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'We Were Eight Years in Power' discusses race with intelligent sobriety

Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a collection of eight of his most penetrating essays from The Atlantic.

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We Were Eight Years in Power
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Random House Publishing Group
400 pp.

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We are at a new racial flashpoint in America. From the protests over the shooting of unarmed black men and boys, to the apparent an increase in the number of white supremacy and anti-Semitic groups, to controversy over the protests of professional football and basketball players against police violence, there appears to be more of a gulf between the races now than at any time in recent memory. It is from this white-hot crucible that Ta-Nehisi Coates's timely new book, We Were Eight Years in Power has emerged to add the luster of intellectual sobriety to what continues to be a roiling and acrimonious national discussion.

Coates, who last year won the National Book Award for "Between the World and Me," a letter to his son about ongoing racial struggles in America, offers here an assemblage of eight of his most penetrating essays from The Atlantic, each introduced by a chapter of notes. The features include "Fear of a Black President," "The Case for Reparations," "My President Was Black," and "This is How We Lost to the White Man" (on "The Audacity of Bill Cosby's Black Conservatism").

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The "notes" chapters are intended to explicate Coates's feelings at the time the accompanying essays appeared, as well as to clarify and expand in hindsight. He writes with a powerful sense of humility and self-realization, discussing everything from his childhood poverty growing up in Baltimore to the agonizing days he spent in the unemployment office in New York City to his blogging at The Atlantic "on everything I loved – Biggie Smalls, Jim Shooter, Robert Hayden, E.L. Doctorow.... Between all the posts about Rakim and Spider-Man, I would write about my attempts to conquer Leviathan or my reconsiderations of Howard Zinn…."

In his 2009 Atlantic essay, "This is How We Lost to the White Man," Coates reflects on Bill Cosby's "call outs" to black men about, among other topics, assuming more responsibility for their own success, and acknowledges a "shame" at not including more than one line about Cosby's reported rape allegations: "[I]n every piece of this book, there is a story I told and many more I left untold, for better and worse," he writes. "In the case of Bill Cosby, especially, it was for worse. That was my shame. That was my failure."

Coates, who considers African-American writers James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston his literary heroes, writes about race with uncommon vibrancy, but with not a small amount of pessimism – a jeremiad in search of a happy ending he doesn't necessarily believe in. He considers whiteness in America to be a "badge" of advantage, a "talisman" that derives its mystical power from the "bloody heirloom" of white supremacy. "Notes from the Seventh Year" reveals Coates's deep pain over the American racial divide: "To be black in America was to be plundered. To be white was to benefit from, and at times directly execute, this plunder.… Racism was banditry, pure and simple. And the banditry was not incidental to America, it was essential to it."

"Plunder" is a common thread that draws several of these essays together. Coates examines the killings of his Howard College classmate Prince Jones, Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and Cleveland youth Tamir Rice; the endemic redlining policies and exploitative "contract" mortgages speculators exacted from black residents of Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood; the inequitable treatment of black prisoners in our correctional system; Donald Trump's insinuations about Barack Obama's birth place and his Christianity. Coates sees these all as spokes in the monotonous cycle of the assertion of white privilege. The ascendance of Obama to the presidency, Coates asserts, was in many ways only a pyrrhic victory over the long shadow of the "badge."

Obama's hopeful and optimistic story, which Coates suggests is unique based on the former president's personal history, was imbued by a confidence in America that is at odds with Coates's own perspective. In Coates's words, "our story is a tragedy." Coates also contrasts the "place of wonder" of Obama's America with that of his detractors: from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling him the "food stamp president" to the "hawking of Obama-waffles … from chimpanzee memes to watermelon-at-the-White-House jokes." Remarkably, even when considering all the obstacles Obama's antagonists threw at him, "He walked on ice but never fell." In attempting to rationalize the rise of Trump, who Coates pointedly calls America's "First White President" as well as its most dangerous, Coates notes, "To say [that it] is about more about race is to make an empty statement – one which is small comfort to those who live under its boot."

In "We Were Eight Years in Power," Ta-Nehisi Coates has once again elegantly reified the way that the legacy of slavery continues to inform America's cultural, economic, and political fabric, and how the concept of white privilege is baked into our nation's collective cake. It's a legacy that, in favor of its own preservation, lacks empathy and appreciation for, and is often openly hostile to, those it continues to subjugate. Coates's account is less homily than apologia, more reportage than polemic. It is a bold statement, painstakingly researched, which, when considering the chaotic state of race relations in our country today, adds considerable intellectual ballast to an unsteady American ship.