Ta-Nahisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power' Collects and Concentrates the Critic's Insights
An excellent octet of prophetic, disturbing, hopeful essays about race, politics, identity, and those indiscernible grey areas in the American character.
In the newly-written preface to his “Fear of a Black President", which originally appeared in a 2012 issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nahisi Coates asks what probably burdens all intellectuals who are marginalized (usually involuntarily) by accident of birth to speak for “their people", “their demographic", “their choir".
We Were Eight Years In Power: An American TragedyPublisher: One World
Author: Ta-Nahesi Coates
Publication date: 2017-10
Simply put, Coates asks: “Why do white people like what I write?" It's a question purposefully written in italics and probably intended to be asked in a loud whisper.
By 2012, Coates had assumed a place on the mantle of America's leading black intellectuals. His long-form journalistic articls for The Atlantic between 2009-2016 (eight of which comprise the bulk of this collection) provid the template for posing (and usually brilliantly answering) questions about the need for slavery reparations, an overhaul of the frightening prison industrial complex, the legacies of Malcolm X, The Civil War, separate profiles of the Obamas, Bill Cosby, and (in the final chilling essay) the ascension of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America.
The question still loomed over Coates in 2012 and probably has since remained a barrier between his life as a journalist, a long-form narrative expository writer, an African-American man, a husband, and a father trying to help his young son navigate his way through world that is by no means (as the election of Barack Obama meant for some) “post-racial". Coates came of age through hip-hop culture, a world where Public Enemy's “Fight the Power" burst through loudspeakers and refused to be silenced, never considered compromising. Coates answers his question with another question: “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?"
In short, if the way you carefully and systematically structure your work has allowed you entrance into the culture, where do you go for your next act? How do you maintain credibility and legitimacy and continue to shine a spotlight into the darkness if those who had for years been marginalizing you are now (perhaps begrudgingly) offering you a seat at the table?
Ta-Nahisi Coates's We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is supremely structured, burning with rage, yet always focused and clear-headed. These eight essays are at times museum pieces to a more "innocent" era, if you will, starting with 2009's “This Is How We Lost to the White Man: The Audacity of Bill Cosby's Conservatism". The original premise of the article remains strong. In the first decade of the 21st century, Cosby had assumed the mantle of the Black Conservative, assembling town meetings in various inner-city neighborhoods, calling out those in the community he saw as irresponsible:
“It was revival… a hunger for the uncomplicated time when all black men worked hard, all black women were virtuous, and all black parents, collectively, whipped each other's kids."
Later in his preface, Coates considers whether or not these “call-outs" of Cosby's were covers for the rape allegations that had been collecting under the surface for years and would not explode until approximately half a decade after the publication of this essay. Coates notes all this and also suggests that “…in every piece in the book there is a story I told and many more I left untold…"
The story of Cosby's rise to the top level of Black Conservative thought is fascinating to read now, as all histories seem in retrospect. (That his sexual indiscretions eventually caught up to him and erased this legacy of public service was completely his fault.) It was 2004, at the NAACP Awards Ceremony 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Cosby gave what would be known as “The Pound Cake" speech, in which he disparaged those in his community he saw as lazy, those who stole soda and pound cake and turned around to charge the justice system with racism. He disparaged African-American naming traditions. Bill Cosby was the TV sit-com icon of the '80s, the garish sweater-wearing Dr. Huxtable. The Cosby Show (1984-1992) was the template for uplift and accomplishment through secondary education at historically black colleges like Spellman. Cosby's transition into conservative motivational speaker was predictable, but it wasn't new:
“Black conservatives have been dipping into this well of lost black honor since the turn of the twentieth century… populist black conservatives like Cosby point to pre-1968 black America as an era when blacks were united in the struggle: men were men, and a girl who got pregnant without getting married would find herself bundled off to Grandpa's farm."
Coates understood in 2009, as he understands now, that the gift of hindsight might make this essay irrelevant now. He only mentions in passing that some believed Cosby's entrance into the world of black conservative speakers was to cover for his own sexual transgressions. At that point, he was only three years away from having settled (in 2006) a major lawsuit. This essay works best as an opening chapter in his retrospective of the Obama years because Cosby represented a mentality that seemed to be dying but has since been clearly revived. Cosby was seen as “one of the good ones". In all his pontification against rap lyrics, unwed mothers, and young African-American males with their droopy pants, Cosby's anger was the best testimony for Fox News to keep its lights on and ratings up.
