We Were Eight Years in Power

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy collects eight essays originally written for the Atlantic and published over the course of Barack Obama's presidency. The purpose of the collection is to memorialize the eight years during which African Americans were represented in the highest level of government. Each essay is introduced by a short piece that corresponds with a year during the Obama administration (e.g., "Notes from the Sixth Year"). The Obama administration embodied success for African Americans and a triumph over the setbacks that racism had delivered to them over the years; however, Coates addresses how short-lived this feeling of success was and how it didn’t solve the US’s persistent problems with race. Coates also attempts to explain why he feels that Obama's presidency provoked such an angry conservative backlash in the 2016 election.

In the introductions and essays, Coates also delves into his personal history as a journalist and author. As he recounts the story, he first started to express himself in a blog through which he was able to pour out his thoughts. After his blog became popular, the Atlantic approached him, published his freelance article "This Is How We Lost to the White Man," and later offered him a regular column. 

"This Is How We Lost to the White Man" was first published in May 2008, before Barack Obama was elected. In the essay, Coates tells the story of a motivational speech he witnessed wherein Bill Cosby, before the allegations of sexual assault were known to the general public, attempted to encourage black men to show up and be the best of their race. Coates writes that Cosby's speech focuses too much on individual action when, in fact, systemic racism in America renders that action ineffective.

2009's essay, "American Girl," tells the story of Michelle Obama, the first black First Lady. In the story, Coates recalls meeting Mrs. Obama for the first time and the drastically different ways in which black and white women saw her.

"Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?" was published in 2010 and details the reasons that black college kids don't spend their years studying the history of the war that brought about freedom for slaves.

2011's featured essay, "The Legacy of Malcolm X," addresses the way that Barack Obama carried out Malcolm X's vision.

In 2012, Coates penned "Fear of a Black President," which addresses the way that Obama approached race throughout his campaign and presidency.

"The Case for Reparations" was published in June of 2014 and discusses the value of making up for centuries of unbalanced rights between black and white Americans by way of monetary compensation.

"The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration" appeared in the October 2015 issue of the Atlantic. Like its 2014 predecessor, the essay discusses the biases inherent in US systems, in this case through the lens of the justice system.

In the wake of the 2016 election, and in preparation for President Trump's inauguration, Coates wrote "My President Was Black." In the essay, he captures his pride for the years that Obama was in power and his fear for the future.

Each essay addresses a different aspect of the African American experience, ranging from pride in Obama's election to hope and goals for the future to, finally, a mixture of contentment at Obama's legacy and concern about would come in 2017 and beyond.

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