A timely collection that challenges us to take an honest accounting of our collective past": LJ 11/15/17 review of the One World hc.]-Terry Hong, Smithsonian -BookDragon, -Washington, DC © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter 1 Notes from the First Year - This story began, as all writing must, in failure. It was February 2007. I was seated in a state office building on 125th Street, not far from the Jamaican patty joint, not far from the fried fish spot, both of which I put to so much injudicious use in those days of conspicuous failure. I was thirty-one years old. I was living in Harlem with my partner, Kenyatta, and our son, Samori, both named for African anti-colonialists, of consecutive centuries. The names reflected a household ostensibly committed to the dream of pan-Africa, to the notion that black people here and there are united with black people then and now in a grand operatic struggle. This idea was the deep subtext of our lives. It had to be. The visible text was survivalist. I had just lost my third job in seven years and so I'd come to that state office building for a brief seminar on work, responsibility, and the need to stay off the dole. "The dole" was small, time-limited, and humiliating to access. How anyone could enjoy or accustom themselves to it was beyond me. But the ghost of welfare reform past was strong and haunted the halls of unemployment offices everywhere. There in a classroom, amid a cohort of presumed losers and layabouts, I took my lessons in the great sin of idleness. The venue at least felt appropriate; the classroom had always been the site of my most indelible failures and losses. In the classrooms of my youth, I was forever a "conduct" problem, forever in need of "improvement," forever failing to "work up to potential." I wondered then if something was wrong with me, if there was some sort of brain damage that compelled me to color outside the lines. I'd felt like a failure all of my life--stumbling out of middle school, kicked out of high school, dropping out of college. I had learned to tread in this always troubled water. But now I felt myself drowning, and now I knew I would not drown alone. Kenyatta and I had been together for nine years, and during that time I had never been able to consistently contribute a significant income. I was a writer and felt myself part of a tradition stretching back to a time when reading and writing were, for black people, the marks of rebellion. I believed, somewhat absurdly, that they still were. And so I derived great meaning from the work of writing. But I could not pay rent with "great meaning." I could not buy groceries with "great meaning." With "great meaning" I overdrew accounts. With "great meaning" I burned through credit cards and summoned the IRS. Wild and unlikely schemes often appeared before me. Maybe I should go to culinary school. Maybe I should be a bartender. I'd considered driving a cab. Kenyatta had a more linear solution: "I think you should spend more time writing." At that moment, in that classroom, going through all the mandated motions, I could not see it. I could not see anything. And like almost every other lesson administered to me in a classroom, I don't remember a single thing said that day. And as with all the other buried traumas accumulated in the classrooms, I did not allow myself to feel the ache of that failure. Instead, I fell back on the old habits and logic of the street, where it was so often necessary to deny humiliation and transmute pain into rage. So I took the agony of that era like a collection notice and hid it away in the upper dresser of the mind, resolved to return to it when I had means to pay. I think now, today, I have settled almost all of those old accounts. But the ache and aftershock of failure remain long after the drawer is bare. I can somehow remember all that I did not allow myself to feel walking away from the unemployment office and through the Harlem streets that day, just as I remember all that I did not let myself feel in those young years trapped between the schools and the street. And I know that there are black boys and black girls out there lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America, some of them treading and some of them drowning, never feeling and never forgetting. The most precious thing I had then is the most precious thing I have now--my own curiosity. That is the thing I knew, even in the classroom, they could not take from me. That is the thing that buoyed me and eventually plucked me from the sea. Like any myth of self-generated success, there is some truth here. But the greater truth is that the wind around me awakened and shifted to blow my small vessel back to civilization. My curiosity had long been focused on the color line, a phenomenon that, in those mid-aughts, seemed in an odd flux. National energies had shifted in the wake of 9/11. The most crucial questions of justice during the Bush years revolved around spying and torture. The old civil rights generation was aging out, and there was a general fatigue, even among black activists, with the paratrooper model of leadership represented by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The choreography had gotten repetitive. Some outrage would be perpetrated. A march would be held. Predictable positions and platitudes exchanged. And the original offense would fade from memory. The outrage was, most often, crucial and very real--the killing of Sean Bell by the NYPD, for instance. But the lack of any substantive action, and, more, the fact that the tactics seemed to not have changed in some forty years, made many of us feel that we were not witnessing movement politics so much as a kind of cathartic performance. Outside of the activist community, a different idea was ascendant, the notion that we needed to, somehow, "get past" the "distraction" of racism. There were books lamenting the deployment of the so-called race card and articles asserting the need to "look beyond" race in understanding the perils of the black community. No matter how sincere or disingenuous its expression, there was a palpable hunger for something new. In the same season I found myself in that Harlem unemployment office recounting failures, Barack Obama launched his bid for the presidency. I had never seen a black man like Barack Obama. He talked to white people in a new language--as though he actually trusted them and believed in them. It was not my language. It was not even a language I was much interested in, save to understand how he had come to speak it and its effect on those who heard it. More interesting to me was that he had somehow balanced that language with the language of the South Side. He referred to himself, unambiguously, as a black man. He had married a black woman. It is easy to forget how shocking this was, given the common belief at the time that there was a direct relationship between success and assimilation. The narrative held that successful black men took white wives and crossed over into that arid no-man's land that was not black, though it could never be white. Blackness for such men was not a thing to root yourself in but something to evade and escape. Barack Obama found a third way--a means of communicating his affection for white America without fawning over it. White people were enchanted by him--and those who worked in newsrooms seemed most enchanted of all. This fact changed my life. It was the wind shifting, without which my curiosity would've stayed my own. My contention is that Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms. These