We, minorities and people of color in America, should buy Coates’ third and new book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (W.W.E.Y.I.P).
Buy it as a reference book for the digital or physical bookshelf. We must read and discuss the content Coates writes in his new book, and expose future generations of family to it, and annotate the book to re-examine its ideas as the future unfolds.
Coates’ Book Explores the Question, What Does the Black President Mean to African-Americans & All Americans in the Long-term?
We Were Eight Years in Power is not a fun or light read for a reader uninterested or uninitiated into social justice concepts. It will not make a white person any less white-supremacist. Nor is Coates’ book filled with new information that could serve as a reference book for a scholar pursuing a comprehensive knowledge on the social justice issues in this book. Coates’ writing is more about synthesizing and distilling comprehensive academic literature into digestible chunks for the layperson’s level of understanding.
I think of Coates like Homeric poets. The Homeric poets orally recited epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey undoubtedly to the illiterate. In this way they were popular stories. The Iliad and Odyssey are foundational texts not just of western literature, but of western culture entirely if you consider a figure like Alexander the Great. Coates’ function is as important as a Homeric poet’s, as he is disseminating to masses of light readers concepts that will be foundational to any future society that will be morally better than our current American society, a better society that may emerge after the end of the current empires.
Analyzing the Book’s Structure & Concepts
In the first half of this review will cover the book’s new content. 21% of the book is previously unpublished content (81 of 372 pages). The new content makes the book worth reading.
The second part of this article will be summaries of the themes of Coates’ nine previously published articles that appeared in The Atlantic magazine. The previously published articles being 78% of the content of the book.
Coates’ 81 pages of new content are made up of reflections on his writing, blackness in reality and concept, and the first black President. The eight year timeline starts with Obama being elected President and ends with Trump being elected President.
Among other things, Coates uses the reflections to map his growth into the writer he is today. To view his own life as an anecdote for the African-American heterosexual male’s life experience during the Obama years. To contextualize and describe to us his writer’s moves and point out the writing failings of his previously published articles. And to give us the benefit of his current hindsight in understanding what the whole of Obama’s presidency means.
The eight separate sections of reflections in W.W.E.I.P cover various themes, and serve as prefaces for the nine previously published articles in the book. Coates’ reflections also serve as reflections on the changing or concretized state of his own opinions in the past and now.
The Primary Themes of Coates’ Eight Reflections
The major themes that jumped out to me in Coates’ first four reflections are as follows:
- The place of black political figures in America’s political history and future.
- Black conservatism in general as well as Obama’s.
- The extra (and long overdue) success black people like himself received because the President was black.
- Barrack Obama’s blackness in relation to Michelle Robinson’s élite old Chicago blackness.
- Whites seeking absolution for their sins as recompense for the election of Obama.
- The rising swell of anti-black racism toward Obama in white America.
- Why whites seek to preserve the false narrative lie of white civil war history, the truths that come to light for African-Americans whom study the civil war, and what those truths would teach us about dangerous white resentment.
- The incomprehensible vastness of the damage slavery wrought on African-American lives.
- Coates’ feeling of advantage in writing about black issues in general, which some fear to do. And how Coates’ atheism was shaped and shapes his point of view.
The major themes I noticed of Coates’ last four reflections are as follows:
- The idiocy of expecting Coates to have solutions for America’s white supremacy, just because he can eloquently state the problems.
- How Coates desires to not be viewed as an interpreter of the black experience, and it being impossible for a black writer to avoid.
- The ridiculous excuses white Americans make for not paying reparations.
- Coates’ coming to understand the American racial dynamic in the past and today, that blacks are the plundered and whites are the plunderers.
- Mass incarceration, that in the end indirectly hurts white society, is the manifestation of white anti-black hatred.
- Coates’ final reflection is on the hope & pride in America he felt for the first time in his life as a result of Obama’s presidency.
