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An American Tragedy
Barack Obama was an American president from 2008 to 2016.
And Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicles the period in his remarkable collection of essays “We Were Eight Years in Power.”
Who Should Read “We Were Eight Years in Power”? And Why?
If you are interested in learning how deeply white supremacy and racism are rooted in American history, you should read this book.
Read it even more carefully if you are not: you should be.
About Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an American essayist, journalist, and comic book writer.
A national correspondent for “The Atlantic,” he has also worked for “The Village Voice” and “Time” and contributed to numerous publications.
He has written three more books: “Asphalt Sketches,” “The Beautiful Struggle,” and “Between the World and Me.”
“We Were Eight Years in Power PDF Summary”
“We Were Eight Years in Power” is a collection of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essays published during Barack Obama’s presidency in “The Atlantic” magazine.
There’s one essay for every year from 2008 to 2016 (framed between an Introduction and an Epilogue and interspersed with personal notes), and you can read each of them online.
We’ve even provided all the links!
First Year: ‘This Is How We Lost to the White Man’
Following the numerous sexual assault allegations and his recent conviction on three counts, Bill Cosby is certainly not someone whose words anybody would take at face value today.
However, this wasn’t the case back in 2004 when he was still one of the most popular and beloved black figures in the world.
In May 2004, during an NAACP ceremony in Washington D. C., the comedian gave a speech – infamously dubbed “the Pound Cake speech” – in which he was highly critical of the black community in the United States, attacking black Americans for – among other things – giving their children African names.
Twelve years later, in 2016, he reiterated this, even claiming that racism is no excuse for black Americans to fail and end up in prison.
Needless to say, Cosby is missing the point altogether, mixing reasons with consequences, and, unfortunately, giving white racists something to talk about.
Second Year: American Girl
After Barack Obama came to power, Ta-Nehisi Coates got an assignment to do a profile on the new president’s wife, Michelle.
From the interview with her, he learned that hers is the conventional narrative.
Namely, she lived in an all but cocooned childhood, during which she was never very aware of her blackness; after all, she grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where being black was very normal.
However, this all changed when Michelle went to Princeton, where she majored in sociology and minored in African-American studies, but where, more importantly, she first realized that the society all but naturally expected from her to assume a somewhat different identity and distance herself from her blackness.
Now, that, unfortunately, is an all too familiar experience for every African-American living in the U.S.
Third Year: Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?
For black people, white supremacy is deeply rooted within American history – a history in which their role is completely ignored.
For example, the Civil War is taught in glorying terms at American schools, even though it is nothing more but evidence that America’s economic prosperity rested for a century on the bare shoulders of black slaves.
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. 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.
In other words, say what you will, but for the black people, the Civil War cannot be “a horrible tragedy” of failed negotiations between the North and the South.
It can only be someone else’s history.
Fourth Year: The Legacy of Malcolm X
Malcolm X is a controversial, difficult-to-pin-down figure in American history, deemed a criminal by some, a martyr by others.
Either way, from the point of view of an African American, he is certainly one of the greatest and most influential people who have ever lived.
In fact, according to Coates, he is responsible for shaping the consciousness of black Americans more than anyone else.
Before he started asking questions such as “who taught you to hate the color of your skin?” and “who taught you to hate your own kind?” phrases such as “black is beautiful” were unimaginable.
Unsurprisingly, Malcolm X influenced the views of Barack Obama himself, with whom he also shares some aspects of his biography.
Fifth Year: Fear of a Black President
Before Barack Obama, “black president” was all but an oxymoron.
In fact, as Coates reminds us, “the comedian Dave Chappelle joked that the first black president would need a ‘Vice President Santiago’ —because the only thing that would ensure his life in the White House was a Hispanic president-in-waiting.”
Fortunately, the United States did elect a black president – twice.
Unfortunately, this instilled some new energy in white supremacist movements which didn’t miss an opportunity to blame Obama for being racist toward white people on the few occasions – the fewest in history, in fact – when he addressed the issue of injustice (such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin).
Ultimately, this resulted in bringing Donald Trump to the White House.
Sixth Year: The Case for Reparations
This essay is probably Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most famous one.
It argues for reparations for the African-Americans as a way to repay them for the racial atrocities they had to endure during the past.
We don’t need to list them to understand that Coates’ proposition isn’t outlandish as it may seem at first.
We just need to tell you this: white American wealth is founded on black slavery.
And the blacks have seen nothing of it for centuries, two in three of them being deemed ineligible even for social security as late as the Great Depression.
Seventh Year: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration
As we’ve told you before, there’s a New Jim Crow in town, and it is called mass incarceration.
Simply put, there are more prisoners in the United States than in any country in the world – and most of them are blacks.
For example, one in ten black males between the ages of 20 and 40 were imprisoned back in 2002, when only one in one hundred white males was incarcerated.
Needless to add, that’s statistically impossible.
And it needs to be mended right away.
Eighth Year: My President Was Black
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a member of a proud generation of African Americans who are able to say that, for eight years, their president was black.
However, they must also be aware of the fact that they the United States is still not a post-racial country.
Being a child of a Kenyan man and a white American woman, Barack Obama was able to bridge the differences between the races by exuding an unwavering sense of optimism for the future.
However, the very fact that he was succeeded by Donald Trump may be a somewhat ominous sign.
Key Lessons from “We Were Eight Years in Power”
1. The Fear of the Good Negro Government
2. Barack Obama Was a Bridge – and Yet…
3. White Supremacy Was Reborn – Out of Black Presidency
The Fear of the Good Negro Government
If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government,” wrote Du Bois once, “it was good Negro government.
Because while good negroes are great in “the unthreatening abstract” (think “The Cosby Show,” for example), in reality, they question the entire American history and the very foundations of the United States.
Barack Obama Was a Bridge – and Yet…
A son of a Kenyan man and an American woman raised in a white family, on paper, Barack Obama was the perfect bridge capable of linking all races.
And yet – when he left office, half of the opposition country (including U.S.’s current president) didn’t even believe he was an American.
That’s not a good sign.
White Supremacy Was Reborn – Out of Black Presidency
Even if Barack Obama’s presidency was merely symbolic, it was used as a tool for infusing white supremacy and racist views with new energy.
And, unfortunately, that’s how Trump came to power.
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“We Were Eight Years in Power Quotes”
Every Trump voter is certainly not a white supremacist, just as every white person in the Jim Crow South was not a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it was acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“We Were Eight Years in Power” is – to quote one review – brilliant, relevant and powerful.
After all, it wasn’t one of Time’s top 10 non-fiction books of 2017 without a strong reason!