In We Were Eight Years in Power Ta Nehisi Coates collects together eight essays he published during the years of Obama’s presidency, adding in some new material that adds context and autobiographical information. Those eight years, whether through coincidence or because a black presidency brought a wider audience to his work, were also the years that saw Coates go from a college dropout to one of the most respected voices on the subject of Black America. So while this may essentially be just a collection of previously published essays, it is also much more than that. It is a fascinating account of the legitimacy black artists received in the wake of Obama’s election, it is a devastating history of why that legitimacy was needed and the battles fought to earn it, and it is a horrifying proposal of how this legitimacy led to the return of White Supremacy under a former reality TV presenter with no political credentials.
Although the title might suggest that this is a collection of essays all about Obama, that is not the case at all. We have discussions about Bill Cosby, the American Civil War, the case for reparations, Malcolm X, mass incarceration, and even a particularly enjoyable spotlight on Michelle Obama, the former First Lady. However, whether this was the intention when they were written or not, each essay does lend itself to the narrative of how Obama became the Leader of the Free World and how the storm that this created led to the situation we find ourselves in today. Read alone, each essay is powerful and thought-provoking. Particular praise must go to the mass incarceration piece and the one that discusses Bill Cosby’s speaking tour addressing ‘the problems with Black America’s youth’. But together, these eight essays and autobiographical inserts add up to something essential that could not be more relevant to the current climate.
Ending the book is a new piece of work that posits Donald Trump as ‘America’s first white president’. Coates is not being forgetful or colour blind when he says this, but is instead suggesting that Trump is the first American president to whom whiteness has been their most essential attribute and the largest factor in their election. After reading the pieces that precede it, it is hard to find a way to disagree.
Any Cop?: Coates is not only writing about the most defining issue of our time, but he also does it with the rhythm and rhyme reminiscent of his most revered predecessors. Comparisons to James Baldwin abound, but for once they seem to be down to more than just lazy journalism and the fact that people can’t be bothered to think of another black writer to compare someone to. Just as Baldwin was previously the pre-eminent writer on his subject, so Coates is now. Sadly, it seems that writing on that subject is just as essential today as it was back then.