Brutally honest and often harrowing, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” speaks to the division gripping our nation today. A collection of eight articles, one written each year of the Obama administration, the book pairs the excitement and optimism of the period in which it was written with the harsher reality of the last few months. The novel is a candid, pragmatic retrospective of the last decade, detailing both what the Obama administration did for the country, and what the aftermath is now that it has ended.
Coates’s collection, for all its criticism and analysis, is most compelling because it is grounded in his own experiences. Though his essays for “The Atlantic” span a wide variety of topics, the author’s commentary on his own life provides a meta-view which elucidates the motivation behind his work. Detailing the parallel developments of the 2008 election and his own burgeoning success, Coates reflects that, “The lock was changed. The doors swung open, and we did not know how to act.” An intimate look not only at the sociopolitical climate of the country, but also at the journalist’s experiences, these musings help to humanize the man behind the keyboard and to emphasize that, agree or disagree with his argument, one cannot question the sincerity of his account of the past eight years.
The book walks an interesting line: It is fiercely political while only peripherally discussing politics. Coates tackles his analysis of the past eight years by selecting a broad spectrum of pieces, spanning topics as diverse as Civil War education, the neighborhood dynamics on the South Side of Chicago, and economic reparations. Politics, it soon becomes evident, is inseparable from everyday life, and the book effectively explores the power structures underlying race relations in the United States without coming off as punditry.
Although there are moments of subjectivity, Coates never abandons his position as a fair judge of the situation unfolding around him. Take his assessment of former President Obama as an example: Coates calls the man “a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history,” but also acknowledges that years of compromise in office shifted focus off of “the nightmare endured by the minority.” Coates neither passes judgment nor absolves the president of the necessities of his job; rather, he lays out the facts and recognizes that even political necessities must be given proper skepticism. The rest of his writing follows suit, addressing facts and extrapolating as fairly as possible.
Coates makes it clear that the purpose of his piece is not to find solutions. He writes that “the title ‘public intellectual’ had been attached to me, and I saw what came with it was not just the air of the dilettante but the air of the solutionist.” Coates does not aim to create actionable steps towards resistance, instead abdicating authority in favor of simply instigating discussion. This way of understanding his role as a journalist is what gives the novel its potential staying power: It is less a hot take on the current political climate and more a deliberate attempt to start dialogue.
At its core, the work teaches its readers caution. Coates never quite reaches the point of resignation, but he is a realist about the social atmosphere of the United States. His novel serves to remind future generations that history is never linear, and that even watershed moments are temporary and only maintained with vigilance.
And so, though it wrestles with salient current events, “We Were Eight Years in Power” remains cognizant of the larger narrative of American history. The book has a deeply introspective understanding of its position in history, not as a single thread which alters the trajectory of the nation, but rather as one voice in a larger tapestry of progress. Coates’s final words, “I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and even war finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal—a world more humane,” are a rallying cry which unites rather than divides, instructs rather than inveighs. His recollection of the past eight years is a demonstration both of how much the world can change in so little time and how important it is to have a broader view in mind.