Book Review: “We Were Eight Years in Power” — An Essential Book
Nothing could be more necessary at this point in time than this book.
We Were Eight Years in Power, An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. One World, 367 pages, $28.
By Roberta Silman
This is a brilliant, essential book that should be read by everyone who cares about the future of our now beleaguered country. What makes it so special is that it is written by an black man who has the ability to draw us into his world, to see our country and life in it from his perspective without building a barrier between us and him. This is a book beyond anger and disappointment; it is a book that can help give us a blueprint for the future in a way that no white writer can. It is a book written in the tradition of James Baldwin’s best work, with exactly the same kind of intimacy that made Baldwin so special to my generation. Now I am comforted that my grandchildren can read Coates, and, hopefully, take heed, and finally help to bring about change in this country whose ideals they hold so dear.
In his introduction, Coates says:
. . . what this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government. It applauds, even celebrates Good Negro Government in the unthreatening abstract — The Cosby Show, for instance. But when it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, and birtherism emerges. And that is because, at its core, those American myths have never been colorless. They cannot be extricated from the “whole theory of slavery,” which holds that an entire class of people carry peonage in their blood. . . .There is a basic assumption in this country, one black people are not immune to, which holds that if blacks comport themselves in a way that accords with middle-class values, if they are polite, educated, and virtuous, then all the fruits of America will be open to them. . . .But the argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government — personal and political — often augments the very white supremacy it seems to combat.”
Since we have had eight years of impeccable Good Negro Government, presided over by a man of great intelligence, integrity, and civility, how do we find ourselves in this mess? The answers, which may be more than uncomfortable, are why we need — white and black together — to read this book.
Before I get to the actual book, I want to point out that Coates usually uses the word black, so I will follow his lead. I think, although he never states it, that the reason is simple — black people in America had ancestors who were African, but they are American, just as we who had ancestors in Ireland or Italy or Russia are American. What distinguishes us within that category is the color of our skin — either black or white.
Secondly, The Atlantic magazine must be recognized and thanked. It was their editors who realized that Coates had the talent and persistence to become a first-class journalist and offered him a decent wage to write the essays in this book. By giving him a salary The Atlantic gave Coates not only money to live with dignity, but also time. He has read widely and parsed what he has read with great skill. But this is only possible when we are not constantly anxious about how we will meet expenses for rent and food, etc. Coates is very clear and practical about the freedom that money gives us, and he is right.
And last is the passage from “Notes from the First Year” — in which he tells us that when he and his partner Kenyatta had been together for nine years he became convinced that he could not make it as a writer.
Wild and unlikely schemes often appeared before me. Maybe I should go to culinary school. Maybe I should be a bartender. I’d considered driving a cab, Kenyatta had a more linear solution: “I think you should spend more time writing.”
Having someone you love and who loves you express such unwavering faith is a gift above all. I got the same answer years ago from my husband when, after some rejection slips, I was considering abandoning fiction and opening a bakery. It also occurs to me that writers often think about doing something with food because, down deep, they have the nagging suspicion that what they do is not necessary.
Nothing could be more necessary at this point in time than this book.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in 1975 in Baltimore to what he calls a “pathological family.” His father had seven children by four women and married none of them. Although six of those seven children went to college (he is the only college dropout) they all had children out of wedlock. Coates and Kenyatta are now married and he has a very strong bond with his father, who was a Black Panther for a short time and also helped finance his initial blog. But it was not a promising childhood; “I’d felt like a failure all of my life — stumbling out of middle school, kicked out of high school, dropping out of college.” Moreover, black people in Baltimore lived in a ghetto where there was drink and drugs and sex for the taking. Not an easy place to grow up and have confidence in oneself.
When at Howard University, though, he met Kenyatta, and realized that he was writer. Stints at various news outlets, including The Village Voice, proved to be just stints, and he was very discouraged when he decided he had nothing to lose and started a blog. That’s when people started reading him, including the editors at The Atlantic. Written over the period of Barack Obama’s presidency, these essays cover a variety of subjects, all to do with “blackness.” The first four are about Bill Cosby, “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” about Michelle Obama, “American Girl,” about the Civil War, a fascinating take on “Why So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” and “The Legacy of Malcolm X.” By the time we get to Malcolm X you can see him hitting his stride, gaining confidence in his research and his ability to reinterpret some old and tired ideas, and, perhaps most of all, using language in new and surprising ways.
Although the essays, especially the last four, are absolutely required reading, this is not just a book of previously published essays. What makes this book so extraordinary are the Notes that accompany each essay: Notes From the First Year, the Second Year, etc. They are more than a shaped memoir, but rather like thoughts from his diaries, telling us where he is in this new venture of writing, how he is learning and growing and where he is also making mistakes and discovering things about himself he never knew. The Notes, which end in a blistering Epilogue, have a trajectory of their own, and when we get to the end we are confronted by a man who has done the hard work to speak with a commanding authority, a man whose words will shape how we think and where we go from here.