- How Donald Trump’s election to the presidency made Coates realize he should have never hoped.
Why the Eight Reflections in We Were Eight Years in Power Are Worth Reading
Coates’ reflections have much to offer. Insight into a journalist’s thought process. Acknowledgement that we grow, and that we will be wrong, and that is it okay to be wrong and get corrected. Coates reflects on how he might have grown more as a writer when he blogged and received online feedback, than he does now that he has fame and praise.
A rather important aspect of the reflections is that Coates does not take credit for his success, in a way that implies he is just more hard working or talented than other black people seeking to be writers. He strongly acknowledges that his success is tied to the advent of Obama. This is crucial because Coates has always denied the myth that people pick themselves up by their bootstraps. And he has denied that institutional oppression can be overcome by the willpower of the oppressed alone. Now that he is famous and successful, it is crucial that he sticks by this part of his philosophy. Because when you forget who helped you to become successful and take full credit, you lie and blame disadvantaged people who did not get lucky, which has dangerous consequences.
Coates’ reflections make up only 81 pages of We Were Eight Years in Power, but I would have bought a book if it were only these 81 pages.
Addressing the Criticism of We Were Eight Years in Power Being Mainly Previously Published Content
As I mentioned before, 81% of W.W.E.Y.I.P is made up of articles that previously appeared in The Atlantic. The Atlantic articles that appear in Coates’ new book are:
1) This is how we lost the white man. 2) American Girl. 3) Why do so few black study the civil war? 4) The legacy of Malcolm X. 5) Fear of a Black President. 6) The case for reparations. 7) The black family in the era of mass incarceration. 8) My president was black. 9) The first white president.
We are not being bamboozled into buying a book we can get free online. Thinking we’re being hustled because Coates’ bound book is made mostly of free articles is a misunderstanding of the culture and history of the published word. In the past authors would publish their book in serialized form in literary magazines and then later publish them in a bound book. The free nature of The Atlantic should not make us forget or devalue the writing.
Even today, sections of books are published in article form before appearing as part of a books. Emily Chang published an article in Vanity Fair which is an excerpt from her upcoming book Brotopia: breaking up the boys club of silicon valley. This doesn’t and shouldn’t cheapen the value of her book in our minds, when it is published this February.
Minorities and people of color must remember to support each others’ work and think of their criticisms’ of each other with the long-term in mind. Think of yourself as contributing to a trend. Colonialism works because minorities get divided. To fight this long-term trend, let’s end the divide between minorities when possible. Before thinking “Coates is a mediocre writer making money off of the black experience”, try to remember no one knows the future of even tomorrow let alone an era from now, and we’re made stupid living in our current context based on how we’ve been socialized. How dumb as fuck the thinking of all founding fathers was in hindsight, serves as a good cautionary tale to not take your negative critical opinions of intellectuals of color too seriously.
The Primary Themes of Coates’ Articles Previously Published in The Atlantic, 81% of this Book
Though Bill Cosby is the topic of this journalistic article, Coates uses Cosby to illustrate the vein of black conservatism that always has been and will be in every facet of the African-American community. Cosby also serves as a perfect example of the hypocritical nature of the character of every black conservative. That is, black conservatives must be either delusional or duplicitous to believe in the myth of picking one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps, and to believe that all black people must fulfill this myth also, and to believe that they have not internalized some form of self-hate or white-supremacy.
In the book’s second section is the article in which Coates talks about Michelle Obama’s particular brand of blackness, that is, the milieu of South Side Chicagoan black élite.
The article spotlights Michelle Obama’s blackness. The role it plays in the public identity of President Barrack Obama. What it means to Obama’s self-identity, what it meant to Obama’s career as a Chicago politician. What it meant to black voters throughout the country, and what it meant to white-supremacists throughout the U.S.