writers were talented--but talent is nothing without a field on which to display its gifts. Obama's presence opened a new field for writers, and what began as curiosity about the man himself eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home and all the old, fitfully slumbering questions he'd awakened about American identity. I was one of those writers. And though I could not see it then, making that doleful trek home from the unemployment office, back from the classroom, back across 125th Street, the wind was waking all around me. I had, in my last job, taken an interest in Bill Cosby, who also, it seemed, felt the call for something new. He was then touring the country's inner cities, intent on convincing his people to stop "blaming the white man." The barnstorming began seemingly on impulse, initiated by the response to Cosby's infamous Pound Cake speech. In 2004, Cosby rose to the podium to speak, ostensibly to mark the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation, at an event sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The NAACP LDF made its name by appealing to the courts to hold the country accountable for the myriad ways Jim Crow plundered black life. But when Cosby took the stage, he was set on holding not the plunderer but the plundered accountable. He inveighed against "the lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people" for not holding up their end of the civil rights bargain. He attacked black youth for obsessing over "$500 sneakers." He mocked black parents for giving their children names like "Shaniqua and Mohammed." He fumed at black women for loose morality. I objected to this characterization and wrote about it in The Village Voice--another job I'd lose--shortly after he made the speech. But as it happened, some portion of "the lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people" actually agreed with Cosby. I know this because I saw Cosby take the message to them directly. He dubbed these sessions "call-outs." Typically, Cosby would assemble local officials--school principals, judges, parole officers, heads of community colleges--and put them onstage. He'd invite various "at-risk youth" to the event. The officials would then do their own version of the Pound Cake speech. The audience would cheer wildly. The spirit was one part Uncle Ruckus and one part Les Brown. It was flagellation. It was revival. But most of all it was nostalgia--a hunger for the uncomplicated time when all black men worked hard, all black women were virtuous, and all black parents, collectively, whipped each other's kids. I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past, that as sure as the black nationalist dreams of a sublime Africa before the white man's corruption, so did Thomas Jefferson dream of an idyllic Britain before the Normans, so do all of us dream of some other time when things were so simple. I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy. Cosby's call-outs also engendered much cheering from white pundits. This was not surprising or interesting--the call-outs made no demands on the white conscience, so there was nothing shocking about white people cheering him on. But the hunger for a noble past, the current of black nostalgia, fascinated me because the black past was, to my mind, not even a useful mine for nostalgia; it was segregation and slavery. And my fascination extended to Cosby himself. He was not a conservative in our binary sense of electoral politics. If Cosby was mostly conflated with the affable "Dr. Huxtable" he played on The Cosby Show, the bourgeois façade of his most famous role obscured Cosby's sense of himself as a race man. He had supported the anti-apartheid struggle, donated to HBCUs, backed black leaders like Jesse Jackson and organizations like TransAfrica. He seemed to be reviving a race-based black conservatism that had no real home in America's left-right politics but deep roots in the black community. I thought I had a story to tell about all of this--a big one. I saw Cosby as emblematic of a strain of black thought that I disagreed with but wanted to understand. I wanted to draw this out with a mix of portraiture, opinion, and memoir. The essay that came from that--"This Is How We Lost to the White Man"--is an attempt to achieve that mix, if an ultimately unsuccessful one. But the attention it garnered and the relationship it began with The Atlantic marked the first period in my life where I was stable enough to make more attempts and thus fulfill my own dream of walking the same path as my heroes, of Baldwin, or Hurston. And like them, I sought with "This Is How We Lost" to find my own way to imagine black people as more than cartoons, as more than photo negatives or shadows. The tradition of black writing is necessarily dyspeptic, necessarily resistant. That tradition was the house in which I wanted to live, and if my residency must be fixed to a certain point in time, I suppose fixing it here, with the publication of this piece, is as good as anywhere. I characterize this as an "attempt" because I felt myself trying to write a feeling, something dreamlike and intangible that lived in my head, and in my head is where at least half of it remained. And there were other challenges, more tangible, that were not met. I don't know if Cosby's call-outs were a cover for the torrent of rape allegations that swirled around him even then. I knew about the allegations. They'd been written about by other journalists. I also know they deserved more than the one line they ultimately occupied in this piece. I had never actually written a story like "This Is How We Lost to the White Man." I had never written for such a prestigious national publication. I had my own fears of failure lingering. Better to tell a neater story, I reasoned, than attempt the messier one and have to contend with editors I did not then know. But the messier one was truer--indeed, the messier one might well have lent explanatory power to the simple story I chose to tell. And so it happened that in an attempt to analyze, in Cosby's movement, the lure of the simplistic, I myself fell prey to it. And there was more to be said than even this that I did not say. There always is when you report and research, when you sit down to write and try to fit all the manifold sentiments you see, hear, and feel into some coherent arrangement of words. That was always the challenge in these years writing for The Atlantic, years that took me, ultimately, out of the unemployment office and into the Oval Office to bear witness to history. For all of that, in every piece in this book there is a story I told and many more I left untold, for better and worse. In the case of Bill Cosby, especially, it was for worse. That was my shame. That was my failure. And that was how this story began. Excerpted from We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


Table of Contents

Introductionp. xiii
1 Notes from the Fifth Yearp. 5
"This is Now We Lost to the White Man"p. 13
2 Notes from the Second Yearp. 35
American Girlp. 45
3 Notes from the Third Yearp. 61
Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?p. 71
4 Notes from the Fourth Yearp. 85
The Legacy of Malcolm Xp. 93
5 Notes from the Fifth Yearp. 109
Fear of a Black Presidentp. 119
6 Notes from the Sixth Yearp. 151
The Case for Reparationsp. 163
7 Notes from the SEVENTH Yearp. 211
The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarcerationp. 223
8 Notes from the Eighth Yearp. 285
My President was Blackp. 291
Epiloguep. 341
Acknowledgmentsp. 369