To say Ta-Nehisi Coates covers a lot of ground in We Were Eight Years in Power is a true understatement. This book has done more to explain to me the state of the U.S. today than several of the other books I’ve read since the election combined.
Coates reaches back to historical events and eras. He talks about his fascination with the Civil War, how he studied, as well as visited battlefields and exhibits. He details the difficulties of life in post-World War II Chicago, especially the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale. In each time period, Coates discusses the predatory policies of governments and businessmen towards African Americans.
Coates also covers the “tough on crime” political era, and how it led to today’s mass incarceration of so many millions of black and brown people. This is done with a small nod to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which is a more thorough investigation of the topic.
He contrasts the presidency of Barack Obama with his successor, while focusing more on the former. In the last essay, Coates takes on our current political and economic situation. He connects 45 to the white men of the past, with the vicious, racist behavior. He doesn’t give the liberal left a pass. This is a moment when Coates lets his anger really show.
If I felt angry while reading the book, it was at myself, my country, and other white people. I am more embarrassed than ever. Reading his work makes me alternately nostalgic and depressed. Nostalgic for the years of the Obama presidency, and depressed by the behavior of white people (especially white men) during all of history.
I appreciated also how the author uses his introductory essays to discuss the progress of his own writing career. In fact, that progression is evident in the eight essays previously published in The Atlantic. Coates connects his thinking and writing to other esteemed black intellectual writers like James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois. And yet he is self-effacing about this comparison.
In terms of writing style, Coates can be elegant as much as he can write with density and complication. There were many times I had to reread sentences and paragraphs to grasp the entire meaning. Since I read the advanced reader’s copy, I don’t want to put quotes here in case they’ve changed in the final version. But know that I have highlighted many passages, some entire paragraphs. There is so much here to read and then revisit. So much to discuss and ponder. It’s absolutely another five-star read from Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Thanks to NetGalley and One World, Random House Publishing Group for the digital ARC in exchange for my honest review.