Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedyby Matt Grant
The day after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay collection We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy was released, Coates appeared on CBS This Morning to promote it. Towards the end of the segment, Gayle King addresses him. “You’re being called one of America’s best writers on race,” she says. “I heard you gagged when you heard that.”
“I’m gagging right now,” Coates says, palpable dislike hiding behind an affable grin.
“Okay, would you prefer to be called the black public intellectual?” King asks. “You like that better?”
“No, no, no,” Coates insists.
“What would you like?” Charlie Rose asks.
Without hesitation, Coates responds, “I’d like one day to be the best writer in America, bar none... I have no problem with being black; I actually have no problem with being a black writer. I take great pride in that. But I think when people say things like, ’You’re the best writer on race,‘ it’s to pretend as though I’m not in competition with any other writer.”
It’s a comment full of the kind of self-reflection and forethought that pervades Coates’s work. A former columnist and current national correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates is fully aware of the dangers posed when people start labeling his writing.
“The notion that writing about race, which is to say, the force of white supremacy, is marginal and provincial is itself parcel to white supremacy, premised on the notion that the foundational crimes of this country are mostly irrelevant to its existence,” he writes.
And indeed, to read the essays in this new compilation and focus only on what Coates says while dismissing how he says it would be to severely underestimate his talents.
We Were Eight Years In Power is comprised of eight essays previously published in The Atlantic. There is one for every year of the Obama presidency, which parallels Coates’s hiring at the publication and his rise to prominence. However, the book is far from homage to Obama’s administration. Coates is not shy about the complicated relationship he has with America’s first black president. He takes Obama to task for his military policies and for the ways Obama eschewed discussions of race as much as possible. But Coates also acknowledges that he personally has much for which to credit Obama: “My contention is that Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms,” he writes. “I was one of those writers.”
Obama’s presidency is rather like a framing device through which Coates examines his own journey of the last eight years, both as a black man in America and as a writer. In his pieces, he explores topics as varied and wide-ranging as Bill Cosby and Malcolm X, mass incarceration and reparations. While it may be possible to find each essay and read it individually, taken collectively, the essays form an intriguing portrait of a writer finding his voice and coming into his power. Before each installment, Coates drafts short biographical sketches of his life at that point and the circumstances that led to writing each essay. These snapshots are infused with a personal, narrative touch missing from the essays. While his essays have branded Coates an intellectual, here we see him as a man. He struggles with his craft. He struggles to provide for his partner and young son. He grapples with his voice, and perhaps most significant of all, apologizes for what he got wrong.
As the essays go on, they grow progressively more assured. The writing becomes more solid, the viewpoints more eloquently argued. The crowning achievement is “The Case for Reparations,” the piece that, by his own admission, solidified Coates’s place as a writer of renown. It’s a sprawling, emotional look at the institutional racism of the U.S. housing market. In it, Coates argues that considering reparations is anathema because it would force Americans to truly level with their racist past.
“To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with national lying,” he writes.
Coates is a writer who is not content with letting America forget its past sins and never reconcile with its racist history. His points are impossible to ignore. Describing Obama’s election night, Coates writes, “I joined in the spectacle of America—a country that had incorporated the fact of African slavery into its Constitution—handing its standard to a black man of thin résumé and fantastical mien.”
In this book, Coates accomplishes his goal. He emerges not as one of our best writers on race, but as one of our best writers, bar none.
MATT GRANT is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.