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We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy Hardcover – October 3, 2017
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“Ta-Nehisi Coates has published a collection of the major magazine essays he wrote throughout the Obama years. . . . But Coates adds an unexpected element that renders We Were Eight Years in Power both new and revealing. Interspersed among the essays are introductory personal reflections. . . . Together, these introspections are the inside story of a writer at work, with all the fears, insecurities, influences, insights and blind spots that the craft demands. . . . I would have continued reading Coates during a Hillary Clinton administration, hoping in particular that he’d finally write the great Civil War history already scattered throughout his work. Yet reading him now feels more urgent, with the bar set higher.”—Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
“Essential . . . Coates’s probing essays about race, politics, and history became necessary ballast for this nation’s gravity-defying moment.” —The Boston Globe
“Biting cultural and political analysis from the award-winning journalist . . . [Ta-Nehisi Coates] reflects on race, Barack Obama’s presidency and its jarring aftermath, and his own evolution as a writer in eight stunningly incisive essays. . . . He contextualizes each piece with candid personal revelations, making the volume a melding of memoir and critique. . . . Emotionally charged, deftly crafted, and urgently relevant.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Coates’s 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. . . . 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. . . . 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)
“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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His book Between the World and Me won the National Book Award in 2015. Coates is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.
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All the essays are solid, and both enlightening and deeply thought-provoking. Some of the essays stand up better than others. But even when the essay is not one of Coates's best--e.g. the essay on Michelle Obama ("American Girl")--the fact that Coates foregrounds and frames the individual essays with an incisive, recent introductory 'Notes' section both puts each essay in perspective and ties the collection together.
There is nothing in here that is not worth reading and thinking hard about. (I mean that; it's not a throwaway line.) Coates thinks more deeply and writes more clearly about the national tragedy and disgrace that is our collective failure to confront the history and legacy of White Supremacy than just about anyone. Anyone who hopes to understand the roots of the current Confederate statue removal fights and to see why--yes--this is an issue that is hugely consequential needs to read "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War." (Pair it with SLAVERY'S CAPITALISM if you can; the result is, in a word, stunning.). "Fear of a Black President" is also powerful, and disquieting.
I have used "The Case for Reparations" in several (different) college classes. Watching the students 'get it' and respond just doesn't get old. It has been life-changing for some of them.
I recommend this collection. In fact, I can't recommend it highly enough.
My "review" is surely more a screed - but I am not the right reader to calmly break down his contents and approach them as "chapters" and "arguments." This book caused a gut reaction less than rational - mostly because I feel so powerless.
I had read most of these essays before and had generally agreed with a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates' observations in a theoretical "you tell 'em!" sense - but seeing them all in one package, especially in the post-election context we live in, was now gutwrenching and infuriating. It didn't help that I had just finished Matt Taibbi's "I Can't Breathe," about the Eric Garner case, and so that combination of these books' obvious, clear-cut, no-debate unfairness, mixed with the white fear and rage on display in Charleston, Charlottesville (and think - this book was written before that!), and elsewhere has left me with little faith for the future.
The subtitle of the book - "An American Tragedy" - sums it up. This is not Coates ending with "but as I look to the future, I see the promise of redemption!" No, he doesn't say that. He concludes (at least how I took it) by carefully and calmly slicing up the rationalizations of writers like Nicholas Kristof and George Packer, who don't seem to recognize the obvious racism at the heart of many Trump voters. Sure, not all, whatever, but a heck of a lot. As Coates points out, Trump handily won among white voters - even white women - of all age groups, economic backgrounds, etc. So the response by eight years of a black president was to elect the most low-character flim-flam man the white race could scrounge up. THAT's how my fellow white Americans showed our maturity and our class. Coates is just laying it out there in cold fact - "hey, this is what I see, and if you don't, let me help you look a little closer."
Coates essay about "reparations," which he obviously wrote to be provocative - should be policy. Of course there should have been reparations - not for slavery, but for everything else. For not being able to buy a house, for not being able to get social security, for not having any of the New Deal benefits that helped every other group - he brings up "redlining" in Chicago, and how unfair the housing process worked and it's junot right. It's just not fair. Again, Coates is just laying it out. You can say "It's not my fault! I didn't do that!" Yeah, well your parents did, or your grandparents. Somebody's responsible.
Every essay gets worse, because now we know how it ends. In 2008, as he writes, there was a hope that we had truly turned a corner - that America was actually a mature, reasonable place where we could have reasonable disagreements but work things out.
While I don't think Coates correctly identifies the national un-diagnosed post-9/11 PTSD that has shaped everything, he is accurate that there was an undercurrent of white fear and angst that rebelled against a black president. As he says - and as is undeniable - the majority of the Republicans didn't think Obama was even born in America. So they never felt he was legitimate - and they elected the main cheerleader for that racist conspiracy. So instead of just disagreeing with any number of Obama's bad policies (leaving Iraq in 2011 was a catastrophe that is unparalleled in foreign policy mistakes; Obamacare is a well-meant bureaucratic mess), they attacked his very American-ness.
And for what? For who? For their kids? This is the message?
Justify any way you want - but the 2016 election was a referendum on racism and racism won. Coates just puts it on paper for you to read and if you want to cry about it, that's still the way it is.
I understand this is less a review of the book and more a visceral response by a reader who had expectations of America that were not borne out and is emotionally stricken at being confronted in literary form by how those choices and decisions *felt* to African-Americans, who I am not. So if you're not prepared for that experience, this book's not for you. Of course, there are many, many people who *should* read it who won't read it, and others whose natural defensiveness will make it impossible for them to get past that, so they can try to feel some empathy for the rank unfairness displayed here.
Coates has given us a step-by-step, year-by-year chronology of how this all went down, and it's all pretty ugly. It makes me so mad, and I look at the flag I served when I was in the Army in a war and this book makes me have to ask, what am I supposed to feel?
April Renee Lynch, Ph.D.