Ta-Nehisi Coates weighs consequences in ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’

Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

We Were Eight Years in Power By Ta-Nehisi Coates, $28.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his self-annotated collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power, writes about becoming “The Atlantic’s ‘Black Writer’—a phrase that described both my identity and my interests.” For many black writers and journalists, this is a cage to escape, in that it excludes them from ranging over all national issues, but Coates gladly took up residence: “I knew by then that I was not reporting and writing from some corner of American society, but from the heart of it, from the plunder that was essential to it and the culture that animated it.”

Through his Atlantic gig and especially his widely praised 2015 memoir Between the World and Me, Coates has become in many ways the country’s most recognized black writer, a latter-day James Baldwin. Coates’s earlier book reprises and updates Baldwin’s letter to a young black man—Baldwin’s cousin; Coates’ son. We Were Eight Years in Power takes its title from a black politician’s 1895 lament for the eclipse of Reconstruction’s era of “Good Negro Government” and the onset of Jim Crow, but its topic is the presidency of Barack Obama. Coates introduces each of eight Atlantic essays with another putting the early essay in perspective, and those reflections comprise both pride and disappointment.

Both apply to his consideration of Obama, too. Coates recalls an Obama pollster’s observation that a black man could not be elected president but that a bright and capable man who happened to be black could, and that distinction in many ways underscores Coates’ thinking about those eight years. Coates believes Obama avoided opportunities to be black, to speak up about that historic and enduring “plunder” but observes that whenever he did assert his blackness, it only emboldened the ransackers on the right. Even the National Review thought the killing of Trayvon Martin a tragedy until Obama said Martin could have been his son. Then the right transformed Martin’s murderer into a hero. Damned if you do …

The book’s epilogue is the essay in October’s Atlantic, “The First White President,” arguing that only a vivid assertion of white supremacy could have brought us Trump. But Coates already has cited evidence aplenty that the right did not need an Angry Black Man to toot its dog whistles. We’re in a time much like the end of Reconstruction, and sadly, we sorely need Coates to keep being The Atlantic’s Black Writer.

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