WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER: An American Tragedy
by Ta-Nehisi Coates. One World Publishing. 367 pp. $28
Ta-Nehisi Coates has published a collection of the major magazine essays he wrote throughout the Obama years, and the hits are all here: “Fear of a Black President,” “The Case for Reparations,” “My President Was Black” and several more. You may have read most of them already — hasn’t everyone? — as well as one or both of Coates’s memoirs. If you’re really up to date, you’ve also inhaled the book’s epilogue, a savaging of President Trump’s white-supremacist ideology “in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power,” which appeared recently in the Atlantic, where Coates is a national correspondent.
The majority of this book, then, is in print by now and available online; purchasing it would seem of little use except to those coveting a Coates compendium or hoping to rouse an unwoke relative with a most unsubtle holiday gift. But Coates adds an unexpected element that renders “We Were Eight Years in Power” both new and revealing. Interspersed among the essays are introductory personal reflections; they are “attempts to capture why I was writing and where I was in my life at the time,” Coates explains. “Taken together they form a loose memoir, one that I hope enhances the main pieces.”
It does far more than that. Together, these introspections are the inside story of a writer at work, with all the fears, insecurities, influences, insights and blind spots that the craft demands. There are two books here, really. Coates’s Atlantic essays betray a growing disillusionment with America and with the possibilities of the Obama presidency; his more personal digressions show how the age of the first black president propelled Coates’s career to unexpected heights, making him one of the most sought-after and overanalyzed interpreters of the era — the kind of fame, Coates realizes, that brings a severe risk of believing your own hype.
That this era would conclude with Donald Trump winning the White House seems almost inevitable after reading Coates’s works. “To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy . . . is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying,” he wrote in 2014. Yet Coates did not see Trump coming; he did not want to yield to the logical conclusion of his own arguments. “The election of Donald Trump confirmed everything I knew of my country and none of what I could accept,” he writes. “I was shocked at my own shock.”
It was not Coates’s first shock. The rise of Barack Obama to the Democratic presidential nomination seemed at the time like “an end-of-history moment,” he recalls. “As Obama’s election became imaginable, it seemed possible that our country had indeed, at long last, come to love us.”
He experienced this transformation personally. “I was a writer and felt myself part of a tradition stretching back to a time when reading and writing were, for black people, the marks of rebellion,” Coates emphasizes. “And so I derived great meaning from the work of writing. But I could not pay rent with ‘great meaning.’ ” Coates is forthright about his early financial struggles — “I don’t know how to discuss my journey through these eight years without talking about money and the great effect its absence, consistency, and abundancy had on our lives” — and his faltering self-confidence. Frustrated, he considered culinary school or bartending. And when he landed a high-profile assignment profiling Bill Cosby for the Atlantic, he wasn’t sure he could pull it off. “I had never written for such a prestigious national publication,” he writes. “I had my own fears of failure lingering.”
Each piece poses new challenges, and Coates is honest about his perceived missteps. In the 2008 Cosby article, he attempted to mix portraiture, opinion and memoir-style writing, an effort he judges “ultimately unsuccessful.” He likes the title of his 2009 essay on Michelle Obama, “American Girl,” more than the piece itself. And his 2011 review of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X biography “sounds better than it reads.”
He appreciates that Obama had much to do with his eventual success. “Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms,” Coates explains. “These writers were talented — but talent is nothing without a field on which to display its gifts. Obama’s presence opened a new field.”
While Obama never sought the label of black candidate or black president, Coates reveled in his emergence as the Atlantic’s black writer, “a phrase that described both my identity and my interests,” he explains. “I did not feel pigeonholed in my role. I felt advantaged.” His essay “Fear of a Black President,” published in the midst of the 2012 campaign, lamented the inherent limits of the Obama revolution, charging that the president’s acceptance in white America depended “not just on being twice as good but on being half as black.” The piece won its author awards and devotees, but for Coates, it also prompted mixed emotions.
“All those years I had attempted to mix my influences — poetry, hip-hop, history, memoir, reportage — and produce something original and beautiful,” he writes. “This was the first time I felt I succeeded, and more, felt I understood the how and why.” At the same time, a question began nagging him. “Why do white people like what I write?” At least in these pages, he offers no definitive answer.
Even as they reveled in his indictment of American racism, Coates’s expanding audiences begged him for hope. “What if there was no hope at all?” he wondered. “Sometimes, I said as much and was often met with a kind of polite and stunned disappointment.” The Obama interpreter would not parrot the Obama mantra of hope and change, much less the notion that history’s arc bends toward justice, that American exceptionalism meant a country ever striving toward that more perfect union. “The American story, which was my story, was not the tale of triumph but a majestic tragedy,” Coates concludes. Not quite the bullet-point solutions expected of today’s public intellectuals.
“The Case for Reparations,” published in 2014, was the moment when all the threads Coates had been twisting came together: his attack on respectability politics, his obsession with the enduring legacy of the Civil War and, “finally, the deeply held belief that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.” More than financial recompense, he wrote, reparations for black Americans would mean “a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
This work of deep reporting and seething understatement made Coates a literary star, and soon the writer once nervous about profiling Bill Cosby was trying to emulate James Baldwin. His publisher warned him that “the road is littered with knockoffs of The Fire Next Time,” but still Coates tried, and the result was “Between the World and Me,” which won the 2015 National Book Award.
“My struggle is to remain conscious,” Coates writes, just on the right side between humility and self-regard. “The praise will make you forget all that, will convince you of your own special nature, instead of reminding you that you had the great fortune of living and writing in the most incredible of eras — the era of a black president.”
That era, and that president, surfaced contrasting fears. Coates admits to being intimidated by Obama when he met with him. “I was discombobulated by fear — not my fear of the power of his office . . . but by fear of his obvious brilliance,” he acknowledges in a fanboyish aside. More fundamentally, Coates writes in this book’s introduction, “the symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency . . . assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries.” That fear led to a backlash, and that backlash gave us Trump’s election, which Coates deems “the awful price of a black presidency.”
In a one-on-one meeting with Obama shortly before the election, the author recalls the president’s certitude that Trump could not win. “I confess to basically feeling the same,” Coates writes. “The idea that a campaign so saturated in open bigotry, misogyny, chaos, and possible corruption could win a national election was ludicrous. This was America.” It was, and it is. Now Coates calls for a resistance that is “intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil.”
I would have continued reading Coates during a Hillary Clinton administration, hoping in particular that he’d finally write the great Civil War history already scattered throughout his work. Yet reading him now feels more urgent, with the bar set higher. Early in this book, Coates writes that having the Obamas in the White House “opened a market” for him. Trump opens one, too.