In the midst of the chaos that is 2017, the universe bestowed a gift into my hands: an advance copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy.
It could not be more timely and I could not be more honored to have had the chance to read it. I’ll not quote passages here in part because I read a copy that was not the final version, but also because I would have a fifty page review; it is that good.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy resonated with me and is a book I will refer to repeatedly and will certainly read again in its entirety. It resonated not just in the powerful writing, intellectual rigor or the thorough documentation of sources, but in the way that I felt this book was written for me. Probably, it was. Me and everyone like me who wants to do better.
I am, by the way, a middle-aged white woman born in 1964. I was raised in the tradition of white supremacy and now attempt, daily, to find ways to redeem myself. My parents were not overtly racist—at least not often—but neither did we ever have a conversation about race. Not even in relation to the civil rights movement or the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Not once. I have had a lot of catching up to do.
To be clear, this is not a quick read; it is dense and intimidating and essential.
Structurally, the book is built around previously published essays by Coates from The Atlantic, and complimented by new essays covering the years of Obama’s presidency. In the new pieces, Coates often includes deeply personal views of himself as the author. As a writer, I find his examination of these essays interesting because he also holds himself accountable for what he now, in retrospect, thinks works and doesn’t work in each piece. I find this gracious on his part, in allowing a glimpse of how this remarkable writer judges his own work.
Much more importantly, however, is the way in which Coates ties these essays into a larger narrative of how we got to where we are today with our current president and political climate. He does not mince his words in underscoring the issues of race as they rose back up to the surface (they’d never gone away) over the past years as white America looked at a black president on their nightly news.
Personally, I was one of the many caught up in the euphoria of Obama and his elegant presence and eloquent words, both on the page and in speeches. I was mesmerized by Obama’s brilliance. I did not see the signs that allowed for our current administration because I did not want to. In We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates pops the bubble and highlights essential lessons. Through the older essays and the newer sections that join them together, he brings our current situation into perspective in ways I am not smart enough to see without guidance.
We–and, in particular, I mean white people–do not deserve this book because Coates has done so much of the work for us, and yet we now have access to it. It is incumbent upon us to read it, and, of course, much much more. Black and brown people in the USA have been forced to learn our white history and it is long overdue for us to do the work and learn theirs. It is on us to understand the full history that led us to where we are today and how black and brown bodies have paid the price, and continue to pay the price, simply because of the color of their skin.
In this collection, Coates covers both recent and distant chapters of history and draws clear, defined links to our country in 2017. He highlights the tangible factors that perpetuate white supremacy and, in turn, racial injustice. This is not a book simply about understanding black history in America, far from it. Saying so would be both a disservice to the excellence of this work but also a lie. Indeed, this is a book that thoughtfully helps us understand American history through a more complete narrative. All of the accounts were already there, but Coates has pulled them together through poignant, diligent reporting and heartfelt self-reflection.
As a college instructor, I would very much like to teach this remarkable collection of essays from one of the great minds of our time. As a citizen, I would like to encourage every concerned, conscious, American to read this book and learn. Racism continues to undermine our attempts at democracy and we must have the uncomfortable discussions if we are ever to move forward. If you’re not sure how to start those conversations, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy will give you plenty of ideas with which to begin.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, published by One World comes out on October 3, 2017. I thank NetGalley and Random House for the opportunity to read and review this book.
I also want to thank Andrea DeWerd at Random House Marketing for sending me an advance copy in paperback through a Goodreads giveaway. I now have this book in three formats and I can assure you, three is not too many!