We have watched him go from a failure to a Nobody to “a public intellectual,” a term he says makes him want to retch. But his honesty is more than disarming; anyone worth his salt should have conflicting feelings about becoming “an important writer” for it brings with it responsibilities and obligations he never imagined when just another black child in Baltimore.
As Coates reads through masses of books in an effort to shape his ideas, he takes the reader along so that his probing makes you think about this country in ways you never have. Here is an example in the third essay when he is discussing interpretations of the Civil War by such eminences as Ken Burns and Shelby Foote who inherited “the comfortable narrative” from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation: [which reveals] “an establishment more interested in the alleged sins perpetrated upon Confederates than in the all-too-real sins perpetrated upon the enslaved people in their midst.” Which is why so few blacks study the Civil War. He goes on:
For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: The Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people’s terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected—as most sane people would—to decline.
And when he gets to the last four essays, “Fear of a Black President,” The Case For Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” and “My President Was Black,” he is unsparing with himself and the reader. While reading those very dense pieces, we begin to understand how terribly complicated being black in this country is, how blackness was not truly understood by people who claimed authority, e.g. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and how deeply seated is our unwillingness to acknowledge what we, as a country, have done to the black people in our midst. We feel shame at our ignorance and our own growing awareness that we have bought into outworn clichés about black people that have never held water, and certainly cannot now. And what’s more, that we did not care enough to find out more.
Here is the opportunity to correct that. For it is not enough to say, as so many have — JFK, LBJ, and Clinton, among others — that “a rising tide raises all boats.” In order to understand how we find ourselves in a country with so much inequality and so much racism and, possibly, a rise in the numbers of white supremacists, it is necessary to open our minds and look at this country more realistically. Coates has gathered statistics from studying many texts, both popular and scholarly. I had heard of some of them, but several were new to me, and I realize that what most white people read about race are something like Cliff Notes written by white journalists who, often out of necessity, synthesize and homogenize and end up feeding us what we already know.
To get to the kind of valuable insights Coates gives us takes a willingness to dig beneath the surface, “to abandon appeal and expectation,” and to come to the conclusion that: “My writing had to be my own, divorced from Expectation.” He goes on to say that by the fifth year of the Obama Presidency, when he became The Atlantic’s Black Writer, he realized that most notions of writing about race are wrong, that it is not marginal and provincial, but central to the American story:
I knew by then that I was not reporting and writing from some corner of American society but from the very heart of it, from the plunder that was essential to it and the culture that animated it. If you really want to understand this country, this alleged two-hundred year attempt to establish a society on Enlightenment values, I could think of no better place to study that effort than from the perspective of those whom that society excluded and pillaged in order to bring those values into practice. I did not feel pigeonholed in my role. I felt advantaged.
From here he segues into the most famous essay in the book, “Fear of a Black President,” which won the National Magazine Award and brought him fame that was enhanced by the popularity of his book Between The World and Me, whose model was Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. This piece is a crucial look at the time of our first black president, “whose power was bracketed by the same forces that bracketed the lives of black people everywhere,” jam-packed with facts about black history: how laws in this country segregated blacks and worked against them, e.g. in their ability to buy property and own homes, which, in turn, affected the education and opportunity their children received. By revealing facts that have been obscured for generations, Coates convinces even the most wary reader that there cannot be a post-racial America until a lot more work is done — slowly, methodically, with all the best intentions.
That work will certainly not even get off the ground under President Trump. In the last essay and the Epilogue Coates, who by now deserves all the authority he brings to these later essays, addresses the looming and ever growing horror of how we elected Trump. He reports that Obama was convinced Trump couldn’t win, but Obama’s optimism, his trust in the white man and this country, also has a darker side, which is beautifully articulated by Coates:
Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white American could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.
He also addresses the sincere but fundamentally wrong statements by liberals like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and the work by people like Mark Lilla and George Packer and Arlie Hochschild who want to believe that the cause for the present state of the country is that the white working class has been fatally marginalized. Once and for all, Coates shows us with hard-headed facts and percentages that our remorse about excluding the white working class is not nearly the whole story and that the elephant in the room is still race. For all those who protest that their neighbors aren’t bigots, Coates has this to say:
Every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist, just as every white person in the Jim Crow South was not a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.
This statement is more than borne out by Charlottesville. What can we do? people are asking and giving more money to places like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Simon Wiesenthal, etc. Perhaps another way to start is by reading this fabulous book and face realities you have not been willing to face before.
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.