In the years following the Civil War, when Southern Blacks had been freed of their chains and began to enter the political and social sphere, South Carolina incrementally sought ways to disenfranchise and halt the mobility of its African American population. At his state’s constitutional convention in 1895, South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller—an adopted son of freed slaves—urged his colleagues to reject the retreat back toward bigotry, and to honor the real gains made during Reconstruction: “We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”
Miller’s appeal was rebuffed, and South Carolina, along with much of the South, entered into a new campaign of fear, disenfranchisement, and domestic terrorism.
We Were Eight Years in Power, the new book from Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates, arrives at a time when the country faces a similar existential crisis. A collection of eight essays written for the Atlantic, it begins in the early days of Barack Obama’s improbable first presidential campaign, and finishes at the start of Trump’s unthinkable first term. The book, however, isn’t so much a retrospective of Obama’s eight-year presidency as it is a document of Coates’ own development as a writer. Each of the eight essays—which cover such ground as mass incarceration and the destruction of the Black family, Civil War history, the legacy of Malcolm X, and the Black conservatism of Bill Cosby (written before the full scale of Cosby’s abuses came to light, and thus rendered, if not obsolete, then sorely inadequate)—is introduced with a prefatory note, relating a significant point in Coates’s professional career as a journalist. The essays are, he writes: “attempts to capture why I was writing and where I was in my life at the time.”
Before rocketing to worldwide fame with the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, Coates was waiting in Harlem unemployment lines, with a young son at home, considering becoming a cook or a cab driver rather than a writer. His journey, from that unemployment office to the Oval Office, where he interviewed the first Black president, provides the backbone of We Were Eight Years in Power.
While a few of these essays remain just as urgent today as they were when first published, others, like his profile on pre-First Lady Michelle Obama or the Cosby piece, serve best as documents of a young writer still finding his voice. But once Coates hits his stride, as he does with “The Case for Reparations” and “My President Was Black,” he is unmatched among his contemporaries in writing about race, for his deep and thorough analysis, and his confidence to make the kinds of proclamations from which many other writers and scholars recoil. “To be black in America was to be plundered,” Coates writes. “To be white was to benefit from, and at times directly execute, this plunder. No national conversation, no invocations to love, no moral appeals, no pleas for ‘sensitivity’ and ‘diversity,’ no lamenting of ‘race relations’ could make this right. Racism was banditry, pure and simple. And the banditry was not incremental to America, it was essential to it.”
In the book’s epilogue, “The First White President,” Coates rejects the popular talking point that Trump’s win resulted from economic frustration and the left’s indifference toward “working-class whites.” He points out that this was the same excuse given when former grand wizard of the KKK David Duke nearly won the Republican primary for a seat in the US Senate. White supremacy is not a new issue; it is the foundation of the country, and Coates suggests that any attempt to dismantle its grasp has for over 200 years been met with fear-stoking and subsequent violence. From the Civil War to Charlottesville, white supremacy is in a ceaseless struggle to maintain its dominion.
Coates is often chastised for not offering a tidy message of hope, a position he often has to defend. He won’t join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.” That is not his job. Coates explains that his motivation as an artist was informed by his discovery of hip-hop in the early ’90s. Hip-hop—and art as a whole—is not required to offer easily digestible answers, but to present the world as it is.
“Art was not sentimental,” writes Coates. “It had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire to not be enrolled in its lie, to not be co-opted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.”