We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

In We Were Eight Years in Power, MacArthur grant recipient and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates collects one essay he wrote from each year Barack Obama was president, dissecting his assessments with notes preceding each piece. He's been called "America's best writer on race," which he hates--"not out of humility, but for how it undermined my own sense of what I was doing. I intended to play music in defiance of the masters, and some of those same masters were applauding." Coates wonders how he can defy a power that insists on claiming him, and wants to write something "that black people would recognize as original and old, something both classical and radical." He saw how writing could connect him to a broader tradition as he "chased" the work of Baldwin, Hurston, Doctorow, Forché: "All the magic I wanted was on the page."

His essays are incisive and his notes are apt. The epilogue was published in the Atlantic's October 2017 issue as "The First White President," and is searing. Coates's premise: Trump is a white man who owes his presidency to that fact, and has made the "awful inheritance [of slavery and racism] explicit."

Coates enjoyed the challenge the note writing presented; he says if he can communicate half that joy to the reader, he "will have done [his] job." He does that and more. He delivers a jeremiad not entirely bereft of hope, laced with wit and transcendent prose. He asks, "What does the story you tell matter, if the world is set upon hearing a different one?" His stories matter in the most urgent way. --Marilyn Dahl

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