Ta-Nehisi Coates: We Were Eight Years in Power

A sweeping collection of new and selected essays on the Obama era by the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me

“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. Now 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.

This book is not “for me.” Ta-Nehisi Coates does not write for white people–his audience is for people of color, specifically, black people. And that is okay. That does not make his essays any less necessary for me to read. How else can I become educated on important topics that people of color are speaking on or are upset about, if I don’t pay attention?

When a person on social media tells me to go “get educated,” this is the kind of book they are referring to–Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and other such authors have powerful lessons for us to absorb.

There’s a point in the book where Coates wonders why white people like his writing so much. To say I “like” it might be going too far–but it certainly makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. He makes me ask questions of myself that I would never have felt otherwise. I feel a certain amount of shame, for sure–but I read Coates to find out what I need to do to recover what I have missed and just plain messed up. Coates’ writing is a crucial education to those of us white people who do strive to be better than we were yesterday, and I’m grateful for it.

However, I did not care as much for We Were Eight Years in Power near as I did for Between the World and Me. This one is way more political, obviously, and so it just didn’t interest me. There are still many important thoughts to be gleaned from reading it, but there were also some sections I just skimmed over–for example, the essay on incarceration was filled to the brim with numbers…and I’ve never been great at reading for comprehension when surrounded by statistics.

I still think this is a valuable resource to understand the last 10 years in American political history, especially as it affects people of color. Ta-Nehisi Coates does a great job of laying everything out, no holds barred–I have learned so much from reading his two books.

One World and NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.


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