Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing about race for a long time. His big breakthrough was his slender but solid Between the World and Me. It is a long essay addressed to his then 15-year-old son on the subject of blackness and was much lauded, winning the National Book Award in 2015.
His new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, is actually only partially new. It collects eight lengthy essays that Coates wrote for The Atlantic magazine during the Obama years. One essay to represent each year.
The essays are supplemented with new introductions that explain how the essays came about, what Coates was thinking at the time and, quite often, how his thinking has changed since the essay’s original publication.
Some of the essays are already quite familiar and one, 2014’s “The Case for Reparations,” is on its way to becoming a classic. Coates argues for what he calls “moral reparations” rather than a simple cash settlement.
His real point is that Americans, white and black, don’t realize how much of the success of the country today relies on the appropriation of black labour and property from the days of slavery through the Jim Crow era.
For example, he says “In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports.” Now, he insists, is the time to open up a conversation about this imbalance.
Although most of the essays are focused on the present, Coates usually takes a longer view, often looking back to the “original sin” of American slavery and the aftermath of the Civil War. In a sense, he suggests, there will be no true racial equality until the ripple effects from 150 years ago are dealt with.
Slavery and the Civil War are still the great racial divider, he says. “The Civil War is a story for white people— acted out by white people , on white people’s terms— in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props,” he writes.
“We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative.”
Rupturing the narrative is exactly what Coates wants to do. His earliest essay looks at Bill Cosby’s “black conservatism” at the time when Cosby was decrying the degenerate state of the black community, targeting its rap music, fatherless homes and violence.
Cosby was literally telling black boys to pull their pants up and return to a time when black people had respect for themselves. Coates’s piece on Michelle Obama also takes her to task for hearkening back to a simpler time in American race relations.
For Coates, there never was a golden age for black American life or culture.
“This is our history,” he says. “America is literally unimaginable without white supremacy, without the plundered labor shackled to plundered land, without the organizing principle of whiteness as citizenship, without the gifts to popular culture crafted by the plundered, and without those gifts themselves being plundered.”
Coates admits that he was wrong in doubting that America could ever elect a black president. (He quotes his father, a former Black Panther member as saying “Son…you know the country got to be messed up for them folks to give him the job.”)
He also didn’t believe that Donald Trump was electable, a view President Obama shares with Coates in an interview.
“I have often wondered how I missed the coming tragedy,” Coates writes.”It is not so much that I should have predicted that Americans would elect Donald Trump. It’s just that I shouldn’t have put it past us.”
The book’s title comes from a black South Carolina Congressman, Thomas Miller, from a speech in 1895 when his state was turning from black participation in government to black disenfranchisement.
“We were eight years in power,” Miller said. “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.”
But the racial pendulum swung away from racial progress, just as Coates believes it is swinging away again from Obama to Trump.
In the end, Coates is clear-eyed about the cycles of American history, but he is not discouraged.
“Our story is a tragedy,” he concludes, although “that belief does not depress me. It focuses me.”
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates, One World, Random House Penguin Canada, 400pp.