Coates loves black people in their infinite variability and beauty (as should we all). Particularly affecting is Coates’ statement that Michelle Obama is beautiful in the way black people know themselves to be beautiful. Indeed she is beautiful, and America’s white supremacy culture prevented it from appreciating the whole of Michelle Obama’s beauty.
In the last line of the American Girl chapter, Coates includes a quote of a woman from Michelle Obama’s social milieu, emphasizing that Michelle and Barack are not completely abnormal in the South Side of Chicago. Meaning countless African-American couples in the Southside of Chicago are everyday denied their great potential because of anti-black racism in the U.S.
In the third section of the book, Coates goes over various aspects of why and how white-supremacists have denied black people the history of the civil war. Why and how they created myths to defend white devilry as white noblesse. Why and how black voices have been cut out of civil war history, despite them being the main characters. And why many black people should take up civil war scholarship to counter the false narratives created by white southerners that effectively created propaganda history to harm Black-Americans and reinforce white-supremacy in American. Most importantly perhaps, Coates ends implying every white American and was and is complicit in the white-supremacist mythical narrative that is now mainstream civil war history.
In this article Coates identifies how Obama benefitted from the legacy Malcolm X carved into America, and how Obama continues that legacy. Coates emphasizes that Malcolm X self-invented himself, and thus endowed African-American men the same ability. X boldly claimed self-invention as well as the ability of a black man to occupy multiple identities in the beholding eyes of various disparate groups in America. Coates highlights that Obama and Malcolm X, and even Coates himself, have similar biographies – similar in terms of aspects of disadvantage.
Coates demonstrates in the article that Malcolm’s brilliant potential was capped by his skin color in his own time. And that through Malcolm’s life work and struggle, Obama and Coates have enjoyed a higher level of self-creation, that if not without limit has a higher ceiling than Malcolm X’s.
In Fear of Black President Coates highlights how Obama over-compromised when it came to being neutral on race, mentioning race less than white presidents before him. And that despite this, because Obama is half-black, white Americans obsessed and despised Obama’s blackness, and they viewed Obama as black supremacist despite all evidence to the contrary. Coates goes over a number of outrageous lies by whites about Obama that amount to racist conspiracy theories, to the outright racist insults hurled at Obama by fringe and mainstream republicans and democrats.
The point Coates makes is simple and effective, there is every reason for the U.S. nation to pay reparations to African-Americans, and only white supremacist racism stops African-Americans from receiving reparations. Themes of the article: Black peonage in early 19th century during the Jim Crow era; restrictive covenants in Northern states; contract house-selling that allowed whites, Jewish people, and others to rob multiple black families of the rights to property while legalizing stealing from black would-be home-owners; Federal Housing Administration creating racial segregation; German reparations paid to groups of Jewish people. The themes go on, but Coates gets his point across.
Coates points out the main rationality of whites unwilling to pay reparations to blacks. Whites claim that how the money might be spent is justification for not paying. Coates points to Israel receiving reparations and how they now abuse Palestinians now that they have military and economic power. Coates points out that the abuse Israelis now practice does not mean they should have not been paid reparations, nor should Israel’s abuses bar other groups from receiving their due.
Missing from Coates’ logic however is Native Americans. I do believe Native Americans deserve reparations too, at least as much as African-Americans though the crimes that require payment would be different. Certainly African and Native Americans do not deserve reparations more than each other, and both deserve them equally. However, Coates is not Native, and every writer cannot be a writer to and for all people, I suppose.
The book’s seventh section can serve as a decent introduction to U.S. mass incarceration that is largely anti-black. Coates begins the article visiting the specter of the famous white sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is the epitome of the hopelessly white-supremacist white academic with white savior syndrome, who inevitably betrays the black community, makes his fame off the black community, and hurts the black community for unforeseeable decades during and after his life. Moynihan’s study The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, published in 1965 still shapes the way white Americans view Black Americans. Coates describes the history of the incarceration of black people, and the ramping up to and fruition of the mass incarceration of black people disproportionately today, citing the works of Michelle Alexander and others along the way.
