We Were Eight Years in Power Summary & Study Guide

Coates, Ta-Nehisi
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We Were Eight Years in Power Summary & Study Guide Description

We Were Eight Years in Power Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on We Were Eight Years in Power by Coates, Ta-Nehisi.

The following version of this book was used to create this Study Guide: Coates, Ta-Nahesi. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World, 2017. Print.

Coates argues in the introduction that Barack Obama's presidency was an era "of good Negro government" that inflamed white supremacist attacks on African Americans. In the material that follows, Coates offers a year-by-year account of those years from his perspective as a struggling writer, along with eight essays—one for each year of the Obama presidency—on race that Coats published during that time.

In the note for the first year, Coates discusses his early days as a writer when he was haunted by failure and the inability to support his family. He credits the change in his fortunes to chance, specifically the candidacy and election of Barack Obama. In the first essay of the collection, "’This is how we lost to the white man’: The Audacity of Bill Cosby’s Black Conservatism," Coates picks up the theme of black success by offering a critique of Cosby's use of black self-hectoring—labeling of African American culture as pathological by other African Americans instead of focusing on the impact of white supremacy. Coates believes arguments like Cosby's ignore the impact of history on the current situation of African Americans.

In the second note, Coates recounts the thrill of receiving his position as a blogger for The Atlantic. This early success validated him as a writer and allowed him to engage in conversations that proved to be crucial to his creative and intellectual growth. The second essay, "American Girl," focuses on the importance of Michelle Obama's presentation of black identity as just one of any other American identities to Barack Obama's campaign for president.

In the third note, Coates talks about his obsession with studying the Civil War, the 150th anniversary of which overlapped with Obama's presidency. This obsession came after a life-time of not seeing the American Civil War as being personally relevant to him. In "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?" Coates makes the argument that both black and white attitudes toward the Civil War stem from a myth of the Civil War as a noble "Lost Cause" in which white Southerners fought for honor rather than for the maintenance of white supremacy and slavery. African Americans are passive bystanders in this account.

Coates reveals the impact of hip-hop on his self-fashioning as an African American and his aesthetic as a writer in the fourth note. Another concept derived from his encounter with hip-hop and African-American culture in general is that of "plunder"--the idea that exploitation of African Americans is central to American history and democracy. "The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives on in Barack Obama," the fourth essay, is a review of Manning Marable's biography of Malcom X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Coates focuses on the importance of Malcolm X as a model of black self-fashioning and attempts to establish some parallels between the careers of Malcolm X and Barack Obama.

In his fifth note, Coates details two foundational beliefs that shape his voice as a writer, black atheism and defiance. These beliefs were complicated when The Atlantic gave him a regular assignment and he became in demand as a writer on black issues. One such issue was his growing disquiet with the impact of "white innocence"--the refusal of whites to accept responsibility for white supremacy—on the Obama presidency. In the essay that follows, "Fear of a Black President," Coates analyzes the partisan shift in responses to the killing of Trayvon Martin after Obama made relatively innocuous comments on the killing. Coates marks Obama's subsequent approach to race—refusing to address it directly—as a shift in his presidency.

The note for the sixth section of the collection highlights Coates's dawning realization of a significant flaw in liberal analysis of the struggles of African Americans, specifically their discounting of the historical and contemporary impact of white supremacy and segregation on African American progress; their ineffective use of color-blind and class-based policy solutions is a consequence of this perspective. "The Case for Reparations," the essay that came out of his evolution in thought, increased his profile as a writer. In the essay, Coats makes a case for "plunder"--the spoils of white supremacy that benefit whites and disadvantage African Americans—as the root of the continued existence of inequality. A conversation about reparations and actual reparations would help to address the issue, believes Coates, despite the rejection of reparations as a legitimate solution.

In the seventh note, Coates reflects on what it felt like to experience success as a writer and his desire to become a contributor to a black literary tradition of truth-telling. His model in this endeavor is African American writer James Baldwin. "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," the penultimate essay in the collection, is the product of that goal. Presented as a critique of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, the essay is a weighty work in which Coates argues that mass incarceration replaced slavery as a mechanism of racialized oppression of African Americans.

In the final note of the essay, Coates, already writing with the knowledge of Trump's win, reflects on his successes as a writer and his continued belief in the importance of defiance even in the face of defeat. "My President Was Black" is a feature piece on Obama in the last days of his presidency, a work only made possible by the recognition of Coates as an important writer. Supported with several interviews with Obama, the essay is a meditation on the meaning of the Obama presidency.

In the epilogue, Coates offers an analysis of the victory of Donald Trump. He argues that Trump's victory marks the ultimate expression of white supremacy in a panic over the perceived erosion of white privilege by the election of Barack Obama.

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