Ta-Nehisi Coates Looks Back At 8 Years Of Writing In The Obama Era

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"We Were Eight Years In Power," by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"We Were Eight Years In Power," by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book "We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy" is a collection of essays he wrote for The Atlantic. But it's also a meditation on where he was in his life when he wrote each piece, and how he and the country changed during the Obama presidency.

Coates (@tanehisicoates) joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about the book.

Interview Highlights

On how the book came about

"Initially I was signed up just to do a kind of best-of collection. I'd done a number of essays for The Atlantic and the thought was these could be packaged together. And as I started looking back at the work, and I started looking back at some of the blogging I had done in that period, I thought there might be something more."

On the book's title

"The first part of that, as you mentioned, it comes from Congressman Thomas Miller, and he is grappling with the question of why, after a period of Reconstruction, when a generation of black people coming out of slavery were given the keys of governance and collaboration with white citizens who would work with them in South Carolina — they'd done a pretty responsible, remarkable job — why was South Carolina answering that by stripping them of their rights? In much the same way, I think there's some question after these past eight years of relatively scandal-free government -- it doesn't mean you have to agree with everything Obama did, or think Obama was right about everything — but, you know, he certainly held himself up as this presentable ... and as a honorable person in the tradition of American presidents. Why was the response to that, as I write, this kind of oafish man who, for the first time in American history, was invited into the White House having never served in the military, having never served in any political office? I think it's one of the more vexing questions of African-American life.

"My answer is the answer of W.E.B. Du Bois, who answered that in South Carolina, but I think this speaks to America at large: the only thing white South Carolina feared more than bad negro government was good negro government. That in fact the accomplishments were actually the problem, because the accomplishments — the presentation of black people as normal in their sort of bourgeois, everyday, easily integratable manner into America — actually was an attack on whiteness and white supremacy in and of itself. It attacked the very precepts of the idea, and I think that explains a lot about what happened over the last eight years and why the reaction was what it was."

"I didn't have a career before Barack Obama. And I don't think I would have had one, at least like I have now ... I have to be honest about that. In some ways it opened up a market."

Ta-Nehisi Coates

On being seen as a spokesperson for black America

"I don't mind people calling me up to ask me about current events. I wish there was more space though. There is an unfortunate tradition in this dialogue of quote-unquote 'race relations' in this country where people are selected at various moments to be spokespeople, for what right now is a community of 40 million people. Obviously I write, and I write for the public and I want my thoughts considered, I want my writing considered. But I didn't ask for a crown. And that's kinda what has happened honestly, to be straight with you. Because with that comes assumptions about what you're saying and what you're supposed to do. You lose some of your freedoms as a writer. You lose your ability to be curious in public, because you have a crown on now — you're supposed to have the answers. It is probably the most regrettable development, personally, for me out of the past eight years."

On how Obama's presidency shaped his career

"I didn't have a career before Barack Obama. And I don't think I would have had one, at least like I have now ... I have to be honest about that. In some ways it opened up a market. And there are — I don't want to in my own protestings erase the fact that there are a number of incredible, incredible black journalists who sprung up in the wake of Obama: my friend Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker, Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times Magazine. A number of people were just writing beautifully because ... I largely think as a indirect result of Obama, people were much more curious about black life."

"My job is to tell the truth as I see it. I'm not anybody's pastor. I'm not anybody's prophet. That's not my job."

Ta-Nehisi Coates

On critics who say his writing is too cynical

"I think for a very, very long time, the vast majority of this country has been spoon-fed its history as though they were 2-year-old children. This is about intellectual maturity. I know there is a desire to be read a bedtime story, and to be patted on the head and told, 'In the end, the good guys win.' But no one actually knows whether that's true. And it hasn't been true for generations of African Americans. We had 250 years of enslavement in this country, versus, we're just getting over 150 years or so of freedom — what that means, is for the majority of the time that black people have been in this country, they have been enslaved. The expectation that you will take all of that into consideration — to say nothing about Jim Crow, to say nothing about the era of lynchings, to say nothing about this era we live in now where the people who I pay my taxes to to protect me don't have the same relationship to me as they do in other communities — that one should somehow in some sort of literary way at the end of the day say, 'But everything's gonna be OK.' Is it? How do you know that? How do you know everything's gonna be OK? My job is to tell the truth as I see it. I'm not anybody's pastor. I'm not anybody's prophet. That's not my job. But I think for a lot of black writing, because this thing is so close to the bone of who we are as Americans, there's this idea that you should get a bedtime story. And I'm just not gonna do that. I'll never do that. It'd be a massive betrayal of the form."

This article was originally published on September 28, 2017.

This segment aired on September 28, 2017.



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