Coates’ 'We Were Eight Years in Power' examines Obama presidency, his own writing
Author surveys recent political past through essays in profound new book
Book: “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publisher: One World
Release Date: Oct. 3
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates draws parallels between the end of the Reconstruction era and the Obama administration right off the bat.
“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” begins when Coates quotes South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller and his 1895 address to S.C.’s constitutional convention.
“We were eight years in power. ... We had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity,” Miller said.
The reason for the conclusion to an economic rise for black people, Coates explains, is the way Reconstruction “undermined white supremacy.” The author quotes W.E.B. Du Bois and his understanding that “good Negro government” was fearsome during Reconstruction, comparable to the fear of Obama’s presidency leading to the election of Donald J. Trump.
The book’s heavy introduction leads to a 360-plus page retrospect of the Obama presidency in the form of eight essays. Each essay, all of which were initially published in The Atlantic, examines not just issues related to race and politics but also Coates’ career during the time.
The first essay, “This Is How We Lost To The White Man,” is admittedly a failure for Coates but he begins the book with it anyways.
The essay centers around Bill Cosby and his views on black America as expressed in his infamous “Pound Cake” speech. In his address, Cosby mocks the names of black youth and preaches self-reliance.
Coates goes on to deconstruct Cosby’s notion of “black conservatism,” particularly how it “flattens history and smooths over the wrinkles that have characterized black America since its inception.”
In his analysis – which doesn’t go all out in denouncing Cosby’s speech – Coates seems to fail in dismantling it, admitting that he “fell prey” to the speech’s contents when writing his essay.
“American Girl,” the essay that follows, the author profiles Michelle Obama and what he calls her “Americanness.” Coates examines her early life: a speech she made at a Wisconsin rally and how it’s relative to her understanding of race.
“She was merely expressing the hope [in the speech] that the world could be as it was in South Shore,” Coates writes regarding where Michelle grew up. He explains that she holds “blackness as more than the losing end of racism” and that wishing for a world where race is more than the “other” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Following “American Girl,” the books pushes to modern understandings of race and politics in America. In a note prior to “Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War?” the author explains how America’s problematic past and present crept up on him. It did so after Obama acknowledged the history of racism in law enforcement.
“What I sensed was a country trying to skip out on a bill, trying to stave off a terrible accounting,” Coates writes of the “post-racial” American aesthetic created after the Civil War.
The note precedes an essay unpacking the war that divided a country, which Coates explains is a story for white people where “blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props.” He asks for a burden to be lifted for black people, one where the “Civil War” is considered to be their own.
The essay reflects on current discussions surrounding archiving the Confederacy and how it should be portrayed, whether through statues or other means.
Coates makes the claim that America under Obama is Malcolm X’s to take ownership of. The author considers the civil rights leader’s fight in “The Legacy of Malcolm X” and references his presence in the victory of Barack Obama.
“As surely as 2008 was made possible by black people’s long fight to be publicly American, it was also made possible by those same Americans’ long fight to be publicly black,” Coates writes about Malcolm X’s pride in his race.
It’s not until the second half of the collection that Coates truly shines as an intellectual, perhaps due to his development as an author in Obama’s America.
In essays like “Fear of a Black President” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Coates touches on the “price of a black president” and the drastic effects which can come as a result of a loved one being locked behind bars.
The star piece of the book and perhaps the author’s career, “The Case For Reparations,” is also featured in “We Were Eight Years In Power.” Coates calls the reactions to his “critique of respectability politics” disturbing in the essay’s preceding notes but also something he’s proud to have achieved with The Atlantic.
The book’s epilogue is where Coates as a writer is most powerful.
In “The First White President,” the author makes the argument that whiteness for Trump is “neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power.”
“But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies,” Coates explains.
For Coates and others, there is nothing surprising about Trump’s election and it’s certainly not the “end of history.” Yet the author finds hope for the resistance against the various ‘–isms’ that Trump conjures up.
The book concludes on a note which escapes the feeling fueled by the election of Obama, instead a contrasting feeling is offered. Through his retrospectives, Coates fuses his views together prominently and his notes provide a deeper insight to his already transformative powers at The Atlantic.
Benjamin Blanchet is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Essays (French: Essais, pronounced [esɛ]) of Michel de Montaigne are contained in three books and 107 chapters of varying length. Montaigne's stated design in writing, publishing and revising the Essays over the period from approximately 1570 to 1592 was to record "some traits of my character and of my humours." The Essays were first published in 1580 and cover a wide range of topics.
Montaigne wrote in a rather crafted rhetoric designed to intrigue and involve the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured style that gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotations from Ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts such as De rerum natura by Lucretius and the works of Plutarch.
Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe himself with utter frankness and honesty ("bonne foi"). The insight into human nature provided by his essays, for which they are so widely read, is merely a bi-product of his introspection.Though the implications of his essays were profound and far-reaching, he did not intend, nor suspect his work to garner much attention outside of his inner circle, prefacing his essays with, "I am myself the matter of this book; you would be unreasonable to suspend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject ."
Montaigne's essay topics spanned the entire spectrum of the profound to the trivial, with titles ranging from "Of Sadness and Sorrow" and "Of Conscience" to "Of Smells" and "Of Posting" (referring to posting letters). Montaigne wrote at a time preceded by Catholic and Protestant ideological tension. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant authors consistently attempted to subvert Church doctrine with their own reason and scholarship. Consequently, Catholic scholars embraced skepticism as a means to discredit all reason and scholarship and accept Church doctrine through faith alone. Montaigne never found certainty in any of his inquiries into the nature of man and things, despite his best efforts and many attempts. He mistrusted the certainty of both human reason and experience. He reasoned that while man is finite, truth is infinite; thus, human capacity is naturally inhibited in grasping reality in its fullness or with certainty. Though he did believe in the existence of absolute truth, an attribute which distinguishes him from a pure skeptic, he believed that such truth could only be arrived at by man through divine revelation, leaving us in the dark on most matters. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features, which resonates to the Renaissance thought about the fragility of humans. According to the scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller, "the writers of the period were keenly aware of the miseries and ills of our earthly existence". A representative quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself."
He opposed European colonization of the Americas, deploring the suffering it brought upon the natives.
Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. We cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us: we don't truly control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. He is highly skeptical of confessions obtained under torture, pointing out that such confessions can be made up by the suspect just to escape the torture he is subjected to. In the middle of the section normally entitled "Man's Knowledge Cannot Make Him Good," he wrote that his motto was "What do I know?". The essay on Sebond defended Christianity. Montaigne also eloquently employed many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomistLucretius.
Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental to freedom. One of his quotations is "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."
In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that is expected to be accepted uncritically. Montaigne's essay "On the Education of Children" is dedicated to Diana of Foix.
English journalist and politician J. M. Robertson argued that Montaigne's essays had a profound influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, citing their similarities in language, themes and structures.
The remarkable modernity of thought apparent in Montaigne's essays, coupled with their sustained popularity, made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy until the Enlightenment. Their influence over French education and culture is still strong. The official portrait of former French president François Mitterrand pictured him facing the camera, holding an open copy of the Essays in his hands.
Montaigne heavily edited Essays at various points in his life. Sometimes he would insert just one word, while at other times he would insert whole passages. Many editions mark this with letters as follows:
- A: passages written 1571–1580, published 1580
- B: passages written 1580–1588, published 1588
- C: passages written 1588–1592, published 1595 (posthumously)
A copy of the fifth edition of the Essais with Montaigne's own "C" additions in his own hand exists, preserved at the Municipal Library of Bordeaux (known to editors as the "Bordeaux Copy"). This edition gives modern editors a text dramatically indicative of Montaigne's final intentions (as opposed to the multitude of Renaissance works for which no autograph exists). Analyzing the differences and additions between editions show how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Remarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.
- John Florio (1603)
- Charles Cotton (1685–6)
- Later edited by William Carew Hazlitt (1877)
- George B. Ives (1925)
- E.J. Trechmann (1927)
- Jacob Zeitlin (1934–6)
- Donald M. Frame (1957–8)
- J.M. Cohen (1958)
- M.A. Screech (1991)
- ^Montaigne, Michel de (1580). Essais de messire Michel de Montaigne,... livre premier et second (I ed.). impr. de S. Millanges (Bourdeaus). Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica.
- ^"Titi Lucretii Cari De rerum natura libri sex (Montaigne.1.4.4)". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
- ^"Guide to the Classics: Michel de Montaigne's Essay". Observer. 2016-11-15. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
- ^Kritzman, Lawrence. The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne's Essays. Columbia University Press.
- ^ abcdScreech, Michael (1983). Montaigne & Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays. Penguin Books. pp. 1–5.
- ^Robertson, John (1909). Montaigne and Shakespeare: And Other Essays on Cognate Questions. University of California. pp. 65–79.
- ^Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 2003 (1987), p. 1284
- ^Les Essais (1595 text), Jean Céard, Denis Bjaï, Bénédicte Boudou, Isabelle Pantin, Hachette, Pochothèque, 2001, Livre de Poche, 2002.
- ^Montaigne, Michel de (1588). Essais de Michel seigneur de Montaigne. Cinquiesme edition, augmentée d'un troisiesme livre et de six cens additions aux deux premiers (5 ed.). A Paris, Chez Abel L'Angelier, au premier pillier de la grand Salle du Palais. Avec privilege du Roy. Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica.