Book Review: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I acquired this book, knowing nothing about it at the time, because I saw the title on a list of finalists for a major literary award. Now, having read it, I recognize it as an important work from an important writer. I find myself in the position of not wanting to review it in the traditional sense, that is, giving a summary of it and saying whether I think it’s a good or bad book. Why not? Well, I don’t want to summarize it because I don’t want to present the author’s ideas in a manner different from and inferior to that which he has adopted in this book. And I don’t want to say whether it’s good or bad because that’s not the point. This is a book of reportage – facts and hypotheses that need to be assimilated on their own terms. It is told from a singular viewpoint that I appreciate but can’t, from experience, emulate.

The author is an African American who writes for The Atlantic, and this is a collection of essays previously published in The Atlantic with additional short introductory essays that explain their backgrounds. They deal with Obama’s presidency in the context of the overall history of blacks in America and attempt to deal with why, in the author’s opinion, Obama’s presidency failed and brought on such a bizarre backlash in the 2016 election. Coates discusses white privilege, the breakup of black families, the powerful positive example of Obama’s wife, the real meaning of the Civil War from a black perspective, Malcolm X as a black role model, right-wing backlash to the Obama presidency, the case for reparations to African Americans, and the incarceration of black Americans as a method of control. There is also a fascinating summary of a long interview Coates had with Obama late in his second term.

Coates is an excellent researcher and writer and presents his arguments well. His voice has the ring of honesty backed up by hard facts. It’s a voice I need to hear, because, as I said, I cannot experience what he experiences first hand because I’m not black. Although I have lived much of my life in countries where I have been a minority of one, surrounded by people of other nationalities, most of those people were white. Even when I was traveling in India and my traveling companions were black Asian Indians and I would sometimes go days without seeing another white person, the situation is not the same, because I never in all that time, either from my friends or from strangers, received any intimation of a stigma of inferiority. No, I can’t really relate to being belittled, ostracized, and oppressed because of my race or skin color. That’s why I need people like Coates to set me straight. And that’s why I won’t attempt to summarize what he has to say. You need to hear it from him, not from me.

One point in his biography, though, I could relate to and empathize with, and that is his account of himself as a struggling writer. I’ve been there; I’m still there. Coates broke out into mainstream publishing due to a blog he started in which he poured out what he wanted to say and acquired a following of people who appreciated his words. The Atlantic took notice of the blog and hired him. In fact, then, he got his start as a self-published writer. In this I caught a ray of hope. Self-publishing, either through blogs or self-publishing book platforms, allows writers to express themselves without having to be screened by traditional gatekeepers. This gives an opportunity to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or other considerations, to speak freely without censure in the hope of acquiring a sympathetic audience. If, as in the case of Coates, you have something important to say and you can say it well, you have the possibility of readership through word-of-mouth. As I have said before, I see self-publishing as an important tool for writers from all backgrounds.

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