All writers need communities and rallying cries, and Coates offers more than enough for the aspirant.
Back in the recent past, Twitter appeared to be a useful platform for communication instead of the bot riddled, doxxing, white supremacist breeding field that it is today. Back then, Ta-Nehisi Coates was an active user, engaging with his followers on the sort of topics one would expect from a black intellectual of growing prominence. Race, hip hop and the whitewashing of American history were interesting threads to follow, but the best conversations one might stumble onto were when Coates was holding forth about superhero comics. He expressed his fandom for famous stories from X-Men and Spider-Man, but also found importance and beauty in some of the more ostentatious event series that have fueled the superhero genre for too long. Given the weight and import of the work he had been doing for The Atlantic, it seems preposterous that a loving appraisal of a series called Planet Hulk could serve as a gateway into his writing, but Coates’ point-of-view is his genius. It really doesn’t matter how one finds it as long as it is found.
Before the accolades and MacArthur grant, Coates was a struggling freelance writer lucky to bring in five thousand dollars a year. He dedicated himself to raising his young son, Samori, his partner, Kenyatta Matthews and a blog that he maintained daily. Coates credits his network of commenters as creating something of a salon in the comments section. Ideas were debated, books and scholarly work recommended to expand thinking and support arguments. According to Coates, his commenters helped make him a better writer, which is certainly a refreshing take on any comments section at any point in the history of the Internet. In the organic manner that seems absent from the web these days, he gained enough of a following that the editors of The Atlantic took notice and hired him to blog for them.
We Were Eight Years in Power functions as a retrospective of Coates’ writing career. Part memoir, part greatest hits collection, the book contains eight of his long form essays, one from each year of the Obama presidency. Coates credits the election of the first black president in American history for his own rise and the ascent of other black writers and intellectuals. He calls himself The Atlantic’s black writer. Race was his beat, and he relished it.
“If you really wanted to understand this country, this alleged two-hundred-year attempt to establish a society on Enlightenment values, I could think of no better place to study that effort than from the perspective of those whom that society excluded and pillaged in order to bring those values into practice. I did not feel pigeonholed in my role. I felt advantaged.”
Each essay gets its own introduction under the rubric of “Notes of…” that year. These introductions chronicle more than the political and social events that led to the creation of each essay. Each one delves into the more personal influences, crises and motivations for Coates’ endeavors. He describes lessons in loving, self-care, family, anger and joy attained in each year, offering profundities of varying sizes. Honesty and fearlessness are Coates’ great aspiration, and the topic he focuses these qualities on most often is his own writing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is his own harshest critic, so apart from the great work We Were Eight Years in Power contains pertaining to race and societal thought, it is also an important book about writing. Coates offers notes on the process behind each essay but also analyzes where he failed and when he succeeded. As one would suspect, the progression is chronological. The final four essays are among Coates most famous, including “Fear of a Black President,” “The Case for Reparations” and “My President was Black.” But it is fascinating when Coates describes his aspirations and disappointments when trying to write a profile of Michelle Obama and being unable to achieve the intimacy he sought or in a review of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention where the parallel he tries to draw between Malcolm X and the Obama moment proves somewhat strained. But the seeds of his lyricism and prodigious intellectualism are always present, and he credits “Fear of a Black President” as being the moment his voice and craft finally conjoined to his satisfaction.
All writers need communities and rallying cries, and Coates offers more than enough for the aspirant. On finding freedom in writing:
“I found that black atheism and defiance morphed into a general theory of the life. No one was coming to save me, and no one was going to read me. My reasons for writing had to be my own, divorced from expectation. There would be no reward.”
This is the internal mental gamesmanship all writers face. Austerity of audience and payment provides insulation from doubt and self-sabotage like imposter syndrome. Coates used it as a mindset to do the work he could control like his blog and hone his craft and voice, preparing him for the greater opportunity that would arrive. There would be no reward until there was one.
The title of the book is not only a reference to the Obama presidency, but a quote that places the reaction of our political system of white supremacy to black ascendency in a historical context. The only other moment of concentrated black political power in this country was during Reconstruction. By its end, Reconstruction was considered a period of corrupt “Negro Rule,” and South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller was trying to remind his fellow statespeople of all the good that African Americans had done in that time. The speech begins with the sentence “We were eight years in power…” and from there lists the civic achievements in South Carolina in that time. While Miller hoped to appeal to the better nature of the white population in his state, Reconstruction failed due to racial animus.
It is Coates’ contention that the same racism that created Jim Crow, poll taxes and segregation is responsible for the election of Donald Trump. The cultural wound of slavery runs longer and deeper than the end of Reconstruction, but the backlash and erasure of black governance is reflected in that moment and helps to explain why so many white people voted against their own self-interest to elect someone so clearly unqualified for the office of the presidency. To confront white people with the fact that the election of Trump is completely our doing – he won no other demographic group but whites in all quarters – is to be met with defensiveness and derision. White people still have not reckoned with the ingrained racism created to advantage them. We refuse to accept that one does not have to carry a tiki torch or wear a hood to practice white supremacy. The election of Barack Obama may not have delivered on its promises of hope and change, but it did embody an American ideal. Obama worked hard, overcame adversity, rose up from his modest beginning and became president. The myth of America extended to a black man and the system of white supremacy went insane. Birthers, the Tea Party and Fox News derided the decent black president and his idyllic family for eight years and the natural culmination of that madness was Trump.
Each of the eight essays in the book examines blackness and white supremacy, retrospectively supporting the thesis that Obama would never truly satisfy white people, that any expression of blackness no matter how subtle would make his conservative naysayers apoplectic and that Obama misjudged the decency of men like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, his partners in running the country. Coates persuades with his arguments and ends his collection with the amount of uncertainty we are due. The time for platitudes about hope and change are over. Donald Trump is president of the United States, and crisis has become a daily routine in the body politic. Coates has done his service with his words and his fearlessness. If we want a fairer country that embodies the progressive ideals like liberty and equality, it is up to the rest of us to do ours.