Coates points out that politicians, after decades, are now starting to say they erred with mass incarceration. This leaves people hopeful that mass incarceration will be wound down. Coates rightly points out that it is not so simple, the structure is not so easily dismantled, and the damage done to millions of black people, men, women, and their children and children’s children, cannot simply be made right because politicians are now repentant for the evils of the anti-black mass incarceration which they all profited and profit from.
In the article in the eighth section of the book, Coates analyzes the dynamic of Obama’s racial identity as a black man, his political identity, and his presidential identity for eight years. Coates goes over familiar facts about the Obama election. Coates seems to imply that overall, only Obama himself knows the reality of how liberally pro-black, or colorblind conservative Obama is in his own mind. Because Obama was exactly who he needed to be in order to be elected President. For Coates it is difficult to imagine that Obama would have achieved the success he did if he had been more pro-black than he was.
Coates sweetly ends the article with a flattering portrait of the Obama administration. Coates illustrates a tableau of Obama’s farewell party. The spirits of Obama and others as on high. His farewell party filled with so many prominent African American people, a cross-section of black life in America, many who rose to prominence over the previous decades. Coates reflects that Obama had been as close to perfection as can be, every ideal imaginable for any president, and perhaps crucially for the first black president.
Coates reflects that Obama gave him the only period in time that Coates had ever been proud of his country.
The point Coates seeks to make in the article is that Trump was elected president on the power of whiteness alone. The point being that this is different in meaning than why all white presidents before him were elected. The past white presidents climbed the ladder of whiteness and were exemplars of white excellence, whereas Trump is the exemplar of low white mediocrity.
Coates tracks Trump’s ascension on the heels of white supremacist ideology. Trump began with birtherism, gained support by vilifying Mexicans as rapists tapping into the arcane ideal of women as the property of white men. Trump never served in public office, referred to his a daughter as ‘a piece of ass’, founded a fraudulent university for which he was sued, etc. (343). Coates points out that whites know they would not elect a black candidate who did even one of those crazy things I just listed. Coates best sums up Trump’s ascendancy on page 343, “the point of white supremacy–to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people…achieve with minimal qualification.”
Ultimately Coates points to the white-supremacy of Americans as dangerous to Americans and the world. That to spite a black president whites elected the lowest form of white man president. And that this white hubris imperils every American institution.
At the end of the article Coates places a call to action. That social justice causes cannot in themselves save us, and yet all social justice causes must succeed simultaneously if there is any hope of making America better. Coates states it is necessary for anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-war, and anti-poverty to succeed all at once (367). This appears to be Coates’ response to the harm that comes from Trump’s hate, the republican party’s policies, both of which are in the service of the white supremacist core of America. Coates also points out that perhaps to the world, every American may as well be a white American, for all intents and purposes.
Reading Coates as a White-Coded Latinx-American
I am Latinx-American. Ethnically I am mostly indigenous, but my skin-color is coded as European. I therefore enjoy some white male privilege in America, also because I am third generation American.
My identities affect my reading of Coates, a black heterosexual African-American male. Anti-blackness and anti-indigenousness are cornerstones of the subculture I am a part of. With this understanding in mind, if you are not black or indigenous I strongly suggest you read Coates, if not this book then his others, if not his books then his articles. I wouldn’t make the same suggestion to women of color because they know better who to read than I will.
You may not agree with Coates, or you may think his analysis is not comprehensive, or you might have no knowledge of what Coates speaks of and feel confused by his themes because Americans are racially illiterate in general. I was recently myself. Do not let these deter you, as it is struggle to read about the state of race in America at first because the neural pathways have not yet formed in the brains of most of us because American culture is synonymous with white heterosexual male supremacy.
Lastly, Support Black Authors and Authors of Colors, Particularly the Ones with little Self-Hate, You Won’t Ever Regret it