We were eight years in power : an American tragedy

Staff Picks: We Were Eight Years In Power : an American Tragedy

Reviewed by Bill Koester, Materials Handler

We Were Eight Years In Power : an American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates is also available in eBook, audiobook, and large print formats.

IntegrityIn response to the ongoing protests against police brutality and the ensuing discussions about race in America, there has been a recent trend of book recommendations for White Americans to better understand the experience of Black America. As a White reader myself, some of the most eye-opening work has been that of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Coates has moved more into fiction recently—he finished an acclaimed stint with Marvel comics and published his first novel The Water Dancer within the past year—but his most known work, the work which brought him to prominence, were his articles for The Atlantic. We Were Eight Years in Power compiles eight of his most acclaimed articles published during the Obama Administration, along with his personal commentary on events of the era and afterwards.

In these articles, Coates highlights how the United States of America is, by design, not inclusive for Black Americans. “Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War?” describes how the Lost Cause myth centers the White experience of the war, and has long been used to absolve White America of the sins of slavery and racism. In “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” he lays out how, by design, crime and sentencing policy have disproportionately harmed and imprisoned African-Americans. And in his masterpiece, the highly acclaimed “The Case for Reparations,” he details how decades of discriminatory policies specifically targeting African-Americans have denied them the American Dream.

Several of the works are profiles of Barack Obama, and one of Michelle. Through these, Coates explores not so much the President’s policies as what he means as a symbol, one onto which Black America pinned so much. And also, the visceral hatred he received from White America and his political opposition. Coates not only posits that there’s no question that White backlash led to the election of the current President, but highlights how Whiteness is so ingrained in this country that even left-leaning politicians and intellectuals still deny that racial animus was a factor.

The book can be a heavy, dispiriting read, to say the least (the fact that it’s broken into article-sized chunks helps readers who may need to take a break). Indeed, for those who have looked on in horror at the last four years, reading arouses nearly every negative emotion. It is worth it, however, both for the essentialness of the subject matter and for Coates’ language, at once both verbose and rhythmically beautiful.

In spite of what’s in most of We Were Eight Years In Power, the epilogue finds Coates trying to find a bit of hope, or at least use the current state of things as fuel to fight for a better America. Whether or not the reader feels as determined, the work paints an astounding picture of just how much work remains to be done for this country to be truly equal.

This is review is part of the Finding Value series, inspired by the eleven core values central to the Library's mission. Tune in as Library staff review books and movies that highlight the values accessibility, civil discourse, inclusiveness, integrity, intellectual freedom, lifelong learning, literacy, respect, safety, service, and stewardship.