One of the tragic ironies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book is that the same historical event he argues propelled him to success also unleashed the resurgence of white supremacy in the mainstream of American politics, culminating with the presidency of Donald Trump. This catalyzing event was the presidency of Barack Obama. Primarily a collection of Coates’s major essays for The Atlantic since 2008, We Were Eight Years in Power is an extended reflection on the Obama era.
This book is a sort of “I told you so,” though Coates takes little pleasure in having to say it.
The title is taken from the 1895 plea of African-American Congressman Thomas Miller against the then-emerging Jim Crow laws that would restrict the rights of nonwhites to participate politically. Miller referred to the “eight years in power” of the Reconstruction era of 1865-73, when newly emancipated slaves could freely vote and run for office. He pointed out that during those eight years, African-Americans had proven themselves worthy of participating in self-government. The white South was unmoved; Miller would be one of the last African-Americans to represent a Southern district in Congress until 1972. The African-American generation that had fought for its freedom would live to see that freedom lost. Coates, like W. E. B. Du Bois before him, argues it was precisely the “good Negro government” that Miller cited that threatened the South the most. It was the reality that African-Americans could contribute, could vote responsibly and could serve well in elected office that most threatened white supremacy.
Coates argues that this is exactly what happened during the presidency of Barack Obama, another “eight years in power” for African-Americans. It was Obama’s success more than his failures that motivated the fierce and bitter backlash to his policies and his party. Coates argues that this backlash culminated in the presidency of Donald Trump, the anti-Obama, whose presidency serves only to “redeem” Obama’s in the eyes of white men and to reassert the supremacy of white men over all others.
Fear of reliving what African-Americans of the Reconstruction era experienced looms large over the entire book. Coates warns that the breaking of the highest racial barrier has not vanquished racism, it has emboldened it.
It was Obama’s success more than his failures that motivated the fierce and bitter backlash to his policies and his party.
The book is at its best and most relevant when exploring the multitude of ways in which black people have navigated, survived and resisted racism over the centuries. Coates lets us intimately witness his struggles with his own pessimism about African-Americans’ place in the United States when faced with Obama’s optimistic vision of inclusion. Coates argues that Obama was successful because of his ability to trust whites, a skill Coates argues is rare among African-Americans, particularly the politically active. However, Obama’s ability to see the best in all Americans and to ask us to see the best in ourselves also left him unable to imagine the scale of the backlash. Coates’s experience and knowledge of American racism left him in disbelief that a black presidency had even happened, so he foresaw a backlash from the very beginning.
For those like myself outside the white-black binary, the book leaves questions about where exactly in this “American tragedy” of racism, reconstruction and redemption we fit in. It is perhaps unfair to ask Coates to address every people’s experience in this work; after all, Coates is already grappling skillfully with the biggest questions of American history and identity. We Were Eight Years in Power forces us to recognize that perhaps everything we love about this country is irreversibly interwoven with acts of hatred and oppression that fly in the face of everything this country claims to believe. For whites especially, the book is an examination of the Faustian bargains of American history that defined white identity and have given white Americans the relatively privileged position in this country that they enjoy. Coates invites white readers to count the cost of that privilege.
The closest Coates comes to offering his own solutions is in “The Case for Reparations,” first published in The Atlantic in 2014. There is no doubt that the wealth of the United States is built on the plunder of black and indigenous communities. Coates’s greatest contribution to the national debate around race is the idea that the racial inequities that result from our history must be addressed specifically, and not just as part of larger, universal social programs. With the Democratic Party in disarray, he condemns white leftists, progressives and centrists alike for not tackling racial injustice head on in the racial terms these injustices are expressed. At one point he wonders, “What if there is no hope at all?”
As in his previous work, Coates captures in beautiful, haunting language the suffocating realities of existing, living and dying in racism’s clutches. By beginning from a place that sees black life as dignified and not inherently disposable, Coates manages to express what few writers, and no white writers, have been able to: the pain, physical and embodied as well as emotional and intellectual, that racism causes. As the country grapples with racial divisions, hatred and the failures of our history, this book is mandatory reading.