It often happens that the very best books are hardest to write about. I discovered TNC’s blog fairly early in his tenure at The Atlantic, and I made sure to keep coming back. Time zones — I lived in the South Caucasus at the time, even further from US schedules — meant that I missed much of the debate and discussion, especially because TNC would (wisely) close comments on contentious discussions during his nighttime hours. Occasionally conversation would stray to things that I knew reasonably well, the Cold War or Eastern and Central European history or post-communism in those areas, and I could make a contribution that he and the commenting community seemed to value. I tried to get a friend-of-a-friend at the US Embassy in Paris to invite him to France. I told them that they had a chance to bring over someone who was going to be huge, and they should do it early because not only was he brilliant, he loved France and would be perfect for outreach. Well.
I saw some of the essays in We Were Eight Years in Power as the ideas took shape in TNC’s blog writing, and I am fairly certain that I read each one when it initially appeared in the online pages of The Atlantic. The book is more than just a collection: “Before each of these essays there is a kind of extended blog post, one that attempts to capture why I was writing and where I was in my life at the time. Taken together they form a loose memoir, one that I hope enhances the main pieces. At the end of the book, there is an epilogue that attempts to assess the post-Obama age in which we now [October 2017] find ourselves.” (xv)
One of TNC’s great virtues as a writer and a thinker is his openness. He knows he’s brilliant, of course, but he also knows how big the world is, and he has the strength to go out and discover how much he doesn’t know. A whole category of his blog posts are called, “Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid.” He was never stupid; it’s just that some topics were new to him. But his willingness to learn in public was a great joy of the blog, and his restless, relentless, powerful intellect taking in new context and experiences is clear to see in We Were Eight Years in Power. “Each of the essays in this book takes up some aspect of an argument … They are me in motion, thinking matters through, a process that continues even as I write this introduction.” (xv)
“Relentless” and “unsparing” are two other words that come to mind to describe how TNC thinks and writes. He’s clear-eyed about himself as well:
This focus on money must seem strange, if you have never been without it, and it still must seem strange if you have been without it before, but think of the world of writing, as I once did, as some hallowed place beyond the reach of earthly difficulties. It is an easy mistake given that writing for a living, no matter how little, is still a relative privilege. It was hard for me to see that privilege through the infestations of bedbugs, through the booted car on the street, through the year we spent perpetually two months back on rent. And more, my chief identity, to my mind, was not writer but college dropout, which meant I had already forgone the one safety net my parents had urged me to secure. “College dropout” means something different when you’re black. College is often thought of as the line between the power to secure yourself and your family and the power of someone else securing you in a prison or grave. But at night, I would see myself falling, not just into poverty but into shame. Samori [his son] would suffer and Kenyatta’s [his wife’s] investment in me would be betrayed. It was not vast sums of money I craved; I just feared burdening and betraying those I loved most. I can remember when the fear lifted, how it clarified my mind, how much easier it was to see and to think.
So I don’t know how to discuss my journey through these eight years without talking about money and the great effect its absence, consistency, and abundancy have had in our lives. …
The fact of Barack Obama, of Michelle Obama, changed our lives. Their very existence opened a market. It is important to say this, to say it in this ugly, inelegant way. It is important to remember the inconsequence of one’s talent and hard work and the incredible and unmatched sway of luck and fate. I knew it even as it was happening. I felt that I had not changed, but the world was changing around me. It was as if I had spent my years jiggling a key into the wrong lock. The lock was changed. The doors swung open, and we did not know how to act. (pp. 42–43)
The book’s title comes from the appeal of South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller, an African American, to the state’s 1895 constitutional convention that aimed to undo Reconstruction. Miller said, “We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and the dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.” (xi) Miller was demonstrating the achievements of the Reconstruction governments to “preserve the citizenship rights of African Americans. His plea went unheeded. The 1895 constitution added both literacy tests and property requirements as qualifications for enfranchisement. When those measures proved insufficient to enforcing white supremacy, black citizens were shot, tortured, beaten, and maimed.” (xii)
From [W.E.B.] Du Bois’s perspective, the 1895 constitutional convention was not an exercise in moral reform, or an effort to purge the state of corruption. This was simply the cover for the convention’s true aim—the restoration of a despotic white supremacy. The problem was not that South Carolina’s Reconstruction-era government had been consumed by unprecedented graft. Indeed, it was the exact opposite. The very successes Miller highlighted, the actual record of Reconstruction in South Carolina, undermined white supremacy. … “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government,” wrote Du Bois, “it was good Negro government.” (xii)
The eight essays look at different parts of culture and public life in the United States — the first one is about Bill Cosby, the third is about studying parts of history — but they are all about
a period of Good Negro Government. Obama was elected amid widespread panic and, in his eight years, emerged as a caretaker and measured architect. He established the framework of a national healthcare system from a conservative model. He prevented an economic collapse and neglected to prosecute those largely responsible for that collapse. He ended state-sanctioned torture but continued the generational war in the Middle East. … He was not a revolutionary. He steered clear of major scandal, corruption, and bribery. He was deliberate to a fault, saw himself as the keeper of his country’s sacred legacy, and if he was bothered by his country’s sins, he ultimately believed it to be a force for good in the world. In short, Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth.
And that was always the problem. (xiii)
It turns out that great books are not so hard to write about after all. I’m up to nearly 1300 words — many of them TNC’s, to be sure — and have not even finished writing about the introduction. There are eight solid, significant essays in the book. Some are joyful, especially “My President Was Black,” some tend toward the bleak, some are challenging — not provocative in a cheap, button-pushing way, but carefully thought and thoroughly grounded leading to conclusions at odds with basic ideas of what might be possible in American politics and public life. The essays are personal and immediate, but also solidly reported and lasting. This is a book to tear through on the first reading, to savor on the second, and to come back to again and again. Now that Coates is mostly writing in other media, I miss him as an essayist. I hope he will come back. Until then, there is We Were Eight Years in Power.