We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
One World Publishing. 367 pp. $28.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has published a collection of the major magazine essays he wrote throughout the Obama years. The epilogue, a savaging of President Trump's white-supremacist ideology "in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power," appeared recently in the Atlantic, where Coates is a national correspondent.
Coates adds an unexpected element that renders We Were Eight Years in Power new and revealing. Interspersed among the essays are introductory personal reflections; they are "attempts to capture why I was writing and where I was in my life at the time," Coates says. Taken together, he says, they form "a loose memoir."
That the Obama era would conclude with Donald Trump's winning the White House seems almost inevitable after reading Coates' works. "To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy . . . is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying," he wrote in 2014. "The election of Donald Trump confirmed everything I knew of my country and none of what I could accept," he writes. "I was shocked at my own shock."
It was not Coates' first shock. The rise of Barack Obama to the Democratic presidential nomination seemed at the time like "an end-of-history moment," he writes. "As Obama's election became imaginable, it seemed possible that our country had, indeed, at long last, come to love us." He appreciates that Obama had much to do with his eventual success, that this president was "responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms."
In "The Case for Reparations," published in 2014, it all came together. This work of deep reporting and seething understatement made Coates a literary star, and soon the writer once nervous about profiling Bill Cosby was trying to emulate James Baldwin. His publisher warned him that "the road is littered with knockoffs of The Fire Next Time," but Coates tried, and the result was Between the World and Me, winner of the 2015 National Book Award.
Reading Coates now feels ever more urgent, the bar set higher. Early in this book, he writes that having the Obamas in the White House "opened a market" for him. Trump opens one, too.
Carlos Lozada is a staff writer for the Washington Post.