U.S. Intellectual History Blog

*We Were Eight Years in Power* And How To Think About History

The release of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ collection of essays, We Were Eight Years in Power, has been the occasion for a variety of viewpoints on Coates and his writing over the years. I have found the book to be a fascinating mediation on not on race and American society, but Coates’ own evolution on those debates over the years. I’m not going to wade into current debates raging among historians, pundits, and intellectuals about Coates’ views on race, class, and gender. Nor do I want to use my space to give a proper review. However, there are a few parts of the book that caught my attention. The ways in which Coates situates being an intellectual caught my eye, and I think deserve more attention.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays written by Coates since 2007 for The Atlantic magazine. What makes this volume worthwhile are Coates’ reflections on what he was thinking as he wrote and reported each piece. He admits to changing his mind about many of the pieces in the book. For example, he expresses regret for not saying more about allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby as he finished his piece on Cosby and black conservatism, “This is how we lost to the white man.” The book is a look in Coates’ thought process during the eight years of the Obama administration.

There are some numerous moments in the text where Coates writes about his disbelief at being as much of an important public intellectual as he has become. He also expresses thoughts on what it means to be a writer on race: “…the more I wrote, the more I saw I wasn’t boxed in as much as those who dismissed my chosen beat were boxed out.” In other words, Coates argues that instead of feeling pigeon-holed by the idea of being a “Black Writer” (his capitalization and emphasis) or a “writer on race,” it should be embraced to help get at larger ideas about the world.[1]

I also admit to understanding Coates’ view of history. For those who are critical of Coates for not being hopeful enough, this book is necessary reading. At the least, We Were Eight Years in Power explains how Coates went from optimistic about America’s future—especially in regard to race relations—to being known as a skeptic about race relations. In a sense, he never stopped being such a skeptic, but the election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave him reason to change his views. The virulent opposition to Obama, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, gave Coates reason to stick to his earlier skepticism. His view of history is not necessarily bleak—but it isn’t hopeful, either. “The warlords of history,” Coates wrote, “are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.”[2]

I confess to having to put the book down after reading that line, which comes at the end of a section describing how many of history’s greatest monsters were not punished by the universe, but lived full and long lives. Thinking back, I’m surprised Coates didn’t point out the shortness of the lives of people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (killed at age 39) or Fred Hampton (assassinated by the FBI at age 21)—but perhaps he felt that wasn’t needed. I was disturbed by what Coates wrote because I found myself agreeing with it, having come to similar viewpoints on how history and the universe cares little about any of us.

But Coates does not wallow in self-pity or despair. I want to make that clear too. Above all, We Were Eight Years in Power is a book about what it means to think deeply and critically about living in America in the early years of the twenty first century. For Coates, that also meant that he “loved directly and fixed myself to solid things—my wife, my child, my family, health, work, friends.”[3] Being a historian in the Age of Obama, and then the Age of Trump—whether we should even see them as distinguishable eras is certainly questionable—means finding yourself wondering how all this turns out. I am sure our predecessors in the late 1960s, or those going to school during World War II, had similar thoughts.

Suffice to say much more digital ink will be spilled at the blog about Coates’ new book. But those are just my thoughts at the moment.

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World, 2017. P. 113-117. He also addresses the Adolph Reed, Jr. critique of black intellectuals found in his essay, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?” admitting that he read it as a student at Howard when it first came out—and still largely agreed it with it. He does note, however, that Reed’s essay appeared in The Village Voice—a publication that, like The Atlantic, is not geared exclusively towards African Americans.

[2] Coates, 110.

[3] Coates, 111.

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  1. Thanks for this, Robert. I’m not planning to read the book in the near future, so I’ll take any reflections on it, here or elsewhere, that I can read in short bursts.

    On distinguishing between the Age of Obama and the Age of Trump, I believe, sadly, that they will demand review together, from now and beyond, until the end of history. I say this despite my profound admiration for the first of the two, and deep unhappiness and disrespect for the latter. – TL

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