We Were Eight Years In Power
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published 2017 by One World
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525624516
By Noah Sanders
You may feel slightly irked that the newest release from massively popular intellectual and memoirist (and comic book writer) Ta-Nehisi Coates has a collection of his already published essays from The Atlantic. For a variety of reasons, you should not be. Even if We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy was just a re-purposed cash grab, a bound assemblage of Coates’ greatest hits from the distinguished magazine over the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, there would be cause for celebration. Coates is a rare intellectual who can, and will, take weighty issues—reparations, America’s historical dependence on slavery, the lesser aspects of Barack Obama—and translate them into palatable essays without losing the fire at his core. Agree or disagree with the points made within this collection, Coates is a writer, and thinker, of immense skill and intelligence. Following his train of thought as he reports, and opines, on the treatment of blacks in America since the time of Roanoke runs the gamut between utter disgust with the country we live in and slack-jawed marvel at Coates ability to make it, strange as it sounds, a pleasure to read.
What pushes We Were Eight Years In Power beyond a dry collection of essays though, is Coates himself. To commemorate the re-release of these pieces of writing, Coates has penned eight original pieces (one for each year) that chart the author’s growth as both a writer and human during the Obama presidency. The new pieces read like commentaries on not only the essay that follows, but Coates himself, his thoughts on writing, his expansion as a thinker, his grappling with newfound fame. They read like DVD commentaries if composed by a MacArthur Grant winning author. Coates, as is his way, doesn’t spare himself or his writing in any way. He tears himself asunder time and time again, exploring what went wrong in his essays, what he wished he’d hit upon, with the travails of youth prevented him from getting on the page.
In “Notes on Year One,” the thought piece before “This Is How We Lost The White Man” (Coates’ essay on Bill Cosby and Black Conservatism), he writes, “In every piece in this book there is a story I told and many more I left untold, for better or worse. In the case of Bill Cosby, especially, it was for worse. That was my shame. That was my failure.” In doing so, Coates places himself as an engaged participant and recorder of American history in the making. The reader watches America grow and contract as we watch Coates do just the same. The essays, impressive as they are, become almost sidebars for the journey of Coates himself, as both human and writer. The memoir pieces create a sinew previously unexplored, a second layer of personal connection to the author, that allows us to see the through-line of Coates’ thinking. It doesn’t seem that revolutionary—commenting on the pieces you’ve previously written in hindsight—but We Were Eight Years In Power speaks volumes for the inclusion of an author’s reflection on his work in collections such as these. As the reader ingests Coates’ critiques and contextual placements of his own work, the pieces seem to pull apart and reform, perceived entirely different in their new context.
There are two main sides of Coates as a writer—the memoirist and the intellectual. Where his essays can tend towards statistical interpretation and flat-out reportage, in his books—The Beautiful Struggle and Between The World and Me—Coates chooses emotion over cold, hard fact, leaving the statistics and statistical interpretations of his essay work on the shelf in favor of wrenching, poetic, emotional release. It’s clear that Coates’ longer pieces stem from the same throbbing intellect that his essays do, but in them, Coates isn’t held back by the restraints of reportage and the wider palette allows him to show how the world his essays paint was one he lived in, was one which personally affected him and his loved one. We Were Eight Years In Power allows the reader to digest the complex ideas of his more academic pursuits, but with Coates as a personal guide. If his books lead us through his life in the face of rampant racism, and if his essays lead us deep into the crevices of his enormous intellect, this book gives readers the best of both worlds.