When I first heard about We Were Eight Years in Power, I was excited for a book from Ta-Nehisi Coates about the Obama years. Coates both is a serious critic of Obama and someone that has strongly defended him. I am going to continue to look for a book like that in the future.
We Were Eight Years in Power is not really that. Instead it is a repackaging of a number of essays by Coates from the Atlantic. Coates first essay for the Atlantic was about Bill Cosby and his conservative lectures to the black community to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That initial essay eventually led to Coates becoming a staff writer for the Atlantic and a number of cover stories that many will have already read.
The three most famous are his Reparations article, his article on Mass Incarceration and his essay earlier this year on Trump as the first consciously White (post Obama) president.
Previously to reading We Were Eight Years in Power, I had read most of the essays. It was still worth re-reading the essays. But what I found most interesting was Coates introductions to each essay. These were sometimes biographical or historical, telling the reader about his life or the country when he originally published the essay. Almost all of them included an evaluation of the content, usually pointing out weaknesses in his approach or places where he wishes he had expanded the analysis or where he got part of the essay wrong.
That analysis was helpful both to give context to why he wrote the individual essay, but also to give context to his larger project and how, for good and ill, racial issues were important during the Obama years.
Coates talks quite candidly about his discomfort with being the main or only writer on race issues that many Whites have read. He has a clear perspective. One that is famously not particularly hopeful. But it is realistic to the current age and to the data as he sees it.
Coates is someone that Whites need to read. Not as the only African American or minority author writing about race that is important, but as an honest voice that is speaking to the reality of many African Americans throughout the country.
I think it is worth bringing up an essay that is getting passed around discussing Coates. I recently had a discussion about the rise of the term White Supremacy as it is being used by Coates and others. This essay is critiquing Coates for his use of White Supremacy in a very similar way as my conversation. In both it seems that there is a resistance to discussing systemic issues of racism as White Supremacy. Coates is saying White Supremacy is about power. I think he is saying it is about power more than about race.
Historically Irish or Catholics or other groups were not included in the White hegemony. But as culture and power shifted there was a shift in who was included as White. This is what he is saying is going to continue to happen. The definition of White will continue to shift in order to remain in power. The final essay about Trump is largely an exploration of this idea.
Coates is not using White Supremacy to refer primarily to White Nationalists like Richard Spencer or the KKK, but as a cultural force that exists outside of the control of individuals. That nuance is misunderstood in the NYT opinion piece. (And as a Christian I would say that White Supremacy as Coates is using is actually a demonic force, although Coates as an atheist likely would not.)
I think there is place to critique Coates’ use of the term White Supremacy, but I think in order to do that well, you need to pay attention to the stories he is telling here and figure out an alternate narrative that explains the place of minorities in the US, especially African Americans without a conscious or unconscious understanding of Whites as better than others.
Coates is pessimistic because he has read WEB DuBois and Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin and a whole host of others that have been critiquing much the same thing for the past 150 year. Coates is not denying improvement in the lives of African Americans. What he is pessimistic about is Whites in mass changing their opinion to actually believe in the full humanity of those that are not white.
As Thabiti Anyabwile has pointed out, and as Coates and Anyabwile had a public conversation about, hope is at least partially a matter of Coates atheism. Many others that are Christian are no less conversant with the history and no less aware of the limitations of Whites to actually see their racial blind spots, but as Christians have a hope that the church, and Christ, will ultimately make a difference. I want to see the hope, but I think we still need Coates voice that is straightforwardly telling it like he sees it. We Were Eight Years in Power is essentially Coates’ cases that White Supremacy not only exists, but will continue to exist for his lifetime and like the life of his son as well.
Coates’ is conscious of his relationship to James Baldwin. (And there is a discussion of his decision to write Between the World and Me as modern edition of The Fire Next Time.) I can’t help but think of Baldwin’s quote in his Notes of a Native Son about how he cannot help but think about his being a Black man because it impacts his every day life.
Note: I received a paperback review copy from Amazon prior to its release. But I had not finished it by the time it was released and purchased my own Audiobook to finish it off. If you are interested in the paperback review copy leave a comment below and I will send it to the first person that asks.