I finished "We Were Eight Years in Power" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is not an easy book to read an not just because of the harsh subject matter. Coates has a stiff style of writing despite a few poetic turns of phrase (Coates calls America's jails "The Grey Wastes" and white supremacy "The Bloody Heirloom"). Nevertheless the book was not written for a reader's pleasure. It was written to show that America was founded on white supremacy and that has never changed, not even with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Coates shows that America tends to rely on black politicians to fix the country after it lies in tatters. This happened after the Civil War. Black congressmen were elected during Reconstruction after the South lay in ruin. After the South got rich enough to get racist again Congressman Thomas Miller sensed the dangerous shift in tides as the South shifted away from Reconstruction and towards the KKK and the Jim Crow laws He pleaded to the South Carolina constitutional convention: "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 dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed upon the road to prosperity."
Unfortunately Miller's speech fell on deaf ears. And the South turned once again to deepest racism after having benefited from black leadership during Reconstruction. Coates draw a devestating parallel between the "eight years in power" in Miller's speech where black congressmen were called upon to fix a country in ruins and Obama's election in 2008 where he was called upon to fix a country in ruins after the Great Recession and Iraq War. The backlash against Obama with the Trump presidency should have been as predictable as the backlash against Reconstruction in the 1890s. "We Were Eight Years in Power" is basically eight essays written during each year in Obama's presidency by Coates for the "Atlantic." Some are pretty mediocre like "American Girl" about Michelle Obama. Even Coates acknowledged the essay has not "aged well," but it really suffered from the fact that Coates was not able to interview Michelle Obama before he wrote the article. Insight is painfully absent.
Better is Coates' main tentpole essay about Reparations. While reparations for slavery is obviously impractical (though Coates argues that it still needs to be studied, praising Congressman Conyer's bill asking for funding for the issue of Reparations to be studied. Unfortunately "We Were Eight Years in Power" was published a month before Congressman Conyers was forced to resign for sexual harassment). Nevertheless the black communities and black homeowners who were devastated by the Federal Housing Authority's "redlining" of districts that purposefully denied mortgages to black homeowners are still very much alive. Unlike those who suffered from slavery, those who suffered from mortgage discrimination and their children are around today. The denial of mortgages to black homeowners torpedoed any chance for a black middle class to flourish alongside a white middle class during the sixties, seventies, eighties and up to the present day. Those abused by the FHA deserved reparations according to Coates and it's hard to disagree with his reasoning.
Most beautiful and heartbreaking of Coates' essays is his last one where he recounts several conversations he had with President Obama during 2016. Obama had been steadfast in his belief during that time that Trump simply couldn't win. It was impossible. Coates was more skeptical. Coates makes an interesting observation about Obama's upbringing and Obama's faith in the white electorate to make the right choice. Unlike the vast majority of the black experience in America when it comes to interacting with white people, Obama's experience with white America was kindness and love. His case was exceptional in every sense of the word. Obama's mother and grandmother and grandfather never gave him any sense that he was not a family member during his childhood. Obama's white family members, according to his autobiography, never once gave the impression that black Americans were lesser than white Americans. This is so at odds with the experience of the majority of black Americans that it gave Obama, perhaps, a dangerously naive attitude when it came to placing his trust in the ultimate goodness of white people. "America will make the right choice, don't worry." Coates remembers how he became suddenly nervous when he heard Obama say that. Really?
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