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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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In some movie, some character asks of some jury "Now, imagine if she was white". You may have seen the movie, and understood the starkness of the contrast between what was being asked and the reality of what was. That's where we are as a nation, and where we all are as citizens. Try to imagine how tolerable those centuries of indignities would be if inflicted on ANY member of your family. If you're white, you really DO have to imagine, if you're not, no imagination is required - it's what you live.
I wish Mr. Coates well in continuing to try to educate the population at large, and hope that his message gets absorbed by people who might otherwise not know what has been and still is, going on. It's much too easy to be white and not really know about the depth and duration of this problem; WAY easier than it should be. Think of this book as the textbook for "Black Studies for White Folks" 1A. Spend some time with this book and get yourself up to speed.
That is not to say that one must agree with this conclusion to enjoy or get something out of reading this book. However, I would wager that anyone reading this book with an open mind will have their concept and scope of race in America broadened to a great extent. These essays are intellectual without being pompous, opinionated without being one-sided and deeply thoughtful and personal without being meandering or self-involved. It's difficult to read these essays, which include a lot of personal information about Coates and his life influences and not come away without a huge respect and love for the personality painted by the words.
There are a couple of places where Coates contemplates his appeal to readers across the color barrier and specifically the fact that so many white readers seem to enjoy his work and connect with it in a meaningful way. I would suggest that his writing occupies a rare place in literature where themes and subjects which are normally very divisive are dissected so thoughtfully and with such aplomb that those normally divisive subjects are able to be elevated to a higher plane of consideration above the usual slings and arrows that typically meet even the anticipation of their debate. In short, Ta-Nahesi Coates is simply such a talented journalist and essayist that he is able to defy gravity here and make points in ways that are by turns brutal and tender in their honesty, yet never veer into cliche, invective, circular arguments, ad-hominem attack or any other sort of trap that awaits those who strike out on the trail he has chosen to brave.
He makes the bold claim along the way that his desire is to be a modern-day James Baldwin. Coming from just about any other writer that would come off as naive or even laughable. From Coates, it is chill-inducing and sobering it its veracity. Like Baldwin, Coates is that rarest of gems - a writer who runs towards a potentially perilous topic when most are running away from it, then when tackling it - not only refuses to be defined by it but also refuses to define that topic in traditional ways - instead digging down deep to get at the truth and communicate it in a way that is artful, meaningful and beautiful in its simplicity of meaning yet complexity of style. It's obvious that Coates sweats the details, down to individual word choices and turns of phrases. In the end, his writing here is comparable to a symphony where many elements come together to form one overall composition that is more than the sum of its parts.
This is not a hopeful book. But it is also not a fatalistic one. It shuns the usual narrative of race throughout the history of America while holding up to the light a different narrative that will not be to every citizen's liking, but when viewed as a whole is certainly difficult to outright ignore or deny. Like any other "big" topic, race is dizzyingly complex in its nuance, yet as laid out here, much more direct and simple than some might expect or believe. The lines drawn are not pretty, but they are clear and unwavering. To embrace the message delivered here will take courage on both sides of the issue. However, for anyone who feels that the relationship between Black America and White America is not just damaged, but perhaps irreparably so, We Were Eight Years in Power is required reading. The way out of a problem this pervasive and soaked through to the foundation of a culture is never going to be easy or quick. But with time, thoughtful consideration, a massive dose of honest self-reflection on all sides and a willingness to not only compromise out of mutual respect and love - but also to roll up our sleeves and work hard - there IS a way to sanity and fairness for all involved. Will it happen in decades or even centuries? That's not for us to decide. All we can do is begin to move in the right direction and set up future generations with the tools they will need to keep the ball rolling downhill until one day people look back and think "What was all the fuss about?"
As a white American in the 21st century how do you imagine slavery as a precursor to white supremacy, narrowed eligibility to health care, unfair housing, social security for some, and the elections of Donald Trump? How is discrimination against Blacks different than discrimination against, Jews, Irish, Asians, Muslims, and others? Coates thinks that slavery is the undisputable origin of American Exceptionalism and the success of the American economy. He delineates relatively unknown factors that have prevented the social mobility of Blacks from Reconstruction on through restricted covenants in Chicago real estate. Whether you agree with his emphasis, which Cornel West does not, it would be hard for a progressive to deny his findings. West aside, I found this book both troubling, as anyone would, and important. Without Coates facts, we can’t begin to understand and confront racism. (Google to see Cornel West's rejoinder)