In “Notes from the Second Year", the preface for “American Girl", (his profile of Michelle Obama), Coates explores how he and his wife were trying to develop lives of meaning. For him, “…the axis was race. The axis she chose was gender." The tone of this section is especially heartbreaking in its optimism and hope. For Oates and his wife, the very fact of Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House was life-changing. “I felt that I had not changed, but the world was changing around me." Oates mirrors Michelle's infamous (to some) quote after the Iowa primaries when she noted this was the first time in her life she was proud of her country. For Oates, “Everything was bright. Everything was rising. Everything was a dream." That it would all evaporate upon the election of Donald Trump is something we know, Coates knows, and everybody understands there's nothing that can be done to change the outcome.
Coates knows that to effectively see Michelle Obama is to understand the South Side of Chicago: “In most black people there is a South Side, a sense of home, that never leaves, and yet to compete in the world, we have to go forth." Coates goes on to explain the concept of code-switching, of becoming bilingual in those non-verbal ways we all have of adapting to different cultures. The premise of “American Girl" is based on the notion Coates sets forth that when he first saw Michelle Obama, he took her for, in a way, a white woman. He explains: “…it was not because of her cadences, mannerism, or dress, but because of the radical propositions she set forth… a black community fully vested… in the country at large."
Was it the Barack Obama-inspired “Audacity of Hope" that drove the first couple, Coates and his wife, and countless others who saw a new opportunity with our 44th President? Coates seems to be developing that narrative, which again makes it all the more heartbreaking in “Notes from the Third Year", as he introduces “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?" For Coates, those who dismissed the current relevance and overall importance of the Civil War were tantamount to “…a country trying to skip out on a bill, trying to stave off a terrible accounting." The essay itself is solid and filled with clear assessments of dubious observations, such as Ken Burns' favorite Shelby Foote, who called slave-trader and Klansman Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest “one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history". Coates notes that for African-Americans, the war was already 200 years old by the time it started for everybody else in 1861. In the light of recent protests regarding the removal of statues honoring Confederate heroes, Coates's 2012 words are prescient:
“The Civil War confers on us the most terrible burden of all-the burden of moving from protest to production…"
In his introduction to “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives on in Barack Obama", Coates writes about how he was influenced by hip-hop. He wanted to flow like Nas, Raekwon, or Jay-Z, but he wasn't going to stop there. He saw and heard that music in what he was reading: Ulysses S. Grant, Edith Wharton, E.L. Doctorow, and George Eliot. Coates was compelled to write of Malcolm X in the fourth year once the scourge of “birtherism" was introduced and championed by then prospective Presidential candidate Trump. He concedes that the premise of this piece sounds better than it reads and that he strained to make the Obama-Malcolm parallel. Still, this essay is strong. He begins by placing us on election night and indicating that by 2008, the legacy of Malcolm X was not as strong as it had been:
“Stanley Crouch… dismissed Malcolm X as 'one of the naysayers to American possibility whose vision was permanently crushed beneath the heel of Obama's victory on Nov. 4.'"
This notion from Crouch seemed to dismiss the fact that Malcolm was a strong embodiment of black pride identity. Whether or not that had any role in the development of American culture in 1962 (when Malcolm asked “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin?") seemed to be irrelevant to black conservatives like Crouch. For Coates, “…the self-created, martially disciplined Malcolm is the man who lives on… Among organic black conservatives, this moral leadership still gives Malcolm sway." The strength of this 2011 essay rests in the dual narrative of Malcolm X's post-life reputation and Coates's re-embracing of the man who, as actor Ossie Davis put it in his 1965 eulogy, was “our living, black manhood". For Coates, Obama was the only other black leader who could share that description.
The question of marginalization surfaces most clearly in the preface to “Fear of a Black President". By the end of Obama's first term, Coates was firmly fixed at The Atlantic as their “black writer". He understands that, yet he sees it to his advantage. “I wasn't boxed in as much as those who dismissed my chosen beast were boxed out. The notion that writing about race… is marginal and provincial is… partial to white supremacy… premised on the notion that the foundational crimes of this country are mostly irrelevant to its existence."
In many ways, We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a dual story of growth, of two men (Coates the writer/ intellectual and Obama the writer/ intellectual/ leader of the free world) finding and forging a new identity from what's been both inherited and earned. As he starts “Fear of a Black President", Coates emphasizes how the murder of black teen Trayvon Martin was the turning point for this story of a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before Obama claimed “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," it was an American tragedy. Afterwards, Trayvon became the subject of cruel internet memes featuring hoodies, Skittles, and Arizona Iced Tea. No matter how deftly Obama had been able to evade and avoid the subject of race during his first term, this episode in history changed everything. For Obama, “…his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches."
