Winner of the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a collection of 8 essays, written between 2008 and 2016 with added contemporary introductions to each, from the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me, reflecting on race, Barack Obama’s presidency and its jarring aftermath—including the election of Donald Trump, and his own evolution as a writer.
We Were Eight Years in Power is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s modern book of lamentations — of a nation’s hope in tatters and change stifled by bigotry emboldened ... Coates maps his own career path from unknown blogger to revered journalist invited by Obama 'into the Oval Office to bear witness to history.' His professional ascension, including his National Book Award-winning bestseller, Between the World and Me, coincided with Obama’s presidency, and this was not a coincidence. Too many people who should have known better declared Obama’s election as the Big Bang of a post-racial America, and Coates’s probing essays about race, politics, and history became necessary ballast for this nation’s gravity-defying moment ... After spending much of this essential book looking backward, Coates stares squarely at our chaotic present in his most recent essay, 'The First White President.' It’s a scorching takedown of Trump, his calamitous presidency, and his open embrace of racism, something in which he was well versed long before he moved into the White House.
These essays are a cross section of Coates’ work that, read with the distance of time, reveal the shifts in his thinking, even as they cover familiar concerns and questions. They also show a broadening of his perspective ... This volume serves to address other criticisms. The charge that Coates is a pessimist, all but disengaged from politics, is belied by his keen interest in compensatory justice, even if he’s doubtful of its ultimate success. The charge that Coates is writing primarily for guilty white liberals becomes laughable on its face: If Coates is writing for anyone besides himself, it is for other black people, a fact you can glean from his subjects and preoccupations ... We Were Eight Years in Power is more than a 'loose memoir'; it’s Coates giving himself a deep read, and inviting us to join him in this look at his intellectual journey. And by showcasing a range of essays—some his strongest work, others deeply flawed—he asks his readers to consider him as a writer, nothing more and nothing less.
With some quarters seeing the 2008 election less as a promise than as a threat, Obama’s achievement proves to be both a milestone and a millstone. The same might be said of Coates’s ascension as an important critic, if not the important critic, of our time … Eight Years could have settled for being the obligatory miscellany that too often follows a writer’s masterpiece; instead, the book provides a master class on the essay form. Structured as a call and response between eight of his most significant articles and briefer, more personal essays arranged by year, Coates gives us something between a mixtape and a Künstlerroman, demonstrating how he came to dominate the nonfiction genre … It is the record of his struggle as a writer that is of great interest here. As in Baldwin, the struggle of the writing dovetails with the struggle of the race. This becomes clearest in his 2014 essay ‘The Case for Reparations,’ which became Coates’s calling card, and rightly so.