To read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” is to confront the social-historical challenges of race and racism in the United States, especially in the context of the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. And to confront a persistent theme: “Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast”, or that African-Americans have to be “twice as good” to succeed, in the face of racial prejudice and systematic discrimination. Even as a non-American now living in the country, somewhat cognisant of the history of slavery and exploitation and day-to-day experiences of African-Americans, I was not immune to the feelings of outrage.
The book is a collection of eight previously published essays in “The Atlantic” over the course of President Obama’s administration – each prefaced by Coates explaining the national context of the time and his personal circumstances when each piece was written – and ends with “Donald Trump is the First White President”. These essays cover, in chronological order, actor and comedian Bill Cosby and his Pound Cake speech (and the rhetoric of personal responsibility without historical context), First Lady Michelle Obama, the Battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War, black consciousness as it relates to African-American leader Malcolm X and President Obama, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the backlash to President Obama’s response, an argument for reparations, mass incarceration (it was pointed out that this was published at about the same time when “Between the World and Me” was released), as well as an eight-year review of President Obama’s tenure.
Across the different chapters of “We Were Eight Years in Power”, the persistent themes of slavery, of a broken criminal justice system, and of the government’s misguided war on drugs as a means of racial discrimination were observed too.
The overarching problem, Coates wrote at the start, was the President Obama, his family, and his administration, “were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth”. Yet in this vein “Good Negro Government — personal and political — often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat … [And it is what] is right now happening to the legacy of the country’s first black president”. A persuasive case is made for (white) Americans to face up to the country’s origins in a slavery economy, but that vision seems unlikely to materialise anytime soon: “[President] Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But [President] Trump’s counter is persuasive — work half as hard as black people and even more is possible”.