“We Were Eight Years in Power” is built around eight essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, one from each year of President Barack Obama’s administration. Those eight years also happen to represent an ascendant time in the writer’s life. In 2008, Coates languished in an unemployment office, confronting dismal career options as a college dropout, but by 2016 he was a bestselling author, a National Book Award winner and a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
“We Were Eight Years in Power” takes its title from an 1895 speech by South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller. Miller cited progress in South Carolina during a time of “Negro rule” to advocate for preserving citizenship rights for blacks. The title, and Coates’ decision to lead the book with an obscure quote, reminds us of three things we should know: Racial progress always incites backlash, history repeats itself and Coates is a man of compelling ideas. His thinking is sourced by a commendable depth of knowledge, and his depth of knowledge results from tireless research and prodigious reading.
All the essays gathered here were first published in the Atlantic, and all are still available online. What makes the book meaningful is commentary written by Coates to introduce each essay. The commentary expands on each piece; through it we learn more about Coates, as a person and a writer. We see what Coates feels he got right, where he thinks he got it wrong, and we learn more about the black experience in America through his unique voice.
We also appreciate how Coates’ ideas and writing have evolved over time and why. His thinking progressed through engagement with experts and results from extensive research on topics that interest him — often concerning race in America.
During those eight years, Coates’ writing advanced, too. He stood out when we first encountered him online; now he drives conversations. In these frantic times, when we might feel we have limited time to engage with thoughtful content, many of us reserve space for Coates’ long-form masterpieces.
Here, we see how he labored in his writing to draw on all his “influences — poetry, hip-hop, history, memoir, reportage — [to] produce something original and beautiful.” We watch, essay by essay, as he progresses from a captivating writer to a canonical one. What results from his ethic, his art, his perspective on its creation, and the personal reflections included here, constitute a master class for writers, artists and scholars.
For everyone else, those who know these works and those who don’t, “We Were Eight Years in Power” is a brilliant summation of Coates’ essential philosophies, confirming something else we should already know — we’re witnessing greatness. The man and his writing will be studied and revered for generations.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. He lives in St. Paul.
We Were Eight Years in Power
By: Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Publisher: One World, 367 pages, $28.