Coates doesn't hold back in this essay, and nor should he. Virulently racist quotes from the legendary racist late Senator Robert Byrd are excerpted here, along with those of elitist intellectual publisher/ political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., who claimed in 1957 that “…for the time being, it [the white community] is the advanced race." Coates notes that rather than being a man obsessed with the politics of racial identity, “Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961." The fear Coates illustrates so clearly in this essay is nothing new, and Obama's legacy was built more on the approach of Booker T. Washington than it was anybody else. Still, the fear was real before and during Obama's presidency. The racism was just concealed in ways more lethal in their subtlety.
Coates embraces the persona he's assumed in the public cycle of long-form journalists whose mission is to fly as close to the truth as he can without his wings melting. “The black public intellectual need not be wise," he writes, “but he had better have answers." In 2014's “The Case for Reparations", perhaps the most famous and well-reasoned essays in this collection, Coates takes the opportunity in his preface to properly acknowledge some sources for the narrative background. He also notes something not included in the essay, “…that reparations are not reserved for the unimpeachably virtuous and cannot solve the problems of human morality…" Coates reflects here that he loved the "invisibility" of writing, but this essay changed everything.
“The Case for Reparations" is a careful, exhaustively researched examination of times when reparations had been proposed, how “…the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people." Coates proves that for every myth about how an unstable home life was the singular reason for the failure of black lives, there are exceptions. “Liberals… ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success -- and the elevation of that punishment… to federal policy." The greatest strengths in Coates's writing are not exclusively ideas carefully argued. It's also the rhythm of his sentences that never fails to please the reader:
“What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal… Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history."
“The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration" starts with a picture of the erudite sociologist and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a white intellectual who eventually became a New York Senator in 1976 after first coming to attention with “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action", a report based on his '60s-era work with President Johnson's War on Poverty. The report “…argued that the federal government was underestimating the damage done to black families by 'three centuries of sometimes unimaginable treatment.'" While some saw the report as victim-blaming, denying the matriarchy and condemning absent fathers, Coates argues that it eventually “…was portrayed as an argument for leaving the black family to fend for itself." Coates cites a quote from Moynihan printed in a 1967 Time profile that resonates with unabashed callousness:
“'When these Negro G.I.s come back from Viet Nam, I would meet them with a real estate agent… who looks like Diahann Carroll… I'd try to get half of them into grade schools, teaching kids who've never had anyone but women telling them what to do."
It's from this basis that Coates builds his argument that “the carceral state has… become a credentialing institution…" Whether he's looking back to the early parts of the 20th century, and how W.E.B. Dubois's “…language anticipated the respectability politics of our own era…" or citing how FBI Director J Edgar Hoover systematically targeted black leaders (from Marcus Garvey in 1919 through Martin Luther King in the '60s), this essay burns with the logic of how systems put into place many years ago worked to conspire against the underclass, the underserved. “The blacks incarcerated in this country are not like the majority of Americans," Coates writes. “They… hail from communities that have been imperiled across both the deep and immediate past… Peril is generational for black people in America…"
In the notes that precede “My President Was Black", Coates expresses the urgency with which he sees this mission of writing: “I don't ever want to lose sight of how short my time is here." Later, he writes “…my ambition is to write both in defiance of tragedy and in blindness of its possibility…" The essay itself is as carefully delineated as all the others, and it's here where the book truly earns its subtitle. Obama was more than accomplished, more than qualified, but Coates reminds us that the man “…was born into a country where laws barring his very conception… had long been in force." It's a remarkably succinct paragraph that deserves to be quoted in full. In short, the election of Obama was an attempt to resolve a major contradiction in this country. This was a black man with deep roots in the white world, but Coates does not hold back. Of Obama's legacy, he writes:
“The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable."
Coates's We Were Eight Years In Power takes its title from the post-reconstruction period when many states, particularly South Carolina, attempted to set into law standards to undermine and keep newly freed enslaved people as the permanent underclass. That state's Congressman Thomas Miller who, in 1895, fought for the rights of freed men and women, noted that we were eight years in power and “upon the road to prosperity". The fact that Obama was succeeded by a man who, as Coates put it, “…spent the campaign freely and liberally trafficking in misogyny, Islamophobia, and xenophobia" simply means we need to work harder, deeper, longer to ensure we get back on that road toward a better direction. We Were Eight Years In Power is a remarkable, heartbreaking, thrilling collection that should keep us all hopeful in the unknown and dangerous days ahead.