The dramatic pendulum swing from a President Obama to a President Trump has left analysts, both right and left, scrambling to understand what happened. In We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has become the premier commentator from Black America, responds by collecting eight articles he published in The Atlantic, one per year, during the Obama administration. To each he adds an extended preface which reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of each piece, and which looks forward to implications the ideas in each essay might have.
first half includes portraits of Bill Cosby, Michelle Obama, and Malcolm X. The centerpiece of the second half is his widely acclaimed article “The Case for Reparations” not just for slavery but for Jim Crow, redlining, and more. Other substantial essays include one on mass incarceration in the US and a portrait of President Obama.
The two halves reflect changes in Coates. Most obviously, those in the latter part are much longer, a result of his own rise as a writer and as a reluctant minor celebrity.
More significant is the shift in tone. The early essays are laments for the Black community, for himself, and for America. The book is well subtitled “An American Tragedy.” An underlying sadness pervades each essay.
The tone of the later essays pivots to persistent hopelessness. Will reparations happen? Probably not. But even if they did, nothing much would change.
Will mass incarceration end? There are actually a few bipartisan hints this might be coming, but it will be immensely difficult to carry out. Even if it does end, white America will figure out another way to replace it just as Jim Crow replaced slavery, redlining replaced Jim Crow, and mass incarceration replaced redlining. At the very least, it will take several more generations for America to come to terms with its sins of the past and see Black people as full citizens of the nation.
This book requires us to look inward at ourselves as individuals and as a community. Where does such dogged oppression come from? Why is it necessary for one race to view others as inferior or dangerous or evil? In his preface to the essay on incarceration, Coates quotes one of his literary heroes, James Baldwin, who offers one thought-provoking answer.
White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they achieve this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will not exist, for it will no longer be needed.