We Were 8 Years in Power Moves Ta-Nehisi Coates to Top of Black America’s Draft Board

Penguin/Random House; Paul Marotta, Getty Images
Penguin/Random House; Paul Marotta, Getty Images

On Jan. 21, 2004, Comedy Central’s groundbreaking Chappelle’s Show debuted the iconic “Racial Draft” sketch. In it, comedian Dave Chappelle imagined a draft in which each race selected and traded individuals to represent the race. The Asians drafted the Wu-Tang Clan, and Jews picked Lenny Kravitz. The concept quickly became an inside joke that still resonates more than a decade later.


If black America gathered in a war room to choose a representative from our ranks to become the first black president, it is hard to believe that we could have done better than the 44th commander in chief of the United States. Regardless of his political accomplishments, it is impossible to argue that the cool, intelligent, scandal-free Barack Obama didn’t represent America and black people well on the world stage.

On Tuesday, Oct. 3, One World Publishing will release We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The book is characterized as an in-depth look at the Obama presidency from one of America’s greatest living writers. It dissects 2008-2016 with the surgical precision and insight of a master medical examiner.

Even though the work is being sold as a piece of historical analysis and political commentary, it is neither of those things. It is a look at the history of race in America. It is an unapologetic laying out of facts. More than anything, We Were Eight Years in Power settles an argument: If, by chance, we ever came together to draft someone to pen the story of being black in America, there is no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates should be the consensus first-round pick.

Coates opens with the often forgotten reminder that after the Civil War, black men were elected to serve in the House of Representatives and Senate in comparatively large numbers. Coates quotes civil rights activist and South Carolina Rep. Thomas Miller as saying, near the end of Reconstruction (referred to by Coates as the “Redemption Era”):

We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided education for the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it on the road to prosperity.

—Thomas Miller, 1895

Although the compilation of essays written from 2008 to 2016 examines every detail of the first black presidency in microscopic, high-definition detail, Coates’ primary argument is not about the successes, failures and political nuances of Obama’s time in office. It is really not about politics, history or even Obama. Eight Years is less about an American presidency than it is about America.

It is an analysis of this country’s relationship with race and white supremacy using the construct of the Obama presidency as a filter. The author uses Obama’s time in the White House as a magnifying glass through which he can probe every imaginable angle.


The chapter on the history and legacy of first lady Michelle Obama becomes an introduction into a conversation about the black family. Coates’ treatment of Jeremiah Wright is a foray into religion. The writer also makes the point that Bill Cosby’s fall is really about respectability and black conservatism. And he deftly illustrates the toxicity of mass incarceration, police brutality and white supremacy with Obama’s presidency as the metaphoric backdrop.

We Were Eight years in Power is a book written for black America, but it is not necessarily to black America. Coates’ essays are often transcripts of our long-held beliefs, but he verbalizes them with the gravitas of academic legitimacy and journalistic integrity. What makes him the consensus No. 1 pick is not his unique views on reparations, respectability and race. It is that he takes those controversial views and brings receipts. His unapologetic blackness is accompanied by footnotes and historical data, begging for anyone to point out the lie. The text loads every argument with the not-so-easily dismissed weight of irrefutable evidence, making it hard for white America to reject Coates’ assertions. He speaks to them, but for us.


Eight Years’ primary thesis is that America never worried that a black president would derail American greatness. It was quite the opposite. Coates posits that Barack Obama turned one of America’s greatest fears into a reality. In reference to Thomas Miler and Reconstruction-era black political leaders, W.E.B Du Bois said, “If there was one thing South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

Coates echoes and transfers that sentiment to the Obama presidency this way:

But in the collective sense, what this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government. ... When it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way empower actual negroes over whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative action charges begin, and birtherism emerges. And this is because, at its core, those American myths have never colorless. They can not be extricated from the theory that a class of people carry peonage in their blood. That peon class provided the foundation on which all those myths and conceptions were built. ...

The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency—that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle—assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries. ...

This is what happened to Thomas Miller and his colleagues in 1895. It is what happened to black people all through South Carolina during Redemtion. It is what happened to black people on the South Side of Chicago during the postwar implementation of the New Deal. And it is what, I contend, is right now happening to the legacy of the country’s first black president.


We Were Eight Years in Power is a detailed examination of Obama’s America, but its findings are, in truth, Coates’ historically informed diagnosis of America itself. It is an annotated, full-throated analysis of the historical disease of white supremacy, often euphemized as “American greatness,” and how it led to the terminal condition of Trumpism.

That is why, with the first pick of 2017, black America, for its unequivocal, unabashed truth, selects Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power.



I cannot wait to buy it and read it.... At a minimum, Coates’ vocabulary is OFF THE CHAIN. Bring a dictionary along with you when you sit down to read this masterpiece.